It is now only a day until I’ll see my family in Tokyo and I’m beyond excited! Time moves strangely for an expat. On one hand, you wish it could stop so you could see as much of this country as possible. On the other, you count down the days until you can see your loved ones – and consume cheese – again. I’ve been busy packing, buying presents and planning things for us to do. Mass is sorted for Christmas morning of course (as I explained to one teacher, no, we didn’t have to make a reservation.)
This month has been as festive as possibly – although there’s only so far you can go without everyone being in the Christmas spirit, the seasonal adverts on TV, and everything. We’ve had a Secret Santa potluck, which ended in a game of Mafia and crying with laughter; an all-you can drink Christmas party, a Christmas fair in which I dressed up as Santa (possibly the least rotund Santa these kids will ever see, but I did try to make up for it in jolliness), and a mulled wine party at my house.
There may not have been the classic drunken Christmas office party, but they do have bonenkai here – end of year parties. One teacher called it a “forgetting the year party.” I said, “Surely it’s remember the year”. He said “No. Forgetting.” Okay then! In the end it was A LOT of fun though. We all pay about fourteen quid a month towards these events, so they don’t disappoint: there was every kind of Japanese food you could think of, as much beer as you’d like, and plenty of organised fun as per, including bingo.
I also performed in one of a series of skits. My act, which was prepared for and introduced to me an hour or so before the party, was basically just to speak Japanese, which seems to provoke much hilarity. One of the speeches given in Tokyo’s bid for the Olympics was about “omotenashi” – Japanese values of hospitality and service. What better word to sum up my time here so far? It struck me the other day that the other ALT and I are generally treated like special guests – in the classroom, if we teach a cooking class or judge a speaking test, we feel like an honoured visitor. When I think of how we treated our language assistants in high school I feel so bad for them: aside from lusting after blue-eyed French boys in Parisian scarves we were generally apathetic or derisory – and we were nice kids. They were certainly never made to feel special or particularly appreciated, by either students or teachers.
School has also provided a lot of amusement this month as my students and I have learned more about each other’s winter celebrations. Christmas here is mainly a commercialised phenomenon – there’s music and adverts and decorations everywhere, but nothing approaching religious or to do with charity and good cheer. I don’t think that Christian beliefs are very well known there, although one of the first questions my supervisor asked me on the drive home from the airport was “Sophie, do you believe in Jesus Christ?”
Christmas Eve is basically Valentine’s Day here, and on Christmas Day families eat buckets of KFC that have been ordered month in advance – the result of a genius marketing campaign in the 1970s! Christmas cake is a sponge with layers of cream and strawberry inside, white icing and birthday-style candles and decorations on top.
I did start trying to explain the nativity on my Christmas board, and ended up reconciling centuries of Christian and pagan conflict and mimesis with a simple equation: drawing of a crucifix + a drawing of a Christmas tree = “Kurisumasu”. My explanation didn’t quite work though. This week I read my favourite diary entry ever and was, again, crying with laughter at my desk. That’s not to say that I was laughing at the student: I am constantly amazed by their English ability and dedication. It was more at the absurdity of trying to explain a religion to someone who has never encountered it before, and at the same time trying to communicate the hazy boundaries between fact and belief.
I won’t post a picture of his work since I want to be careful about privacy, but the entry went like this:
“Who is the best god?
I read a book about angels and devils and I thought, they only have one god. His (her?) name is John.
But, others are different.
Greek myths have many gods. Japanese myths too.
Eventually, who is the best god?
In Greek myths the best god is Zeus. In Japanese myths the best god is Takamanohara.
But, how is the bible? Isn’t the bible’s god be Jesus? My book says “John made Sofia, and she made Jesus.”
John is Jesus’ grandfather? It can’t be!
First of all, his mother is the Virgin Mary.
The harder I think, the more I won’t get to know.
Which is the best god?”
Dear reader, where to begin?! I finally settled on writing how much I enjoyed his entry, explained the God – Mary – Jesus relationship while ignoring the inexplicable John and Sofia, and said that every culture has gods to suit them the best.
I also introduced some Scottish new year traditions to my Junior High classes, although it took a while to find pictures of the Loony Dook that didn’t feature fat, pasty, naked drunks prominently. I hummed Auld Lang Syne for them, only to find out that it’s played in Japan to signal department stores closing! I also pointed out a picture of a guy in a kilt at the street party and said “Do you remember what this is?” There was a silence and then once boy said “Ehhhh… didgeridoo?”
When we played a Christmas-themed shiritori (popular Japanese word game where you write or say a word beginning with the last letter of the previous word) and we got “Santa san” (very respectful) and “yeschrist”. And our final Christmas project at school has been putting together a Christmas package for my dear chum Rachel’s school up in Kinlochbervie in the Highlands. Hopefully we can set up some kind of letter exchange between the two schools! We’ll be sending letters, photos, magazines and some Christmas cards from my second year classes, including one proclaiming” Things I like are J-POP and Japanese woman. Do you like Scotland woman?”
I’m so, so happy to see my family and explore a new city tomorrow. But this month in Miyazaki has been truly heartwarming and I feel very lucky to be surrounded by such kind and inspiring colleagues and friends. From Miyazaki, Merry Chistmas everyone.
Winter baseball with the teachers while the students sat exams.
Fortuitous matching manicure and mug at Tomato Ramen!
Puppies at the mall.
Inspired emoji communications.
Sushi making cooking class in Miyazaki.
The cutest aprons.
Amazing foodie/ stationary basement.
I had two of pictures of Miyakonojo's skyline in an exhibition in Miyazaki City this month.
I also dined with some extremely hospitable old age pensioners. The lady of the house likes to give a Christmas dinner for foreigners and her English-learning friends every year. First we introduced ourself and our hobbies (ping pong, tennis - I hope I'm as active, interesting and well-preserved as them in fifty years). Then, we played word games and bingo for prizes, and went home with massive bags of leftover food. Omotenashi in practice!
If only I wore brooches!
Disturbing seasonal mixed messages.
My llama obsession may be getting out of hand.
Every day wisdom from my students' English jotters.
My Christmas board!
Christine and Santa Carlos on their way to a Christmas concert/ English lesson.
Joining in with the Christmas singing! The class were awesome and brought us to tears trying their best at small group performances of English carols. I finished the lesson singing White Christmas - nerve wracking but so rewarding.
For some reason everyone draws their snowmen with little fezzes here. I wonder how that cultural miscommunication occurred?!
My most challenging class surprisingly went to town on the cards, requesting an extra period, peppering me with questions, and producing their best work yet. These little surprises and boons in school make me so happy and I feel so lucky to have been placed where I am.
Our advent offerings for our Christmas absence.
Flowers can be beautifully cheap here.
Holiday planning evenings under the kotatsu.
One Saturday I attended yet another morning workshop with Christine and Saito sensei in another woodlandy- cabin near Miyakonojo. This time, we were learning how to make soba (a kind of noodle) from scratch. It was freezing but the place was warmed by a log burning stove.
First we pounded and kneaded flour and water together into a dough, spread it into a thin pancake, and then used a special board and huge butcher's-type knife to slice it into straws.
Japanese cooking enthusiasts sure know how to work their under-apron layers.
- Afterwards we took it through to a traditional wooden building where our soba was cooked and served in a hot broth with a bento on the side.
This is what I imagined before coming to Japan!
At the start of the month I held a cooking class after school and we made pavlova! A good chance to talk to my students in a more casual environment and spread the light fluffy goodness of meringue.
Once in the baking mood, and with the discovery of peanut butter in Miyakonojo, I was unstoppable.
A portion of the resulting concoctions were reserved for our Secret Santa party in the Jo. We all bought a dish and a present: it was a wonderfully warm, festive and contented evening.
Jessica's work of art: matcha Christmas cake Japanese style.
The next night was another Christmas party, this time involving more lipstick, bathroom selfies, and tequila.
On the last Friday before everyone left for Christmas travels, I had a wee mulled wine party at my place.
Keeping the cold out with Santa hats and ankle socks.
I spent my final Saturday in town walking the streets of Miyazaki, dressed in a full Santa suit (with beard and moustache), followed by two interpreters and a camera man who kept shouting "Supermodel Santa!", giving sweets to children. I'm not entirely sure how this situation came about, but it was a lot of fun. I even bumped into Christine at the train station, who completely cracked up.
Beauty in an unexpected place.
It is hard to be festive in Soviet Russia, after all.
Merry Christmas, everyone.