Sunday, 24 March 2013

Japan: Week 2

2 - Settling in

This week reminds me of the first minute or so of Bjork's 'It's Oh So Quiet'. So peaceful, so relaxing, at a calm, laid-back pace. And then Saturday night/Sunday morning happened - A.K.A The Most Japanese Day I will Probably Have in Japan.

The week began with a welcome party for us held at the University where they provided astonishingly delicious food (given that we're students and and all), and a selection of performances from some of the clubs we might like to join.

As I've brought my clarinet all the way here, I'll be doing my utmost to make my way to Wind Orchestra rehearsals and keep up with their precision and enthusiasm.

I was struck yet again by how comprehensive are the efforts of the university to ensure we all fit in, feel included, and above all enjoy our stay here. In England there are individual teachers who will want to make sure you're enjoying life, but it does not seem to be a priority of the institution. Perhaps one of the reasons Japan is so successful that it's currently lowering the worth of the yen so that other countries can continue to do business with it, is that they understand the necessity of welcome distraction. Everyone knows that the brain works more effectively when it is given occasional breaks and stimulated in different ways, but how many nations so persuasively arrange and encourage your participation in such activities? Japanese people work hard, play hard, and consequently work even harder. There are so many things to learn here, and I haven't even begun lessons yet.

Speaking of working, I had a meeting with the head of my course on Thursday, so that he can let us know how our term is going to pan out. I will have 5 classes; Theory of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (here-on referred to as TEFL, I can't keep writing that out) Methodology of TEFL, Japanese Language, Phonetics, and Comparative Culture. All these classes will contain just the four of us who have come from Winchester University, as other foreign students here will be studying either Japanese language or Japanese Culture.

After a couple of weeks we will start observing English classes for foreign students, and a couple of weeks after that we will start teaching classes! All in addition to the five original classes. After all this was explained, my initial misgivings owing to the fact that we will not begin lessons until the 15th of April (!) were reduced. Clearly, I have a lot to get ahead with, and my free time once term starts will be minimal. Kyoto in full bloom is calling my name, as well as Osaka, and now I'll have time to do a little travelling before getting down to work.

This week also contained a visit to a very nearby shrine, who's name I'm afraid I never learnt. To reach it, you walk off the main road and climb a grassy, winding path onto a clearer pavement, winding its way uphill through woodland, and passing the occasional Japanese family grave along the way. When the ground levels out, you can choose either to explore the cemetery further, or climb the many steps leading to the shrine.

We chose the cemetery first, which is leafy and laid out with a gentle disorder, each group of headstones inhabiting their own little corner.

I couldn't walk through an English cemetery so calmly, and I think this shows a rare occasion where ignorance really is bliss. I've never even seen a picture of a Japanese grave yard. These slabs of stone fit perfectly into these hilly woods, and I felt only calm as I wandered among a place for the dead, my mind unencumbered by images supplied by film and television of dark forces lurking. It felt natural, a place where relatives believe their loved one's spirits would come, who wouldn't mind tourists educating themselves and paying their respects.

Back through the cemetery, and up the many steps to the shrine. I'll admit it was comforting next going to a place I did know about, and feeling as though I'm not completely at sea in this beautiful, foreign country. The water trough with the bamboo ladles is for purifying hands and mouth before prayer in the shrine, the lions guarding the entrance, the strings of cranes for peace, the folded strips of paper on a string containing hopes and prayers, and incense to sharpen and concentrate the mind. Yes, I thought, I know how to live here, and appreciate the difference a few thousand miles can make to the development of a culture.

The last peaceful day was Friday. My main activity of the day was to go to the (free!!) gym for an induction into how the machines work (and internally confirming that I will not be getting to know any of them except the treadmill). This also happened to be the Graduation of last year's NUFS students, meaning that they were all gathering in front of the uni in their beautiful kimono, and didn't at all mind being photographed.

This weekend was the longest of my life. Perhaps that's not entirely scientifically accurate, but it was the weekend when I was awake for more hours than I ever have been before. Saturday began with leaving I-House to catch a bus to the station, then catching a train and a subway train to central Nagoya, to walk a little distance to the impressive Nagoya Castle. Built in 1612, the castle was the biggest fortress in Japan at the time, to protect Tokyo from enemies advancing from the West of Japan. We had a wonderful volunteer tour guide who gave us a good insight into the history of the Castle; concise enough to ensure you both stayed interested and left wanting to know more.

From the Castle it was onto Osu, a district of Nagoya the students wanted to show us for its modern architecture and numerous shopping opportunities. We ate Udon Noodles for lunch, very welcome after a hard morning's climbing of stairs, and explored shops containing more items that I wished to purchase than I would be able to return to England to 50 suitcases. We also had a go at Purikura - those famous photo booths where you can digitally doodle all over your photos, which everyone wishes they would build in England.

We also made a quick stop at Sakae, where we found a Totoro shop, and Nagoya's newest Ferris Wheel located next to Japan's oldest Ferris Wheel. As you do.

Finally, after what had already been a long day, we returned to I-House. I napped, to prepare myself for what was to come. Karaoke, was what was to come. The best karaoke bars are in Sakae, and the trains stop fairly early, besides which, there is a curfew of 11 pm at I-House. You don't have to be in, but you won't be able to return to the building until 7 am. The result? Overnight stays at karaoke bars and catching the first train home in the morning.

This was for the most part an incredibly enjoyable experience. Paying double of an already reasonable price will gain you unlimited access to a drinks menu of both soft drinks and alcohol, which can help a group of friends who are going to be in an ultra-violet lit room for 7 hours.

Even if I didn't already enjoy letting stress go, singing wildly out of key and enjoying cheesy songs for the genius they secretly are, the fact you are taking part in so thoroughly a Japanese activity cannot be ignored. Karaoke is as much as a part of Japanese culture as a site like Nagoya Castle, and a perfect example of how Japanese people do in fact, let it all go and have a good time.

I astonished myself by not sleeping at all Saturday night, a feat I have never managed before, even in reaction to fast-approaching deadlines. Knowing that I would have absolutely nothing to do on Sunday (apart from blogging!) helped relax me and allow me to have as much fun as I wanted. The only downside to this party was that I'd forgotten how privileged I am to live in a country where smoking is illegal inside. It hadn't occurred to me just how much of a headache could be gained from second-hand smoke in a small room, but hey, for this experience I put up with it, and I'll be infinitely more grateful for a relatively smoke-free England on my return.

We left karaoke at about 5.30 am, and from there it's a blur of tubes, buses and McDonald's breakfasts (another first) at 7 am until I fell into bed at 8 and woke up this afternoon at 3. I find myself in the difficult position of being unable to explain how an experience I found so enjoyable I would be unwilling to repeat for several years, but there it is. Thus concluded the most Japanese weekend of my life so far, and I'll be very interested to see if anything can rival it in the time I have available.

I anticipate another calm week and ridiculous weekend, but for more information of course, you'll have to check back with me next Sunday!


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