Regular readers of Paperdoll will know that I have become rather cynical about life in Japan of late. After two and a half years here, the culture has slowly worn me down and it has become easy to focus on the bad rather than the good. Despite being a realist and on occasion a cynic, I do try to make the most of my circumstances so this plunge into negativity is rather unwelcome.
It’s lucky for me then, that my favourite teacher at school, Tennis Sensei (from the tennis club mafia), asked me to join her on a two day road trip to the north of Honshu to partake in the famous wanko soba noodle eating challenge last week. Tennis Sensei is around my parents’ age, but has a great sense of humour and spirit for life so we get on famously. A frequent traveller and always up for an adventure, I really feel like she is preview of what I will be like later in life.
Our relationship is so easy and comfortable these days that I didn’t think twice before agreeing to take this trip with Tennis Sensei. Despite having avoided speaking Japanese of any sort since being ‘Tried and Tested‘ just over a month ago, I had no fears about having to speak Japanese for a whole two days with her…in fact I found myself looking forward to it. I don’t like that I have become so negative about life in Japan and I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to Soba Up and be reminded of all the upshots of life in Japan…
Up and Away
On the journey up to Morioka (home of wanko soba), Tennis Sensei surprised me with a stop in Hiraizumi to see the UNESCO World Heritage site, Chuson-ji Temple. Having not done any travel since spring break, it was lovely to be reminded of the history and constructed beauty Japan has on offer. The visit was made all the more special with Tennis Sensei there, happily explaining to me the significance of every building and statue, since my kanji reading ability is no match for the descriptive plaques found on site.
To balance the visit to Chuson-ji temple, we also stopped in at the gardens of Motsu-ji Temple. Sadly, the beauty of the lake was somewhat diminished with earthquake damage still prevalent, even 18 months since the event. A pertinent reminder that the areas north of where I live are still suffering the effects of March 11th, 2011 and that these people still continue to rebuild their lives and their country.
Already starting to feel more compassionate about the country I reside in and the people that kindly allow me to teach their children, our destination provided the food and fun portion of the trip. Tennis Sensei has been telling me about Iwate’s famous wanko soba for the better part of a year, so it was amazing to finally partake in the eating challenge with her.
To sum up the challenge for those that have never heard of it (or engaged in it): You are seated seiza style at a table with various soba condiments and a designated waitress. Said waitress is there to top up your soba bowl every time you empty it…usually spouting encouragements such as ‘mada mada (you aren’t done yet)’ and ‘jun jun (you’re getting there)’. The waitress stacks the empty bowls next to you in columns of 15 to keep count of your progress. When you are fit to burst, you have to stealthily get the lid on your bowl before the ninja waitress can dump yet another soba shot in for you to eat. This should give you a fair idea of what it’s like…
My suspicions that Tennis Sensei is as competitive as me were confirmed when we sat down to eat. Her previous record was 32 bowls…which she cleared easily when she saw I was nowhere near finished at that point. We had been told that women usually average between 30-40 bowls, but Tennis Sensei only politely bowed out at 55…looking rather green at the effort. But she refused to let me stop…taking my lid away and joining forces with the waitress in getting my bowl count up. At 60 bowls I managed to outsmart both of them and got the lid on my bowl…signaling the finish of my effort…and the end of my soba eating days for good.
I consumed 60 bowls in 60 minutes…a far cry from the record of 559 bowls, but not bad…considering 15 bowls equals one normal sized bowl of soba. I even got a little plaque to commemorate the effort…just because I am a foreigner.
After the post soba grumblings of two people who ate far too much and an overnight rest to let all those noodles settle, we started the journey home. Once again, we had a stop on the way home…this time at Genbi-kei Gorge, for some more food. This time it was dango, a famous Japanese sweet made from rice, but delivered with a twist…across the gorge from maker to consumer!
The delivery team (having spotted my blond hair…even across the gorge), kindly displayed an American flag over their balcony, played the American national anthem and sent me a free dango set for coming to visit them. Tennis Sensei and I didn’t have the heart to scream out that I’m actually Australian and so humbly accepted the gift and the accompanying applause and photographs taken from onlookers. These complete strangers had managed to make me feel so welcome and special in the space of five minutes…and given me some memories to last a lifetime.
Tennis Sensei is my favourite teacher at school because she is infinitely patient with my slow Japanese and always takes the time to explain difficult concepts or new words in easy Japanese for me. Not only that, she is always genuinely happy to take time out of her day to come and chat to me. I’m never nervous about speaking to her and these two days were a great opportunity for me to get in some much needed speaking practice.
The conversation on our trip was never stagnant…we talked about everything and anything. Most amusingly, because we are so similar, topics often ventured into territory I would never dream of broaching with most Japanese people. I got all the behind the scenes gossip from the teachers’ room (who hates their job, who’s pregnant, who wants to be pregnant, who is stressed to the max…) and Tennis Sensei and I even exchanged our ‘Top Three Most Attractive Male Teachers’ list.
Surprisingly, Tennis Sensei also told me that most of the teachers desperately want to get to know me better but are all too nervous to speak to me, in either English or Japanese. She told me that our head teacher in particular is very envious of the relationship I have with Tennis Sensei and would love to have more conversations with me. Armed with this knowledge, and my new found excitement for speaking Japanese again, I will be making great efforts to talk with all my teachers when school goes back, and specifically our head teacher.
Onward and Upward
Last week’s trip with Tennis Sensei was so positive and has really helped me get back into a better frame of mind about my remaining months here in Japan. Most days I feel like I am swimming upstream in this culture and I feel like I am up against it more often than not. It’s easy to start ignoring the good and focus on the bad, but just a short break spent with a true friend, seeing all the beauty this country has to offer has helped me soba up.
I had forgotten the warmth and graciousness of Japanese people and this time away has helped restore my faith in why I am here, doing what I do. Japan is full of people who are generous of heart and truly want to make foreigners feel welcome. I feel ashamed that I had started to close off from life here, but thankfully Tennis Sensei helped me wake up to myself and now I can get back to enjoying Japan again…