The Sidney Sister Cities Association have been asked to produce the Sidney Calendar, the 2024 edition. As in the past, we invite one and all to take photos of our Town (within the confines of the Sidney boundaries) and submit them. An impartial panel will select the photographs and the expert from Digital Direct will make the final decision on which will reproduce best for printing. These calendars, sold by Tanner’s Books, literally land in thousands of homes around the world.
On Fridays I take a bus to the outer rural fringe of Niimi to work at my “secondary” school, Minami. It’s a considerably smaller school than Icchuu, where I teach from Monday through Thursday, and has about a hundred fewer students. I enjoy it because I get to work with Nathan, a fellow ALT from Portland Oregon. I’ve learned a lot about teaching from Nate: Unlike the other ALTs , he only teaches at Minami and is now there in his fifth and final year. Due to his long-established teaching relationship with the Japanese senseis at Minami who teach English, in my first year I suppose it was only natural that, in class they would call upon him for help rather than me. In a classroom with three teachers, I was clearly the “third wheel”.
This year is different though. With two English classes now scheduled for the same “period”, Nate and I each have a class to assist in and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to interact more closely with the Minami students.
As a “warm-up” to classes we often play a song, with the unrealistic expectation that the students will actually sing along. Nate often “defaults” to One Direction, possibly the most nauseating “boy band” since NSYNC. How I look forward to the day I will not (at my advanced age), have to stand in front of a classroom and belt out “Best Song Ever”. I cannot fault Nate though; he’s giving them what they want to hear. The theme song from “Frozen”? PULLEEZE! Spare me! “The cold has “always” bothered me anyway”.
I awakened yesterday morning knowing there was a stink bug in my room. That particularly pungent and unpleasant distinctive odor was unmistakable. It is a mystery to me how these flying, brown beetle-like insects manage to get indoors but; get in they do. As a rule they only emit that odious stench when either threatened or killed so I’m guessing he must have been in an ornery mood. I got out of bed with some trepidation thinking he might actually have been on the blankets. As it turned out though, he (or possibly she), was striding manfully (bugfully) across the floor. As I said though, you cannot simply squash them without incurring an olfactory assault: I had to be careful. Fortunately they seem oblivious to the presence of humans so it is easy to trap them with an inverted drink glass. Gently slide a postcard underneath the glass and you have the little bugger trapped and ready for disposal outdoors.
Stink bugs are not the most pernicious of insects found in Japan though. In September one of the senseis at my school was bitten in her sleep by a large centipede that is known to be very aggressive, and her wrist was crimson-red and swollen for more than a week. There is also a bee (possibly benign but nonetheless intimidating), that is at least twice as large as any bee I have seen in Canada.
The most beautiful and elegant insect I’ve seen in Japan, is a large and jet-black dragonfly. It’s four wings, which are more or less shaped like a tongue depressor, look more like those of a butterfly than those of the dragonflies we see in North America.
The “100 Yen” (about $1.00 CDN), stores in Japan are impressive. Everything really does cost just 100 yen and, as is the case everywhere in Japan, there is no additional tax. School supplies, food, clothing, kitchen ware, cleansers and cleaning supplies, hardware, blank CDs and DVDs, cosmetics, linen and much more are available. I love shopping there and they make the Canadian “Dollar Stores” seem expensive by comparison. I’d say there is nothing quite like it except that I’ve been told that the only “100 Yen” store not in Japan is in Vancouver. If true, I hope Vancouverites are taking full advantage of it.
On October 15th, at the invitation of my friend Tsukasa, I was honored to participate in the annual Niimi Samurai Festival. I’ve known Tsukasa almost since arriving in Niimi more than a year ago. He is a “larger than life” character, very active in the community and with a great sense of humor. In his seventeenth year with the festival he is responsible for a team of “bearers” (wearing traditional samurai attire) who carry one of a number of shrines (Mikoshi), from a temple atop a hill, along the parade route and then back again. I was to be one of the bearers. Sounds easy no?
The Samurai Festival is steeped in tradition and dates back hundreds of years. Winding through the old Ginza district of town the route is marked every couple of hundred feet with conical mounds of sand about a foot high and topped with salt. Traditionally they acted more or less as sponges, intended to soak up the blood of insufficiently respectful parade attendees who were beheaded along the route. It is still considered “good form” to be seated when the parade passes.
On the morning of the parade, as I walked up the wide and steep steps terraced into the hillside and leading to the temple, I could not help but wonder if I was capable of seeing this through. Even though I’d taken painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs for my damaged left knee, it seemed pretty daunting. Reaching the temple and seeing the shrine itself did nothing to assuage my trepidation. It weighs 500 kilograms and is supported by four thick wooden poles running through it that rest upon the shoulders of about a dozen bearers. After watching a demonstration of samurai sword-fighting and drinking saucers of a traditional and potent sake brewed by the temple, we set off.
Just lifting the Mikoshi from the sawhorses that supported it was a bit awkward. Working as a team, it took a while to gain a sense of equilibrium. As the lead Mikoshi, we also had to be mindful throughout the route that we could not be either too fast or too slow, knowing that the other Mikoshi were right behind us. I was in the front at the right hand side and, as we slowly descended the steep steps down into the town, kept thinking how easy it would be for one person to stumble and bring us all crashing down the hill. It worked out well enough though and we made it down the slope and into town.
It’s a big event and, even though it is most often held on a weekday, the parade route is lined with spectators. Even at this early stage I noticed that, because I’m a little taller than the average Japanese, the weight of the supporting pole on my left shoulder was crushing. The streets in the Ginza district are quite narrow leaving little room to maneuver in any but a forward direction. Each team has a leader who marches in front of the Mikoshi and exhorts them on with two short blasts from a whistle. The bearers respond with loud shouts of “WA-SHOI! – WA-SHOI!”, essentially meaning “heave-ho”.
Periodically, where the width of the street allows, the leader will unexpectedly push one of the supporting poles to either the left or right forcing the team to lurch and stumble in that direction. Not easy when you are supporting a 500 kilogram weight. Three girls wearing traditional dress and carrying large baskets accompany each Mikoshi. Spectators along the route put offerings (often a bottle of sake), into the baskets. Sounds good no? The downside is that, with each gift we have to raise the Mikoshi above our heads with arms fully extended, four times in rapid succession.
By the end of the first hour my knee was “on fire”, my left shoulder felt dislocated and I was drenched in sweat. Looking forward along the seemingly endless parade route, I could only say to myself, “one more step: one more step”. Quitting was tempting but not really an option: I could not allow myself to be the gai-jin who let the team down. I had after all, made the commitment to do this.
Fortunately, at the half-way point there is a scheduled break. We lowered the Mikoshi onto sawhorses and I almost collapsed gasping for breath. Cold beer (thank god!), snacks and beverages were provided. When my friend Masa, who had stood directly behind me and looked out for me along the route, offered me a cigarette (I have not smoked in eight years), I accepted without hesitation. With a frosty can of Asahi beer, it may have been the “best” cigarette I’ve ever smoked.
Although the route back to the temple is slightly longer, just knowing we were “over the hump” made it easier. I had mixed feelings when we turned the final corner leading up to the temple. Yes, it was the final stretch: Still though, there remained “the hill”. Each of the many steps was painful and I felt as if I was ascending Golgotha. When we finally lowered the Mikoshi onto the sawhorses though, all I felt was a sense of exhilaration. I’d completed it!
We drank more sake and then went to a great dinner hosted by Tsukasa at the local Community (Gotenmachi) Center. We drank and then went to my favorite pub, Nemunoki and drank some more (on a school night no less). It was a wonderful day: One I will never forget!
PS: I’m hoping to post a few pictures of the parade within a couple of days.
I was pleased to hear that Air Canada will have direct flights to and from Kansai Airport in Osaka and Vancouver commencing next summer. It’s funny think of how the perception of air travel has changed since Frank Sinatra sang “Come Fly With Me” in the distant 1950’s. Once the epitome of sophisticated jet-set travel, flying is now an unrelenting ordeal of interminable line-ups, lengthy waits, bad food and mobs of justifiably irritated people. Even when we finally get to board the plane we endure the ritual humiliation of taking the “walk of shame” through business class to get to the gulag at the rear.
I booked the least expensive return flight I could find via China Eastern Airlines from Osaka to Vancouver that entailed an ostensible one hour layover and connecting flight from Shanghai. The two flights to Vancouver were bearable (barely), but the trip back was almost enough to convince me that people given to “air rage” may be the only sane people on the plane.
Yes, ultimately I did make it back to Japan but it was a nightmarish trip deep into the heart of darkness. Shanghai airport is a massive Stalinist cinderblock seemingly designed to dissuade anyone visiting China. My flight from there to Osaka was delayed by three hours and, just to make things a tad more interesting, they changed the departure gate three times in the interim. Using a cane, and in dire pain from a torn cartilage in my left knee, I spent most of the three hours hobbling back and forth from one end of the airport to the other. By the time I finally landed in Osaka I’d been in transit and without sleep for more than 24 hours and probably looked like Nick Nolte after a two week bender. Small wonder that, in my almost delirious condition, I was targeted for the full treatment at customs, 1:00am Osaka time. They painstakingly showed me photos of pot, cocaine and various pills and asked me if I happened to be carrying any of them. I suppose they assumed I’d point to a photo and say “Oh yes, I have great lashings of this one with me. It’s my favorite!” Throughout the ordeal though, I must admit they were unremittingly friendly and polite; I almost didn’t mind the delay and was very pleased to be back in the country. As airports go, Kansai is bright, modern and well designed with many comfortably appointed seating areas. At Shanghai Airport by comparison, the facilities are spartan and any inquiries are met with a gamut of responses ranging from utter indifference to thinly-veiled hostility.
After a body search and systematic disassembling of my carry-on, I crawled to the airport hotel where, fortunately I’d had the foresight to make a reservation. I took a very long hot shower, slept like the dead for six hours and then, rejuvenated, had a very pleasant bus and train ride back to Niimi.
Yes, it has been quite a while since I last posted on the blog. Since my last posting I have been back to B.C., where I had to attend to some personal matters, not the least of which was determining why my left knee has been giving me so much pain. It seems the cartilage is damaged but, with the help of a few prescription drugs, and despite the fact that I am still hobbling around a bit, the problem is now well in hand.
Since getting back to Niimi on August 22nd, school has started and, so far September has been an eventful month. Sports Day (Undokai), fell on the 6th and, apart from graduation, it is the biggest event of the school year. It is quite militaristic and, in preparing for the event, the students spend hours on a hot playing field while the school band plays martial music, marching with legs raised high and arms swinging in perfect unison. It is far more disciplined than anything I have seen in a Canadian school.
In keeping with the Japanese tradition of emphasizing collective effort on behalf of the common good (as opposed to individual accomplishment), all of the Undokai events are team relay races that stress teamwork and cooperation. As they commonly say in Japan, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.
On the morning of Undokai the painstaking preparations for the event are clearly evident. The stage, band area, tents, and food concession stand have given the playing field a carnival-like ambiance. Japanese tend to be quite formal so it is no surprise the opening ceremony speeches tend to go on a bit. The band plays rousing Sousa marches: Let the games begin.
The students give it their best and, with compulsory sports club attendance and a pretty healthy Japanese diet, they are very fit.
I’ll be more diligent about writing in the future!
Not long after after I arrived in Japan, Andrew told me the country has four distinct seasons; typhoon season, rainy season, too hot and too cold.
We are now well into the rainy season (June essentially) and, although it’s not raining at the moment, it is still well before noon and that pervasive grayness and leaden wet atmosphere that presages the afternoon deluge is already upon us. It will probably become increasingly muggy and dark and, as the day wears on, the afternoon downfall will bring a refreshing measure of relief.
Last week’s teeming rains were spectacular. The office staff at school watched as the seconds that separated the brilliant forked lightning from the ensuing thunderclaps lessened. We followed the path of the storm as the lightning moved from the surrounding hills down into the town and very close to the school itself. It was, I’m pretty sure, the first time I’ve seen lightning actually strike something.
On Friday I had to go to Okayama to apply for renewal of my residency card for another year. Apart from Okayama-jo (castle) and The Koraku-en Gardens, Okayama is an undistinguished modern-looking city of a little more than 700,000 people. The castle (since rebuilt using the original plans) and most of the city was heavily bombed during WW2, hence the lack of interesting historical sites or architecture. Fortunately the beautiful neighboring city of Kurashiki was spared the bombing. But I digress…
Even though I’m not crazy about Okayama, I was looking forward to getting out of town for a day and the train ride is beautiful, following as it does the meandering course of the Takahashi river through the surrounding mountains. It was about an hours ride comfortably spent listening to my IPod and reading Haruki Murakami.
I walked directly from the train station to the Immigration Office (Andrew’s directions were good – Always helpful in a country where the streets literally do often have no name), and dropped off the requisite information. They will let me know when the card is ready and I’ll have to return to pick it up in a couple of weeks. I’m certainly hoping it’s ready before July 20th when I return to Canada for a month.
Walking back to the train station I couldn’t resist stopping into a McDonald’s for a Big Mac; interestingly enough, something that would not even occur to me in Canada. It was identical to a North American Big Mac: Even the insipidly green lettuce was chopped into those same tiny little pieces. Ronald McDonald BTW, is called Donald McDonald in Japan. Go figure!
McDonald’s is just across the street from the train station. I boarded the next train to Niimi shortly after noon and was home by 1:00pm. It had been sunny and warm all morning but that pervasive “rainy season” pressure cooker was heating up. I hadn’t been home too long when the skies opened and the rain came down. I cracked a cold can of Asahi and walked out onto my covered balcony. The rain had cooled things down a little: It was refreshing. All in all, not a bad morning.
The mornings can be misleading.