Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fake Quakes, Pancakes... AND LOTS OF NAKED MEN.

Another week, another ridiculous festival going on in some part of Japan. This time around, it was Okayama's own "Naked Man" Festival. If the title wasn't clear enough, allow me to explain... three-thousand fundoshi-clad men, one icy cold winter evening in Okayama, and a cash prize of £35,000. The festivities began at around 9pm.  The nappy-wearing participants were marched into the temple, after completing a circuit around the outside (including a detour through a subzero-degree temple pond) and attempted to take their place on the unfeasibly small temple platform. All it took was one misstep, and a whole barrage of bodies would come tumbling down the temple steps, like some sort of weird, vertical Mexican wave.  And, as much as we may have been shivering from our spectators' pit outside, the mass of bodies was such that when the monks, perched in their safety zone metres above, poured water on the heaving mass, it was immediately spat back out as steam. Crushing and suffocation seemed like realistic possibilities for the participants. And that was before any of the real activity had even begun!

It wasn't until an hour later, at 10pm, that the show really got underway. The lights on the temple were shut down completely. The moment had arrived. The sticks were about to be dropped. By the time the lights had flashed back on, three incense-infused batons had been dropped into the crowd. Now it was one big, naked brawl as the participants punched, kicked and clawed their way through the mass of bodies in an attempt to get their hands on one of the prized sticks. The one who managed to keep hold of the Prized Stick long enough to make it out of the temple gates would be the one who would win the money. Of course, it wasn't only the sheer number of people which made it a near-impossible challenge. Of the three sticks, only one was the Money Stick. The other two were decoys. So even if you made it all the way to the gate, stick in hand, if your stick was a decoy, your efforts were in vain. What's more, being incense-infused, the sticks' smells betrayed their location, making it even easier for rival competitors to track you down.

The monks take in the spectacle below.

All in all, it was a hilarious spectacle! Original plans had been to be participators ourselves, but having seen the events unfold, we thanked the Heavens that we ended up as spectators instead! Those participants we spoke to afterwards were certainly all a little scarred by the experience. The lucky ones came out with just a few bruises and a handful less toenails. Those who were less lucky broke bones. Last year, somebody even died. Significantly less funny.

Other news this week includes an interesting "Fake Quake" experience at school. Sitting in the office, my Kyoto-sensei (vice principal) ushered me into a side room. My guilty conscience nerve throbbing, I immediately presumed I'd done something wrong. Thankfully, he wasn't handing me my P45, but started speaking, in hushed Japanese tones, about a "じしん" and pointing to his watch. Luckily, I knew that "じしん" means "earthquake", so, after a little initial confusion (where I panicked and thought he was telling me a quake was on its way and we were all going to die), I was able to work out what he was saying. At 1.30pm, the school would be hosting its own "Fake Quake" to test staff and students' reaction times in the event of a real emergency. So there we were, in the middle of cleaning time, when an intercom annoucement throughout the school tells us that a quake has just hit in nearby Sukumo and that we should brace ourselves for the aftershocks. Immediately, kids threw their brooms and cloths aside and prepared themselves for the worst, ducking in the corridors and dive-bombing under tables. I found myself huddled in a corner with a kid, (usually the loud joker of the class, now silent and terrified), who simply looks up at me, says "DANGEROUS" and reinserts his head between his legs. There was certainly a perversion to watching all these poor kids drop everything they were doing and run for their sweet lives when you knew it was all just a hoax. But, better that than the real thing!

To top it all off, Tuesday of last week was also Pancake Day in England! Now, it may not be celebrated here in Japan, but I'm not forgetting my roots that quickly! Et voila...!

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day in Japan!

I was doing some Japanese study today, entirely independent of my background research for this blogpost, and, coincidentally, one of the example sentences which my textbook provided was:

もし じぶんが おとこだったら、ばれんたいんでーには どんなきもちに なるだろうと おもいます。
If I were a man on Valentine’s Day, I wonder how I’d feel.

That’s because, in Japan, Valentine’s Day is the occasion on which women (and women alone) give gifts of chocolates to the significant men in their lives. Moreover, it seems that such gifts aren’t limited to those in whom the giver has a romantic interest – friends and co-workers alike will equally be eligible as recipients (though likely of a gift of lesser impression than that reserved for the captor of one’s heart!) Apparently this Japanese idiosyncracy stemmed from an innocent translation error in the original material promoting the occasion. That being so, there’s a separate holiday entirely – White Day, exactly one month later on March 14th – for men to return the favour of showering gifts upon their female companions. (Interestingly, before the establishment of “White Day”, a Japanese Marshmallow Company tried to pre-empt the matter by launching its own campaign in favour of a “Marshmallow Day” on March 14th…a move which, unsurprisingly, failed).

Whether intentional or not, splitting the holiday across two months makes perfect Japanese sense. Maintaining social relations through gift-giving is a big cultural phenomenon here, and I can imagine that, if both sexes were expected to give gifts today, there would be a lot of social awkwardness in the event that a Japanese person found themselves unexpectedly receiving a gift without having one at hand to return the favour. Splitting the holiday between the sexes, then, lets Japanese men, at least, know exactly who they’re indebted to come White Day. Phew. You can breathe a sigh of relief. SOCIAL HARMONY IS SAVED. (Of course, it’s the poor old Japanese women who still have to shoulder the burden of deciding who to give to in the first place… awkward).

So, today being set aside for men alone, there’s certainly more than a little truth to the unease expressed in the above sentence. I certainly know a lot of my ALT friends were bemoaning the fact that they left school for the day without having received any chocolates. I won’t lie, I certainly wasn’t immune from the hype – it wasn’t until a lunchtime delivery stuffed with chocolates arrived from my Board of Education that I could breathe a sigh of relief.  I wouldn’t be going home empty-handed. There were chocolates, bless them, from not only my supervisor, but some of my adult students too. And even a heart-warming little note! It was so nice that they’d made the effort to give me a present. So, for all the potential overhype, I’m not going to be the Valentine’s Day Grinch: Men, if you got chocolate today, be grateful and share the love! If you didn’t, remember the ones who show off their Valentine's booty the most are also the ones who need that kind of assurance the most, and don’t let it stop you from spreading a little love of your own (chocolate-y or otherwise!) in a month’s time!  

Of course, alongside all that sugary sweetness I also received an unwelcome "gift" from one of my 11-year-old female students today... namely, a ten-minute long quiz on exactly just how "tall" I was. And I'm not talking about my height. Now, who says romance is dead?

                       Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hello, Kyushu! The Escape to Beppu.

As January changes to February, it seems, if anything, the weather’s only getting colder! Friday once again saw my little nowhere town transformed into a real-life Christmas card scene. Stepping out the door for work, in the morning, I was greeted by THIS view.

I learnt my lesson after failing to capture a picture last time and dashed back indoors to snap a shot to share with you! Then it was off to Tokai Elementary for a morning-long snowball fight! Friendships were forgotten and it was each man (or, as it happened, small child) for himself as the (now unrecognisable) playground was transformed into a to-the-death arena. At one point,  one 1nensai girl got a little ahead of herself and decided it’d be funny to splat a fistful of powder in Jim-sensei’s face from point blank range. Well, I wasn’t going to settle for that and retaliated with my own tear-inducing face-bomb. Look, girl, I don’t care that you’re only six years old, if you’re big enough to dish it out, you’re gonna have to be big enough to take it! It's my job to teach valuable life lessons, right? Well, let's just say, she learned one of the more important ones that morning...DON'T MESS WITH JIM-SENSEI. Rawr.

With the snow carrying on through the afternoon, and my having genuinely forgetting how life was when I could feel my fingers and toes, what better place to jet off to for a weekend break than Beppu, Japan’s very own hotspring capital? Beppu’s in Oita prefecture, western Kyushu (only a three-hour ferry ride away from Yawatahama in Shikoku), and boasts the largest number of hot springs in a single city in the whole of Japan! There were a tonne of different varieties to choose from – including a cacophony of standard water baths, as well as some more unconventional mud and sand baths, too! Our schedule being limited for time, we plunged straight in at the deep-end and opted for the hotsprings of the sand and mud variety!

The sand onsen in particular was an experience to remember! The onsen itself was nestled in a building over one-hundred years old. Walking in the door, we paid our fee, in exchange for which we were handed our yukata (a special kind of robe) and led downstairs to the sandbaths. There, two little old women were waiting, shovels in hand, to pile spade upon spade of steaming sand on top of us, until we were nothing more than two floating heads in a black grit sea.

Now, if you’re not used to Japanese bathing, the idea of taking all your clothes off and walking around butt-naked in front of a bunch of strangers (who often aren’t too inhibited to stare) might take a little getting used to. Personally, I found it kind of liberating to just throw caution to the wind and bare it all! So many people have insecurities when it comes to their body image – I wouldn’t say I’m entirely immune from that category – that it was quite refreshing to just say, “You know what, fuck it, this is me and I’m putting it all out there!

Having been well and truly refreshed at the onsens, we ventured further afield to explore the Hells of Beppu, the scientifically-dubbed “geothermal hotspots” scattered all across Beppu from which you can see steam, water and mud shooting from fissures in the ground, all in beautiful surroundings of Japanese wildlife and architecture. One lagoon was so hot that there was a basket of eggs being boiled in it!

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Six Month Anniversary

The title says it all: today marks the six month anniversary of my arrival in Japan! I feel the occasion needed honouring somehow, so it's (once again) to the Life after the BOE comics that I turn:

That pretty much says it all. I can't quite believe it's been six months! I can still remember leaving perfectly: hugging my sister goodbye, being a little too nervous-excited to eat anything more than an orange at the airport, my Mum awkwardly tearing up... and then stepping through customs and onto the other side of the world. It's the thought that, if I hadn't decided to stay,  I'd be going home in an equally short period of time, which says to me  that my decision was, without doubt, the right one. I'm going to have to find some way to celebrate after work this evening! Here's to eighteen more months in the Land of the Rising Sun!

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