February 13, 2009

It’s been SO LONG since I wrote anything substantial in here. For those of you in any doubt, that is an indication that I’m really busy here and trying to make the most of things by getting involved in and around my schools more. It should be understood at this point that I’ve decided to stay here another year. This was a pretty easy decision to make once I realised that I had only just begun to scratch the surface of Japanese culture and the complexity of this strange and beautiful place.

After the first two or three months, while I was by no means unhappy over here, I felt that my expectations of Japan had been somewhat too high and that yeah, while it’s often kooky and the food is good and and there amazing-looking human beings lurking just around every corner, I’ve pretty much got the hang of things over here and nothing could really surprise me. Thankfully, with each week that goes by I’m learning and appreciating more about Japan, its people, its history, the essence of the country that makes it so unlike any other place on earth. Small trips to local eateries with coworkers can be as insightful as group trips to other prefectures if you care to look at them in the right way. I realise that this is such a cliched and foreseeable shift in attitude for JETs such as myself at this stage in their tenure in Japan; I never experienced any culture shock other than occasional outburts of anger at things in my apartment like the lack of curtains or the fact that my clothes usually come out of the washing machine caked with soap suds and with dirty areas seemingly untouched, but I couldn’t help but feel a certain degree of apathy towards this whole ‘Japan’ thing in general.

I’m not sure exactly what changed my mind; maybe I’m just becoming more accustomed to the tempo of things over here (how you can feel you might be stampeded to death in Shibuya yet can be waiting for up to an hour for your pizza to arrive) or maybe the fact that I can understand the language a bit more now is helping me to appreciate the fundamentals of Japanese society better. For the first few months after I arrived, something in the back of my mind kept thinking that Japanese language was repetetive; over-simplified in terms of meaning while layering on the formality. I got annoyed that they can’t pronounce the letter V and that their grammar is utterly back-to-front  and that it lacked the song-like quality of some dialects of Mandarin and that there just aren’t enough different ways to express yourself (because the nail that stands up will be hammered down). But now I’m starting to realise the symbiotic relationship between Japanese language and culture; its economy of syllables, the way it bubbles around and the way women manipulate this fact to make every little thing sound impossibly irresistable, the way even the most banal of comments turns into an exercise in servitude when there is even a slight whiff of dignity in the room. People take pride in their language over here. Even my worst students’ English handwriting is better than most kids back home, beacuse they respect and celebrate the inherent beauty in language and every character that it contains.

Please believe this has nothing to do with wanting to watch more anime and play Final Fantasy and everything to do with wanting to feel like I know what’s going on around me. It is in fact entirely possible to fall in love with checkout chicks at the supermarket based on their over-genki mannerisms when handing you your change and the stream of polite thanks that accompany them.

When I was in Cambodia (and to a lesser extent, Vietnam) over Christmas and New Year, there were definitely times when I missed the security of Japan. Knowing that nobody would try to steal my wallet, or rip me off even for a single yen, or haggle me to buy anything, or even talk to me without a written invitation for fear of offending my privacy left me feeling strangely alienated. My ears perked up whenever I heard any Japanese exclamations from my fellow sightseeers (usually not extending far beyond kawaii, kirei and sugoi). I guess coming from Melbourne rather than Sydney – apparently the only place in Australia worth having heard of before, for the most part – never gave me that much exposure to Japanese people before I came here, which may have also contributed to my ignorance for the first little while after I arrived.

I guess the point is that I’ll be staying here for a while longer yet, at least until the Australian economy requires that I think twice about what to do with all these yen I’ve got lying around, and I guess I’m gonna try to make the most of it while I still can. I’ve already begun negotiations into altering my timetable for next year so I don’t spend so much time loitering in the corner of a classroom, staring out the window and daydreaming. It will involve more second- and third-year elective English classes (i.e. kids who actually choose to learn English and are more interested in learning than in the colour of my tie). Gonna make an effort to see more of the sites and get a taste for different cultures around Japan, because you only need to drive an hour in any given direction before you’re in a different place which is famous for some other kind of food, or have a weird dialect, or interesting history, or whatever.

Speaking of which, we just spent a few days up in Sapporo for the annual Snow Festival (yuki matsuri) where the times I wasn’t drinking I was looking for ramen or figuring out how to thaw out my toes. Sapporo is a pretty cool place but I couldn’t tell if the appeal was only cause it’s perpetually covered in a few feet of snow during winter. Being from one of the hottest and driest places on earth of course made me pretty excited to see that much snow in one place. The festival itself consisted of numerous statues of various sizes and quality carved/sculpted entirely from snow and ice. Pretty straight-forward. There was a huge group of us though so we were able to gaijin smash basically the whole city. I’m sure the locals are used to it though cause word is that over two million people visit every year. The best things about Sapporo are the girls in beanies and the miso ramen, but if I had to choose, it would probably be the ramen.

We caught the ferry there and back which, given the limited space available for exploration and the likes, left us with little else to do than to drink ourselves into oblivion, which seemed like a pretty good idea but resulted in some extraordinarily uncomfortable bus trips at either end. At any rate it was fun. I heard that the eldery Japanese guys on the boat were getting annoyed at the horrific noise emanating from the karaoke booths which we dominated. But srsly, just cause we’re gaijin doesn’t mean we sing worse than you guys. On the way home a few of us made a detour to Matsushima which is allegedly one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan. It’s probably in the top three of what I’ve seen so far. It consists of hundreds (we only saw dozens) of strange windswept rock formations of various shapes and sizes sticking out of the water. They are all covered in pine trees and are pretty striking. Hard to get any good photos however as the boat we were on barely slowed down for the entire hour. Matsushima town itself is really beautiful and rivals anything I saw in Kyoto. They have a temple which stands amidst a tall forest and all those cool old Japanese-style building that have given way to drab shopfronts all across Fukushimia.

By the way the reason there are no pictures in my blog posts anymore is cause of the ludicrous new photo uploader at WordPress. To upload, resize, realign and put a border around an image requires opening up the edit box fourseparate times and is just not worth it. By the time I’m done I barely feel like looking at the picture anymore and I’m sure you wouldn’t either. If you are reading this, WordPress, do something about it. Stop arsing about making widgets and themes and all of that other bullshit.

Ths school year is winding down. In fact, all my third-year kids have already left and done their exams. I asked at one of my schools if I could have an opportunity to say goodbye to them and was flatly denied. I thought this was pretty cold, but then I remembered that everything requires six months’ notice and to be signed in triplicate (and duplicates of the triplicates) before anybody even entertains a new idea. Consequently this I why I don’t ask permission for anything I do anymore, but that’s a whole different story. I was pretty bummed cause the third year classes that I had at this particular school were the only ones I actually enjoyed and as such they were the only students at that school that I cared about. Now, chances are I will never see any of them ever again (the graduation ceremony for all public high schools is on the same day across the prefecture). I’m pretty bummed, actually. I might see the Kohnan kids on account of Kohnan is my home base and they will be back here for various things and obviously I am obligated to go to their graduation ceremony rather than the other one. But it all went by with very little fanfare. I started to realise that this must be what every teacher goes through on a regular basis with all their students and the trick is not to get too attached (not to imply that being attached to students is a good thing). The older I get, the more this happens, not just in school but in general. I feel a kind of intertia where I don’t want to go home because I will inevitably discover how many people are gone or changed and I kinda like the people I likd as I liked them when I was there. But it’s sad. A big part of my wanting to do this job involved getting to know my students and now I can’t help feeling like I am way more into them than they are into me. They probably just see me as the dude who never gets his haircut and can’t understand a word of what’s going on, whereas I see them as one of the reasons I relocated myself in the middle of nowhere on the opposite end of the world. Then, of course, are the other JETs who are leaving at the end of this school year, which is a huge bummer cause I’m finding it pretty hard to believe that anybody could actually replace them. We all seem to get along so well (despite those Iwaki jerks not being friendly), it would be a huge shame to break up the group. Zannen. But I suppose there is a circle of life in work just like in everything else and most of the people I’ve become close to are staying as well as me. So that’s a plus. And we’ve got Fuji Rock to look forwards to in July.

Quickly, before I sign off:

The new Propagandhi album is the jam. Probably punk album of the year. iTunes is still the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. The Death Note anime adaptation is one of the most stylish and captivating shows I have ever seen. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the most overbearing and melodramatic tripe I have seen in a long time. The Planet Earth series is something that every human being should be made to watch. Catch-22 is even more poignant and hilarious the second time around. Tetris is dangerous.

Lastly, I can’t write this without mentioning the utter devastation that is happening in my beautiful home. I know people who have been directly affected by the Victorian bushfires, not to mention that all my friends and family live there. I could barely concentrate at school the other day after one of the teachers asked about it and if everything was OK. At least the rest of the world seems to be taking somewhat of an interest. 

This is the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history by far. For more unbelievable photos, please click here.  If there is anything you can do to help, please do it. You might consider donating to the Red Cross Bushfire Appeal. They don’t take any administrative fees from your donation.

So long, friends.