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Iwaoka

Japanese schools seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing things which gave nothing to do with lessons or education at all. I could go on to describe how this is a feature of the Japanese education system and helps to instil a strong sense of community, culture and group think in Japanese students but frankly I’ve already discussed that on this blog.

Anyway the upshot is that working in a Japanese school means that sometimes all the classes get cancelled so we can all do something cool.

As was the case last Friday when school was cancelled and instead we all played games and ate soup. Yay!

Around this time of year there are a few traditional cultural activities. I have done one or some of these at both my previous schools but at Iwaoka they decided to roll them all together into one big day of Japanese winter fun.

The first of these is that at pretty much every school in Japan the kids will play karuta. Usually only the first graders will play but at Iwaoka the entire school shuffled into the freezing cold gym to sit on the floor and play some cards.

Karuta is just the Japanese word for cards but there is a specific card game by that name too. Basically it is snap but rather than trying to match a card your opponent has just revealed you instead listen to what a speaker is saying and try and find the card that matches. I use this all the time in my lessons (Mr. Adam says elephant and all the kids try and grab the elephant card at once for example) but Japanese people do it for fun too.

This particular karuta game though is very special. A speaker reads out the first part of a poem and students have to find the end of the poem on about 100 cards in front of them.

The game requires not only for students to have memorised 100 poems but to be able to listen, come up with the next part, scan for it and move at lightning quick pace.

Consequently even though the cards were printed in Japanese which I could read, the double disadvantage of not knowing any of the poems and having to read in a second language meant that I couldn’t capture a single card in my brief attempt at playing. So instead I mooched about for a bit, had a chat and tried to stay close to the enormous space heaters for fear of developing hypothermia.

The kids got really into it though. Its incredible how much they can memorise and how quick they are.

Seeing that I was not exactly thrilled to spend hours watching my kids play a card game I didn’t understand at all one of my teachers seized me and took me outside.

Where a Mochizuki was occurring.

Mochizuki, or making rice cakes, is a past time for communities in winter in Japan. It is usually done either just before or just after the New Year. Mochi is a kind of very sticky rice cake. Imagine PVA glue. Remember when you were a kid and you’d leave PVA glue all over the outside of the bottle and it would set into a hard rubbery substance? Well just before it set when it was still kind of stretchy, that is the consistency of mochi. That or play-do which is going stale but isn’t quite there yet. It is actually much nicer than I make it sound but I don’t quite know what is appealing about it. The taste is just white rice and the texture is not very pleasant and a bugger to eat. I think it might be that it provides a comforting feeling. It is, to use an expression of my mother’s, food that sticks to your sides. Like dumplings, or a sticky toffee pudding or a doughy pie. Your stomach just feels really full but in a pleasant way.

I don’t know why this time of year is associated with mochi but I suspect that in olden days it was a good way to turn rice from the harvest into something that would store better. Less surface area means it is less susceptible to mold and any rat trying to eat mochi would soon choke to death or drown. It could also be improvised as fly paper or to fill up the cracks in draughty farm houses. In fact, it would probably make a very good insulation, potentially even better than it would a food.

To make mochi first you boil lots of rice without washing it so there is a ton of starch.

Then you heat up a stone bowl using hot water until it is red hot so the rice will stay warm in it.

Then you grind the rice using a big mallet until the shape of all the individual grains is blurred and it looks like a big lump.

Then the important part, one person folds the mochi into the middle of the bowl whilst another hits it with a whopping great big mallet.

Observe this video of just that.

You need skill, speed, timing and trust to avoid getting your hand smashed in whereas the other bloke just needs tireless muscles and a penchant for the repetitive.

This is the second time I have made mochi but the first time I have made it whilst elderly Japanese men criticised my technique. Eventually they so tired of me doing it “wrong” that they stepped in and freed my cold and aching arms from anymore pounding.

I should probably feel ashamed that a tiny old man took over for my strapping young self but I am not because I know the secret of elderly Japanese people. They are not made of flesh and bone but stone and wood. Their skin is aged teak and their bones are granite. Old Japanese people are indestructible. When the apocalypse comes it will be them and the cockroaches.

Once the karuta game was finished the students came outside to watch a massive bonfire.

This bonfire had been assembled the day before of bamboo and various decorations left over from the New Year. New Year decorations have to be burned before the next New Year or else they will become evil spirits, or yokai.

There are plenty of yokai stories of possessed items. Most famously an umbrella with a single eyeball and a man’s leg instead of handle. When you abandon an umbrella in Japan it will turn into a monster and seek revenge. The same goes for unwanted decorations so instead they get burnt.

We all watched as the school principle went inside the fire holding a flaming torch (health and safety existeth notteth in Japan) and then came out again and lit it more safely from the back.

It went up like a shot. Within barely 30 seconds of lighting it there was a hole in the top and a stream of fire issuing forth. It looked like a volcano.

And the noise was incredibly. Presumably because bamboo is a grass and full of water deposits every time one of these pockets superheated and turned to steam it went off with a massive bang. It was like standing in the middle of a gunfight, or a firework show. I have never heard such a violent fire.

Before too long a small twister had formed above the hole and bamboo ash was being strewn wildly across the playing field, in our hair, on our clothes and basically everywhere. It was some sort of ash…like snow.

Hmmm, catchy name that. Would make a good song title.

All in all it took about 15 minutes for the enormous bonfire ( a good 20ft high) to be completely burned to a crisp.

Before the fire was over my students did various demonstrations to their classmates, the teachers, the local people and some school kids from the nearby primary school which had come to visit and watch the show.

Japanese primary school kids are absolutely adorable. Not only are they much cuter than western kids but this natural cuteness is amplified by the matching hats they are all made to wear when they go on trips. Me and most of my female students were in paroxysms of kawaii watching them.

Sadly I can’t show you the videos I took of the presentations for legal reasons. But they included live kanji painting and taiko drumming. Impressive taiko drumming too. I didn’t even know we had a club! They kept that one quiet.

Eventually everyone was released to go do the most important part of the day. Eat ozouni!

Ozouni is a kind of soup whose main ingredients are miso (a salty paste derived from soy and which turns into a soup when mixed with water) and mochi along with anything else you fancy putting in it. Ozouni is associated with New Year’s where everyone eats some for luck. I had eaten some at Fran’s relative’s house this year and the year before Fran made some for just the two of us. It is true comfort food. Warm, filling, sticky and made with all your favourite things.

Together we gobbled multiple bowls of the stuff graciously prepared by local volunteers. I stopped at two but some of my kids ate as many as five bowls! Japanese people can really eat when they put their minds to it.

There was also kinako ( a kind of sweet flour derived from, guess what, soy) flavoured mochi and mochi floating in a soup of red bean paste. I’ve had both of these before and find them too sweet for words. Except possibly words like coma, diabetes, help and blegh! They’re not horrible but they’re so ridiculously sweet so may as well just mainline sugar.

Finally two primary school kids were hauled up to give a speech thanking us all. It was, without hyperbole, the single cutest thing I have ever seen in my life. Any attempt to describe it properly will just end up with me degenerating into baby talk and saying things like “wook ad da widdle hats isn’t it cutes, isn’t it cutes??!” which frankly, nobody wants to see.

And that, bar an assembly, was that.

You’ve got to love Japanese schools sometimes.

The day before the shika no tsunokiri Fran and I had already been to another festival.

I know; aren’t we just so amazingly open to new cultural experiences.

*cough*

This festival was a harvest celebration to thank the gods for good crops held in the local shrine for the town my school is in, Iwaoka. I wasn’t expecting much from this matsuri, after all Iwaoka is very rural and miles from anywhere and hardly famous for its matsuri. However I was curious what these small local events were like and I was quite excited to see my students and teachers in a more social setting.

I was absolutely blown away.

I was supposed to arrive at 10 o’clock but sadly the really horrible bus service between Seishin-chuo and Iwaoka meant that Fran and I arrived closer to 11. Well, getting slightly lost didn’t help either but we followed the sound of drums into the shrine and saw.

Well, this.

The festivities where already in full swing by the time we arrived and the shrine was full of shouting, laughing drunken people. At 11 o’clock in the morning mind.

The first thing we saw were the Mikoshi. Enormous, elaborate floats being carried by scores of male volunteers. Each float was absolutely gorgeous. The patterns were done entirely in embroidery and some of the embroidery was astoundingly gorgeous, if a little bit odd. We spotted more than a few sacred lobsters.

Inside each Mikoshi is a kami, a god in the Shinto faith that resides in some natural form. The Mikoshi are basically tombs for gods, typically former men of great virtue who have been enshrined within the Mikoshi and become kami in death.

The purpose of the matsuri is to wake the kami up; taken them for a walk and let them join in the celebration. All this is supposed to make them happy and demonstrates gratitude for this year’s harvest. To this end the carriers of the Mikoshi shake it violently once they reach the shrine, cry out with loud chanting, drop the Mikoshi on the ground and spin it furiously and generally mess about with it in a bawdy and joyous fashion. This apparently pleases the kami. I don’t know why. If I was an ancient and powerful god the last thing I’d want to happen to me is for a bunch of drunks to rouse me from my slumber by singing, banging drums and shaking me all over the shop. A nice strong cup of tea and the radio tuned to a volume that allows me to hear it if I need to but ignore it if I decide to sleep some more is how I like to wake up. Still they’ve been at it for centuries and the crops keep growing so it must work right?

In addition to a kami each Mikoshi also contains a small selection of young children banging away on taiko drums. The children must be as young as 8 or 9 and I’ll give them this, they are really terrific at drumming. They change rhythms several times but never once miss a beat and they get a really loud and furious sound out of the taiko. For quite a while Fran and I weren’t sure where the taiko noise was coming from. We thought that initially that there was a stall with a taiko drummer on it that we couldn’t see. Then we figured out that the sound was coming from the Mikoshi itself. We wondered if maybe there was a speaker in each Mikoshi but we finally got a glimpse of what was inside.

The kids did more than just drum too. They also joined in the chanting, which was adorable. One line would be roared out in a deep booming masculine voice and then the next line would be yelled in a sweet little kid voice. It was one of the cutest things you’ll ever hear.

You can just make out a little bit of it in the video I posted yesterday.

Dancing around the floats were several guys dressed up as tengu, with full face masks, odd stripy clothes and bits of foliage strapped to their backs. Tengu are a kind of Japanese demon. However demon has a slightly different meaning in Japanese myth. Rather than being evil demons and ghosts (or more properly yokai) are more amoral. They belong to the world of kami, but they are not strictly speaking kami themselves. Tengu are known for being ferocious fighters with a host of incredible powers, super strength, size changing, shape shifting, etc. They’re also famed for their enormous noses and phenomenal martial prowess. A lot of the most famous Japanese swordsmen are said to have been taught how to use a sword by tengu.

In this case the tengu (according to my kocho-sensei) were of a specific variety known as hanna. Apparently they serve as a kind of guide for the Mikoshi, showing the kami where to go and leading them. They also defend the shrine against evil.

After the first round of Mikoshi based festivities the tengu mounted a small stage and began to perform dances.

There were what seemed to be three troupes. The first consisting of a tengu, lion-dog and somebody in a woman’s Noh mask wielding some kind of glaive. The second had just a tengu and lion-dog and the third had a tengu, a lion-dog and an even stranger man in a Noh mask.

The first troupe had undoubtedly the best dancers and musicians. The second however had a much better lion-dog with the two people inside doing various tricks and flips. The third, meh.

The dance was telling a kind of story. The lion dog represented evil forces seeking to get into the shrine and the tengu as the defender of the shrine beat him back and killed him. The other characters apparently have no significance and were just included to make it all more visually appealing.

Each troupe performed a couple of times and during their last performance the tengu started throwing treats out into the audience. At first they were throwing apples, pears and persimmons but later they started hurling sweets. At which point the kids started going crazy, including the big kid I had brought along with me.

We got a sweet by the way. It was pink. Fran was happy.

Once the dancing had finished we headed off to enjoy the true appeal of festivals. EATING!

The usual culprits were all present, yakisoba (a noodle dish), takoyaki, yakitori (chicken on a stick) and kakigori. The flavoured shaved ice that is the defining feature of Japanese summer. That Fran ate….IN OCTOBER!

Hopeless that girl I tells ya.

I myself enjoyed my all time favourite festival food, taiyaki. The crispy, soft, pastry, hot and sweet sticky treat in the shape of a fish that I likes to eat.

Dunno what happened there. I went all poetic for a second.

I saw lots of my students out and about and had some short conversations with them but more crucially I met my kocho-sensei (principle).

He was incredibly drunk. Really, really far gone. Although, in fairness, he kind of had to as part of his job. As a community leader it was his responsibility to help entertain other community leaders and in Japan “entertaining” means drinking heroic quantities of sake.

When my kocho-sensei is drunk he turns into an incredibly friendly man but completely forgets how to speak English. So what he mostly does is continually compliment people. So it was a great conversation where I was asking what the significance of what was happening was and he kept saying “he is a great guy, your girlfriend is a beautiful lady” over and over again.

Eventually the people carrying the Mikoshi all got up again and we had another round of dancing, shaking, spinning, chanting, etc only this time much the worse for a few glasses of sake. In fact one of the teams in purple happi coats threatened to destroy a food stall at several times and more than once or twice Fran and I had to dodge out of the way of a runaway float.

Before long we got tired of fearing for our lives and it became clear to use that all that was going to happen for the foreseeable future was lots more shaking so we quietly made an exit,

I haven’t really praised the festival much in my description but honestly I think it is one of the best I have ever been to in Japan, including much bigger and more famous ones such as the Tenjin no matsuri, the shika no tsunokiri and the Gion matsuri. For a small local festival it really is spectacular and it’s full of good feeling and a positive friendly vibe.

Getting to see into these small private parts of Japan, the parties and moments when the Japanese let their guard down and let it all hang out is what makes staying here worthwhile. I get to see and experience things that are simply not available to tourists and often these are the most exciting and most interesting things to see in Japan.

Sorry guys. I had a post already to go tonight but sadly I have left it at work.

Doh!

I’ll have it up tomorrow night. Until then here is a taster of what I’ll be talking about.

Thoughts? Theories?

Let’s just all pretend last week never happened. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a bad week by any stretch of the imagination and gave me lots of blogging fodder but events were very complicated and blogging got left behind.

This blogging fodder? How does 2 trips to Kyoto sound to you?

But first let’s get the biggest and most important story out of the way, namely

MY NEW SCHOOL

So I am now working at Iwaoka Chugakko, my second junior high school in Japan.

Iwaoka is a pretty nice school so far and there are two main things you need to know about it.

It is very far away.
It is really, really far away.

In fact it is so far away it is very nearly not in Kobe at all but rather in the nearby city of Akashi.

I mean it, it is far. I have to catch a bus and a train and it’s an hours commute to get there. Okay that doesn’t sound too far but compared to my colleagues it is absurdly far.

And it’s nearly triple the length of commute as my old school.

And it is astoundingly rural. It’s not the most rural of schools (that I believe is Kande) but it is still pretty far out in the sticks. The surrounding area is full of rice fields and immediately next to the school is an enormous pond.

It is so rural in fact that as I was walking around the school grounds I saw this guy.

I was merrily minding my own business gazing at nothing in particular and barely registered the snake in my presence. Then it suddenly hit me what I had seen and I literally did a double take. A bloody snake! At school!

Further investigation reveals that in all probability the snake is poisonous. Not a mambushi (the most poisonous in Japan) but still not something you want to mess with.

And I nearly stood on it.

The school grounds are pretty nice though. The playing field is flanked by a row of sakura trees and it’s a much more scenic setting than my last school.

So far the people seem nicer than at my last school too. Last week I had two enkais (dinner parties) one after the other, the first with my new school and the second with my old school and the contrast between the two was really clear. The teachers at Iwaoka are much closer and friendlier with each other, they told more jokes and played more games at the enkai. For example, everyone had to make a speech and also do something entertaining. Since I hadn’t really prepared anything I just did my karaoke standard (Crocodile Rock by Elton John) but I know it went down a treat becausewhen I sat down and the outgoing ALT Peter said “that was rehearsed wasn’t it?”.

They also played a game where everyone had to eat a choux-pan (like a profiterole) some of which were filled with chilli powder. Mercifully I was exempt from this game but watching the contorting faces of surprised teachers was hysterical. I demand red hot chill choux pan Russian roulette become a televised sport immediately. Actually knowing japan it probably is.

In contrast the Fuluda enkai was nice but much less raucous, no games or singing and a lot less laughter. Mostly I had a chat with some of the teachers I will be missing and also kocho-sensei (who having steadfastly ignored me for a year decides that the very last day is the best one to make friends). Taniguchi-sensei gave me some bookmarks that my nakayoshi kids had made me and it was so sweet that a tear very nearly came to my eye.

Of all the things I will miss about Fukuda the nakayoshi kids are definitely the one that I remember most fondly.

One fantastic moment must be recounted though and ranks amongst my most surreal experiences ever.

After the fukuda enkai some of us went for a drink at an Izakaya (Japanese pub). I wasn’t asked to come so much as ordered by my noticeably tipsy Kyoto-sensei.

He then proceeded to get absolutely steaming and try and explain Shinto to me. Being drunk he didn’t really realise that he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know despite me repeatedly telling him this. He was trying to explain to me that in Shinto people worship nature as containing gods (which I know) and he was doing it in the following fashion.

Kyoto-sensei: (points at a pair of chopsticks) This, is god.

Me: Yes, I know.

Kyoto-sensei: No, no, (points at a pair of chopsticks) This, is god.

Me: Hai, Kyoto-sensei, wakata. (yes Kyoto-sensei I know)

Kyoto-sensei: No, listen, (points at a pair of chopsticks) This IS god.

At that moment my brain kind of had to step back and try and appreciate that I was being lectured by a drunken Japanese man telling me a pair of chopsticks were god.

I was worried about the staff at Iwaoka because I was told that there weren’t many English speakers there. This seems to have changed though. There are a lot of new teachers in addition to myself and most of the new teachers speak some English. The new Kocho-sensei, social studies teacher and maths teacher all speak good English. There is a new English teacher, one English teacher with phenomenal English and a home-economics teacher who lived in Kenya and speaks good English too. More importantly even the teachers who don’t speak English seem to want to talk to me more. All in all I think I will enjoy the staffroom at Iwaoka a lot more than fukuda.

The kids at my new school seem really friendly too. They are eager to talk to me and smiley and forward. They are however still little gits. When I met the baseball club on Friday I was treated to this exchange.

Me: Hello my name is Adam.

Kid: Hello my name is vagina.

Now as opening conversational gambits go this one was a masterpiece. I was absolutely floored by the bare faced cheek of it all and he knew it. I could not let myself be outfoxed by a child with only one utterance but If I didn’t recover the conversational high ground I would be in this kids power for the rest of the year. But honestly how can you come back to “my name is vagina”? He already compared himself to a vagina, where can you go from there? Any insult I make is irrelevant because he already called himself a vagina, and no joke is going to get me out of this because the word vagina has already been uttered and to a teenage boy nothing is more hilarious than a vagina.

As it was I think I did okay.

Me: (points at his lunchbox) What are you eating?

Kid: Egg.

Me: Oh, so vaginas eat eggs. I didn’t know that.

This got a big laugh from his friends and I think I have developed a new funniest thing in the world for teenage boys, the concept of vaginas as separate organisms that can eat eggs. Having made our positions clear we could move onto different topics.

The second time I met this kid he told me his name was vagina again, said “penis go in vagina?” and then later tried to grab my crotch to see how big it is. Clearly I have a nemesis at Iwaoka.

In general the English level seems a lot lower than Fukuda (students answer hello with konnichiwa for example) but the students seem happy to talk to me and I’m pretty confident I can raise their confidence.

A good example of the difference in levels is how the kids ask me where I am from. Now at Fukuda the kids just asked me “where do you come from?” or “where are you from?” Here it seems to be a guessing game where the kids tell me every country they can think of and I say yes or no. Weirdly the most popular guesses seem to be Canada, Russia and Italy. I can see Canada, they’re last ALT was Canadian and I do look sort of Italian (though much less so since I shaved my curly black hair) but honestly Russia? England was embarrassingly low down in the list of guesses for most students after Russia, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Chile (???), Spain, Australia, New Zealand and China (which came from a kid who either has a very cosmopolitan worldview or has no idea what Chinese people look like).

Weirdly nobody ever suggests America.


And while the English level is lower Iwaoka is phenomenally good at sport. The amount of trophies the school has amassed is quite breathtaking. The baseball, softball, volleyball and soccer teams (the former soccer coach is now a professional coach for Vissel Kobe) are all very strong and the girl’s volleyball team is the number one team in Hyogo and competes at a national level.

These spears are given to winning sports teams sometimes instead of trophies. The names of the members of the winng team are on the ribbons that dangle from each spear.

Another thing I like about the school is that a lot of the students ride bikes to school. Like nearly everything else in Japan there is a uniform and a proper way to ride a bike so all of the students wear the same helmet and they nearly all have identical bikes. Today was the first day of school for the students and some of the teachers had to check to see if their bikes are safe. Hundreds of gleaming highly polished bikes lined up in the glorious spring sunshine is a pretty impressive sight I must say.

So snakes and vaginas aside I am pretty happy with my new school.

I would be happier if it was a little nearer though.

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