Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Monday, October 3, 2011

A hungover hike and a hostess bar.

My original plan this weekend had been to go visit a friend in Saijo and then spend Saturday evening in Niihama at a JET Party that was going down there. Arriving at school on Monday, however, I learned that there was a town-wide Sports Festival going down on Saturday which my school was going to be apart of and which I should probably attend.  So, glumly, I cancelled my plans... I should've learnt by now, however that, like Madonna preached before me, in Japan, nothing is what it seems. And the bitch was right... from a doubtful start, I ended up having my most enjoyable weekend in Japan so far!

First there was the Sports Festival itself. It was kind of like an undokai on steroids... there were different sports events scattered at different venues all over town, with all the town's Junior High Schools participating. Football, tennis, ping-pong, volleyball, basketball, kendo... everything! And, not being a participant (THANK THE HEAVENS), I had free rein to pick which ones I wanted to go watch.

"You bitch!", "You cow!"

So, I started the morning by popping along to kendo, considering I'd never actually watched a kendo match before. And what an eye-opener! Once their armour was on, the timid kids in my class who shyed away from answering questions were transformed into bolshy little samurais, shrieking as they swung their shinais like professionals. One girl at my school had, just last month, come SECOND IN THE COUNTRY in a national competition... needless to say, she floored all of her competitors without really trying: her first match lasted approximately the length of one human blink. Badass.  It was so strange to see my kids transformed so drastically... I never knew they had it in them!

Sadly, I left my blue facepaint at home...
After kendo, I went along to watch Johen's football team. And whereas the atmosphere in the kendo hall had been one of tense silence, spectators clapping but not daring to say a word, at the football stadium, getting rowdy was the name of the game! When I said I'd join in chanting for Johen, I didn't realise exactly what that entailed. This was more like hymn-singing than any football chanting I'd seen at home. One kid at the front recited a chant, and all of the surrounding Johen supporters yelled it back whilst clapping in rhythm... and this went on for the ENTIRE DURATION OF THE MATCH. Literally, as soon as one chant stopped, the next begun...non-stop for ninety minutes. And, of course, each chant had its own clap routine which the kids all seemed to know instinctively. The good thing was that, there being a limited roster of chants, we ended up cycling through the same ones again and again, so it got to the stage where even I'd mastered the right clap routine for each chant... even though I had no idea what the words I was singing meant. Oh, and lest I forget this was an actual competitive event, Johen TROUNCED the competition, beating rival schools Ipponmatsu and Misho 9-1 and 3-1 respectively. Weyyyyyy.

With the whistle blown on Ainan's super undokai for another year, it was time to do what the Japanese always do to celebrate... DRINK A SHEDLOAD OF BOOZE. I literally love my work enkais. You get to hang out with people you see in the office, but never really speak to and realise that, after they've had a few, their English is actually not that bad. Of course, when the drink is flowing, that has its disadvantages... suddenly, you can speak to, and understand each other, and all this newfound communication (not to mention the seemingly self-refilling pint glass in front of you) can go to your head. The result? You do silly things like agree to hike Ainan's biggest mountain the next morning with one of your co-workers. LOL.

So, that's what I did:

The top of Mt. Sasayama, baby!

I'd been promised that hiking Sasayama was an easy hike, and I'm sure that it probably should have been... but you should never underestimate my physical fitness. I wasn't exactly assured of the ease of the task before me when, on the drive to the hiking trail, we suddenly stop the car to avoid an oddly-shaped obstacle in the road... getting out of the car, I realise that this "obstacle" is, in fact, a decayed deer's skull. Lovely. So even the wildlife are killing themselves to get away from the exact place I'm now headed.

Putting that delicious sight behind us, on we continued and, thankfully, I somehow managed to make it to the top, skull in-tact.  Go me!

Chillin' on the steps in front of the shrine atop Mt. Sasayama.

At the top of Mt. Sasayama, there was a little shrine. We bowed to the God, clapped twice to wake him and then, in case he still hadn't got the message, shook his bell (LOL) to make sure he knew we were there. Poor guy, he climbs all the way to the top of the mountain to get some fucking rest and these stupid hikers come along and insist on waking him up. I'd be pissed.

And I promised myself that, as a reward, pissed was exactly what I was going to be that evening when I got back to Johen. Before that, however, we had chance to stop by this stunning waterfall:

On the drive home, we also passed Ainan's "Floating Islands" - this kind of awesome mirage where the boundary between sky and sea blurs, so it looks like the islands are floating in the sky above the mountains. Sadly, we sped past them in a car so I didn't get a chance to snap any photos, but I'm going to make it my mission to head back there and get a few shots!

Finally back in Johen, it was time for some nighttime festivities. Having discovered a plethora of bars literally on my doorstep at Saturday's enkai, I figured it was time to explore a little deeper and ventured out into the night to see what was on offer. I was pretty surprised when, the first bar I walked into, the barmaids greeted me with an enthusiastic "Jim!". Apparently we'd been here the night before. Was a revelation to me. Then, barely two sips into my beer, I'm thrust into sober karaoke. Being in Japan, it's to be expected, so I got over my fear of it a long time ago. (I know I sound like a twat, but karaoke's not about talent, it's just about having the balls to not give a shit). What I didn't expect was to find myself slow-dancing with the hostess whilst a local belted out some Japanese ballad. Oh dear.

Also, at some point in the night, me and the locals, a few drinks down admittedly, found ourselves on the topic of "cherry boys". Again and again I'm asked if I'm a "cherry boy". It's only through ten minutes of some pretty dubious gesturing later that I discover what it means... "virgin". Hahahaha. I don't want to bring my blog into disrepute enough to detail the exact gesture which gave it away, but it was simultaneously the most fucked-up and hilarious thing I've seen here so far.

As all the slow-dancing and crazy locals may suggest, these "hostess bars" aren't like your typical Western bars. You'll walk in and be greeted by a hostess, who will look after you for the night. In return, every drink you buy yourself you'll be expected to match by buying one for her too. As funny an experience as it was (albeit slightly uncomfortable and conceptually just WRONG), there's got to be a cheaper way to get drunk around here: I told myself that it'd be a test night... I'd go out, have a laugh and see how much it cost: 7000 yen later, I'm thinking hostess bars aren't the way forward if you want to get boozed on a budget.

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