Thursday, 10 April 2014

gaijin invasion of an ume matsuri

Way back in February we had a national holiday and, as is my wont here, I took up a complete stranger on their extremely kind offer of a day’s traditional Japanese culture. A bunch of ALTs from around the prefecture met at a tiny town called Kiyotake to try on kimono and enjoy the new plum blossoms (ume) at a mini traditional festival (matsuri). In Japan, people like to talk about the weather and the changing seasons lmot as much as Brits. Each passing month appears to be marked by a special produce – cherry blossom themed candy was this March’s speciality.

We gathered in a large hall, along with several families of other foreigners, and were helped on with our kimono and obi. In actuality it was kind of a cross between a yukata – the simple, one-layered, thin-material worn in summer- and a real kimono, which is thicker like the layer we wore, but includes many complex layers of material and padding.

Somewhat restricted, we slowly made our way to the matsuri, which of course kicked off with all of us displayed on stage and asked questions about our origins! As I may have mentioned before, the population here is 99% Japanese. This means that any foreigner outside of a big city is often de facto a local celebrity, and people will unabashedly stare at you.

At best, they will pepper you with questions about your country and your opinion of Japan; invite you randomly to their home for dinner and parties; leave their shops to accompany you places if you’re lost; explain things to you slowly; and treat you like an honoured guest. I appreciate all this very much, even if I feel I don’t deserve such special treatment all the time. At worst, they cross to the other side of the street on sight or give you the evils (I’m looking at you, Miyazaki grandmas); prefer standing in a choc-a-bloc rushhour bus to sitting next to you; fall off their seat in surprise every time you use chopsticks or a Japanese word; and ask very personal questions about your religious and political beliefs, how much your possessions cost, your exact relationship status, etc.

Living here, you are generally excused almost any faux-pas or silly mistake by virtue of being a foreigner, and so you kind of oscillate between trying to disprove assumptions by integrating, and just doing "gaijin smash" and lazily taking advantage of your perceived special status! I think that this ‘free pass’ results partly from necessity and from genuine consideration, of course, but also perhaps partly from the assumption that foreigners could never possibly understand, integrate, or conduct themselves like anything but a thrashing fish out of water. This assumption may not seem particularly problematic until you imagine applying it to Japanese living in the UK.

But, this is only one side of the coin – the other is tremendous kindess and forbearance – in a country still quite unused to the foreigners. Despite the cliched image of the Japanese tourist, leaving the country to go on holiday is still pretty uncommon here. I’m only beginning to learn about Japanese history, but it was still illegal to leave Japan until 1868, and in the preceding couple of centuries no foreigner was to enter on pain of death – so it’s little wonder that immigration and gloabalisation works a little differently here.

I say all this not to detract from the perfect day or from my experience generally in Japan, but to give a balanced picture of what it’s like to live here. I have zero problem with showing off on stage in a kimono and receiving applause for existing! I’m sure most ALTs will take all these things for granted, but perhaps not the people reading back home!

After our moment in the limelight, we shuffled off to enjoy yakisoba, tea ceremony, archery (called kyudo), and of couse, the ume! (Sakura are the famous cherry blossoms that come later in the year, while ume are the smaller fore-runners.) We also twitnessed the talents of a group of precocious pre-teens shake their thang to Beyonce. The spring sun was bright and warm as we drove back through the snow-capped mountains.

This woman was a kimono-folding powerhouse! 

Waiting for tea ceremony to begin

Getting involved with some pounding 

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