Monday, 17 November 2014

omotenashi extreme

Hey remember that time some old Japanese ladies dressed us up in kimonos, taught us tea ceremony, made us sing in front of a room of more old Japanese ladies, gave us a painting and then gifted us the kimono? - Things I get to say to my friends now. 

These photos are a little saturated and orange, having been surreptitiously scanned at school. They were sent to me in the post by the organiser of the event - the little lady in the first picture - two days after it happened, beautifully packaged and ordered. 

This man sat next to me during our meal of sushi, tempura and beer. Halfway through, sensing a kindred spirit, he confessed to me that he secretly loved to watch ballet and listed the productions he owned on VHS. We spent a goodly amount of time charade-ing the various ballet stories we knew - cue me trying to mime being a puppet, much to our fellow-diners' polite bewilderment.

Would you look at this pouting pro?! 

It being Japan, there was a lot of Organised Fun, part of which involved us singing Keane for the assembled company! 

Then the OAP's proceeded to showcase their hobbies, which ranged from martial arts to traditional dancing, to singing and kimono-dressing. I loved how alive traditional culture and heritage is kept in Japanese society, and how dedicated people were to their interests, right into their old age. 

After the entertainment I was given a beautiful watercolour by a local artist in a raffle, and we were formally gifted the kimono we were wearing - a very generous present to two complete, foreign strangers, especially given all the layers and accessories they came with. By the end of the evening I was a little overwhelmed and rather anxious to adequately express my gratitude. 

Trying and failing to do the whole "modesty" thing. 

Instead we decided to dance around in our undergarments! Scandalous! 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The PUWYs: On coming home, reverse culture shock, and life after Japan

It’s been almost 3 months since I posted here, and I don’t now how that quarter-year passed so quickly. I moved countries, towns and houses, twice. I started a new job. I experienced a mellow English Autumn for the first time, made a lot of changes in my life, and had some powerful highs and lows.

I’d like to finish posting some of the pictures and memories from Japan I still having kicking around, while I still remember them. After that, I doubt I’ll be using this blog much, at least until another purpose for it comes along. For the first time since being a teenager, I have the compulsion to write a lot for myself – maybe because it’s a similarly transitional time.

A friend from work, 30 and comfortingly on top of her shit, actually has a word for this stage of life: the PUWYs (pronounced pewies) or Post University Wilderness Years. She tells me that almost all her friends of her age, who are now largely settled and happy in their careers, locations, relationships and lives, had no clue what they were doing at 23. The markers of adulthood our parents enjoyed at our age – relatively easy-found and well-paid jobs, cars, mortgages, marriages – are no longer attained so soon. No one tells you this, but these may be the most challenging years of your life.

I know exactly what she means. But that said, I’m ok with these new challenges. This feels like a time for taking time, for thinking about goals, working hard and enjoying the company of friends from school, university and Japan, all making our way in the big metropolis. It’s good to finally stay in a country where I’ve never lived but that always felt like home.

Leaving Japan in August was the right thing to do, but it was such a wrench saying goodbye to friends there, and home was a shock in unexpected ways. I’d been told to expect reverse culture shock, but the brusqueness of people in public still felt jarring. I still can’t help bowing in some situations, and miss the politeness and consideration of Japanese people very much. I came back to the Edinburgh International Festival in August, and would end days in town feeling exhausted by seeing the multitudes of varied shapes, sizes, ethnicities and fashion choices jostling around me.

On my first day in London, I stood helplessly by as people pushed in front of me in the taxi rank, until a tiny old man tapped me on the shoulder and said kindly, “You have to be forceful in London!” For the first few weeks in my new town, I found myself weirdly wishing that everyone on the streets were Japanese. Two months later the shock has worn off, and I’m so happy to be back in my own country where I can interact with strangers on trains and act with a different kind of self-reliance.

I’m working in a very academic boarding school doing alumni relations and fundraising. I like having the freedom to define my own role - which is a challenging one as it amalgamates 3 people’s previous jobs - being able to boss around an intern, and the business of building a community, something which I’ve found comes kind of naturally. I get to edit and produce 4 magazines a year, some with students, and organise events from galas in the Globe Theatre to memorial lacrosse matches.

The school is a huge campus including a lake, a forest and a horse paddock, surrounded by a high brick wall and suspiciously called ‘Narnia’ by the locals. We can buy eggs from the chicken coops and honey from the bee hives. Morning cake and afternoon tea happens every day in the staffroom, and the History Department secret drinks parties not that less often. The girls are intimidatingly ambitious, confident and focused, and I find myself setting higher goals for myself as I see what they go on to do. That said, I know I don’t want to spend my life making money for the richest people in the country, even with all the scholarships they do provide. I’m learning as much as I can while I work out how exactly I want to use it.

I’m living in a huge Victorian house 5 minutes’ walk from work, with a family of modern hippies and 3 other lodgers. While my room is neat and atmospheric, with high ceilings, a big old wardrobe and a fireplace, the rest of the house is stuffed to the rafters with old newspapers, paintings, bike wheels, plants, sacks of grains, telephones that don’t work, strings of fairy lights and dairy-free products.

I was assured on viewing the house that this was a intermediary phase while some rooms were prepared for foster kids (arriving in about 5 months, at which point I will be homeless). I soon realised that this kind of clutter takes years to accumulate and probably years to get rid of. But, it’s cosy and full of good cooking smells and there’s a pianola in the hall (the only house rule is it musn’t be played after midnight). We don’t use Wifi (it goes in your brain, you know), the microwave is safely placed in the pantry for the same reason, and all our soaps come from powdery paper bags. There’s an inexplicable, faint noise at all times that sounds exactly like the house has a heartbeat.

The family is sweet and laugh a lot watching TV in the room next to mine. The matriarch, my landlady, spends mornings a lot of mornings in her dressing gown composing songs on her guitar about how much she hates traffic. She married the 2 daughters’ father on the spur of the moment in City Hall, both of them and 6 of their friends all dressed as Groucho Marx. She grows herbs and vegetables and picks apples from the tree in the garden, and likes fixing things using the spare electronics she hoards. One of the other lodgers is editing the new Star Wars movie, one is a bald Finnish man with many granola products in his cupboard, and one is almost too Italian to function. He pronounces the word biodegradable (oft-used around here) ‘bee-oh-dee-grad-ablay’, and has been known to stand hungover in the kitchen, squeezing lemon after lemon into a glass and murmuring “Santa Maria!”

I don’t have many photos to share of the time since I got back, partly because I’ve broken the iPhone addiction (a situation I intend to rectify ASAP. My Blackberry has taken to rattling randomly from time to time, like a Horcrux.) I like Instagramming and having a photo journal to look back on, but it comes with its own complications. When your life isn’t so photogenic, or you’re in transit and aren’t quite sure who you are or what you want, let alone how to present yourself, how can you communicate that authentically to such a broad group of people? Do you even want to? I think our generation has these questions to consider in a way only celebrities did in the past.

I’m coming a bit later to the PUWY party than many of my friends, and maybe I’m overthinking it. But I’m enjoying feeling alone and connected, and empty and full, and scared and brave, all at the same time. It’s pretty exciting.

In the name of posterity and nostalgia, Japan pictures to follow. In the name of not being too pretentious or rambling, I’ll shut up now. It’s good to be back.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

photo diary continued

One of the best things about living in Miyazaki is that it quite often feels more like California or Hawaii than Japan, with its palm trees, mangoes, laid-back people and surfing. We met borrowed boards and wet suits from a friend and went to Aoshima Beach early one morning. 

When I told one of my favourite teachers about a beach trip last week, he said cheekily "Were you wearing... bikinis?! Maybe I should come too. Please tell me your next surfing plan." I laughed and told him about our day at a gorge that week, upon which he said "So... did you also wear... bikinis?" At this another favourite (female) teacher burst into giggles and exclaimed "Sekuhara sekuhara!" (the phrase for 'sexual harassment' here).

The difference between the UK in attitude towards this kind of interaction is pretty marked. Back home, such familiar comments in the workplace would be unacceptable and most likely reflected in writing. But, as with so many things in Japan, it seems that implicit social and gender expectations determine what's appropriate at work to a greater extent (interesting article on what goes said and unsaid in Japan here). And I've got to say, in general, attitudes towards sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace leave a lot to be desired.

However, I've never once felt uncomfortable with this teacher, who in fact has been one of the kindest, most selfless friends I've made here. I was surprised at what he said, and can see how some people might be offended by it, but I just wasn't. In this case, I know he really was 'just joking'. While I'm well aware of the dark side of this kind of banter (and how 'just joking' is used as an excuse for serious harassment), it's been interesting to me to encounter this different kind of professional and social environment. 

Birthday parties and intoxicated new Japanese friends abounded last month 

Mixed emotions

One of the best nights was an aloha-themed surprise birthday party for Nate, followed by salsa dancing into the early hours. 

I finally ate for the first and last time at Joyfull, Kyushu's take on the American diner

Our Japanese tutor friend Yuko had a wee party for all her students learning English. I spent the morning chatting with three cute Japanese ladies, doing word quizzes and making pizzas (of course dressed in the full apron and bandana outfit - they really do dress as befits the occasion in Japan). At the end Nate, Corey and I were presented with fans because it was our birthday month! Another instance of Japanese thoughtfulness. 
We continued celebrating Nate at dinner the next week with shows of muscle bravado, raw chicken nibbles (local delicacy) and tears at the letters he wrote everyone! 

As the rainy season came to an end, Miyazaki started to feel truly tropical again

I had a cocktail party the Friday before my birthday, as the rain thundered down outside. I've borrowed a few pictures off friends since I was too busy hostessing all night

Jo managed to snaffle a bottle of Pimms on her trip home so we set about recreating the great British summer with mint, lemonade, and gin-soaked cucumbers. 

I love these pictures so much! I'm in heaven when my house is full of my favourite people. 

In the record corner Duncan got a little too attached to T-Wave

While the girls busted moves to Ignition and made way too much noise for 1am in a teachers' building. Sorry we're not sorry.

Sorry for partyin. 

Unfortunately the mess had to just wait for a couple of days, since bright and early the next morning we were off to the shrine for a long day of taiko practice. It was time for our festival! 

Nerves started to kick in. 

My friend Luke made an amazing two part film about the festival and our performance, you can watch them here and here! 

It was a great day and so fun spending more time with the group. It's been very nice for me to spend time with this group of mixed ages - these older women remind me of the great aunts and numerous second cousins etc I grew up surrounded by. In some ways, it's easier to form a connection without speaking much. You have to skip from the small talk straight to some kind of mutual understanding, achieved more through eye contact, laughter and paying close attention to each other than words. 

Over the course of the day I was really struck by how naturally the different generations interacted and how the whole community was brought together. From ripped young guys to little old ladies and everyone in between, they were all in it together. Everyone from toddlers to teenage boys confidently greeted each other with "Good morning!" and "Hello", instead of mumbling sheepishly like we do too often back home. 

In general in Japan, alienation between the generations seems to be a lot less of an issue. Old people seem pretty active in the community (I'm going to miss the legions sprightly, slightly scary old women cycling everywhere and bouncing around at festivals). Sometimes I think it might be to do with the stricter hierarchy. Even if your group leader is your friend and peer, you still call them senpai as a mark of respect for their mentoring. At our taiko farewell party, the head of the group scolded one of the 20-something women for talking during his speech, in front of everyone. And it wasn't really a big deal, because of that social structure accepted by everyone. Perhaps having that structure and that underlying respect as a given provides a kind of framework that lets the different generations relate to each other more freely. 

The performance went pretty well! Our friend Satoko came backstage with flowers for us. 

The talent at the festival was unbelievable. You know how at school there was always one or two kids who were crazy good at music or sport or painting? Well, at my school here it seems like just about every kid is that good at something, and it's because they practice for hours every single day. The festival - just a small regional festival - was no different. I saw a tiny six year old boy the size of my leg, smaller than his own drum, perform an insane solo, his little arms tense and sweat rolling off his body, never once missing a complex beat in a routine I could only listen to open-mouthed. And when it was done, everyone just walked off like it was no big deal and he rolled his drum off the stage with the rest of them. The kids I've met here are a lot more innocent than their peers in my hometown, but a lot more is expected of them in terms of effort and respect, and they mostly live up to those expectations. 

And it wasn't just the kids. Taiko is when the Japanese really let rip and watching the instructors drum and scream from a lunge stance practically touching the floor, totally absorbed in the moment, was completely mesmerising. 

Once the small forest of bamboo decorations had been cleared from the back entrance, we loaded up our drums and stood in our circle to officially bring the evening to a close. Another aspect of socialising in Japan I rather like - each event has a marked opening and ending - most often by standing in a circle and clapping once together. In our group's case, Jessica had just taught them the word 'blood', so we stood around saying 'blood' over and over for a while. ALT life. 

The next day was spent chilling in the park and jamming in the concert hall's studio rooms with the boys and the talented Mika! 

On my birthday I went to Tomato Ramen with a bunch of friends and played some silly games. Jessica's clues (above) were not the most helpful. 

Hana also got me the best cake ever - covered in chocolate macarons with an alpaca on it! 

It was a lovely chill birthday. 

One day to my surprise I found myself on the cover of our junior high school's prospectus for the year! Given the amount of rules on student anonymity and identity protection, and all the permissions we have to receive to take pictures in school, I was kind of surprised to be photographed without my knowledge, let alone to appear on the cover of a publication with a snooty look on my face! But, as with so many other things here, I just went with the flow (wa) and moved on. 

I was kind of sad not to enjoy the annual Wimbledon fever, but the time difference made the final just too late on a Sunday night. A lot of the students here adore Mr Federer as they call him, but a few were rooting for Murray!  

The following weekend I headed to Miyazaki City for the presentation of our leaving certificates and a very boozy leaving party. The only evidence that remains is our recovery breakfast the next morning. 

We headed to Heiwadai Park in Miyazaki to chill for the day. These figures reminded me so much of a Ghibli movie. Looks like we caught them at a bad moment. We wandered round here and a wee gallery, plus a monument that seems to have started out an imperialist symbol and ended up a Peace Tower. Potato, potahto.   

This old lady was a masterclass in self-promotion as she told us so many times that her hotdogs were oishii that we believed her regardless of the taste. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon being rowdy gaijin and playing ultimate frisbee, making human pyramids, and losing items in the lake of carp and turtles. When that happened a nice old guy came over with his fishing net and helped Julian, handy man extraordinaire, fashion a retrieval device! This was the moment of victory! The wee obachan in the background makes my day. 

My new favourite game involves ninja moves and balletic poses ^^ 

Annica and her interesting sun-shield head dress. This is why I love her. 

Meanwhile Hanako took the alpaca love to a new extreme... and we found out what our baby would look like. We're only adults 40% of the time. 

In a slightly more grown up moment,  we celebrated Christine's upcoming wedding (she is now a married woman!) with a surprise bridal breakfast. It was so lovely to bring together her friends from all over the world - and her reaction was priceless.