Nomadic Life

I’ve just moved house for the 21st time. Yes, since leaving the comfort of my parents’ nest 18 years ago, I have moved 21 times…including five country moves. On my recent endeavour to donate blood, the nurse made the mistake of trying to write the list of countries I’ve travelled to in one small box. He caved after the first ten, when his hand started cramping, and went in search of another piece of paper. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my nomadic life…

As a nomad, I find myself constantly grasping for a word in conversation and claiming it from another language or culture…saying dollar instead of pound, duvet instead of doona and I still feel the urge to say itadakimasu every time I sit down to a meal. I won’t even get started on the arguments I have with hubby about vegetable names…or the great pants vs trousers debate. He practically applauded me the other day for saying flip flops instead of thongs…showing just how rarely I get the context of my vocabulary correct. These days, talking to me is like having a conversation with Google Translate on a slow internet connection.

Establishing yourself in a new place is tiring when you’re a nomad…you need to seek out a new doctor, dentist, gym and hair stylist in every location you decide to set down vague roots. The result? I cut my own hair, the Olympics come around more frequently than my dentist visits and I’m contemplating prerecording my medical history for all future doctor’s appointments.

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As a nomad, I’ve come to realise that not all clothing sizes are created equal. In Australia I am a size 10…in the UK a 10-12 (the Heathrow Injection)…and in Japan, a size 20,000. The only item of attire I managed to purchase successfully in the Land of the Rising Sun were (men’s) Converse shoes. I gave up on clothing after buying a pair of XXL stockings, only to try them on and find the crotch taking up residence somewhere around my knees.

I married a Scotsman…who I met in Japan. If that doesn’t scream nomad, then I don’t know what does. When we tied the knot, I signed up to an ongoing life of long haul flights, missed family Christmases and birthday wishes sent from afar…and a day (week?) early or late. Hubby and I have conversations about which country to raise our (distant) future children in…realising that our decisions will impact their education, their access to extended family and will even dictate their accent.

A skill my travelling life does afford me, is knowing exactly which seat to choose on a long haul flight for maximum space, minimal noise and avoidance of the ‘toilet waft’. And trust me when I say, order a special meal. It’s worth it for no other reason to see your hungry neighbour give you the evil eye while you happily munch away with all the kiddie meal recipients.

When you are a nomad, no one believes you are staying for long. Ever. I start having heart palpitations unless I have some kind of trip planned…the walls start closing in and I feel suffocated. I experience cabin fever, post holiday blues and the travel itch like other people come down with a common cold. Nomads like me are a strange breed that thrive on change and look forward to the unknown. Unless the unknown ends up being a snoring neighbour in a hostel or a missed flight home from Barcelona, that is.

As a 34 year old nomad, I don’t own a house. Or a car (the one time I briefly owned a car, it didn’t end well). Hubby and I just bought our first real piece of furniture…a bookcase to hold the mountain of books I’ve been squirrelling away in Mum and Dad’s spare room over the years (I’m starting the think a Kindle might not be such a bad idea). A while ago, I calculated that if I’d saved all the money I have spent on travel over the years, I would have had enough for a deposit on a house. That’s probably two deposits by now…

Instead of a house, I have travel journals full of concert tickets, flight itineraries and memories of adventures had. I have a collection of used passports and stashes of leftover currency from countries visited. I don’t need a house…pieces of my heart are scattered all over the globe with the people and places I love. My home is with them and I will always adore my nomadic life.

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Picture This…

Yes, I know…long time no post. I’ve been home in Australia for three and a half months now and paperdoll has taken a backseat to the adventures of resettling back into life here. I admit it…and I apologise. What can I say? I love being home and every time I sit down to write paperdoll I get distracted by…well…everything.

Having said that, lately the first signs I may be missing Japan have crept in (natsukashi)…it started with a craving for ramen…then there was an emotional reaction to a letter from one of my past students…and let’s not forget that living with my parents again has me pining for my 42m² Japanese apartment. Every. Single. Day.

Yes, I have begun to miss Japan and all of it’s crazy, quirky ways. But much like A Picture Says a Thousand Kanji, when I am missing Japan and need a fix, I can just picture this

Sleeping in Japan

Japanese student letter

English signage in Japan

Japanese dessert

Stretching

Dashboard

Takeout menu

Japanese antenna

Japanese fashion

Japanese Kit KatsEnglish sign in Japan

Japanese laundry

English in Japan

Japanese Hello Kitty Mask

Japanese shredder

Japanese Aquarium sign

Japanese glitter suits

Japanese Pepsi flavour

Japaese toilet paper

Japanese Clothing Engrish

Japanese fashion

Funny English in Japan

Japanese Architecture Osaka

Japanese Beauty Products

Japanese giant vegetables

Japanese sign

Train etiquette in Japan

Japanese gift explanation

Japanese fashion

Japanese trinkets

Japanese fashion

English textbook Japan

Japanese ice cream

Japanese toilet slippers

English in Japan

Japanese fashion

Japanese signage

Japanese cars

English in Japan

English in Japan

English in Japan

Japanese fashion

Japanese beauty products

Japanese toilets

The Good, The Bad and The Aussie…

In case you didn’t hear me shouting the news from the rooftops, I finally got off that island (Japan). I escaped from the bubble. I jumped ship. I got the truck out of dodge. After three years of life as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), I hitched a flight home to Australia and those people who had begun to forget they’re my family. Some of you might be wondering what will happen to paperdoll now that I’m back? Surely without 400+ junior high school kids and the perils of culture shock to contend with every day, I mustn’t have much to write about now? I beg to differ…

I’ve only been back in Australia a month, but I’m already experiencing reverse culture shock after living abroad for six years (yes, there were another three years in the UK too…my addition skills aren’t that bad). So you see I’m home…but I feel like a foreigner in my own country. Even my family can’t believe I’m back for good and I swear my mother keeps pinching herself every time she sees me (which is a lot…since I’m living with my parents again…but that’ll be a whole other blog entry).

Right now, Japan and the UK are my most recent reference points for home and Australia is this strange land I am getting reacquainted with. As I get resettled, I will continue to write about my aventures in Japan (I still have so much to say about it all) and these new experiences of reverse culture shock…or as I’m now calling it…the good, the bad and the Aussie

The Good…

My family.

It’s the end of April…mid Autumn, with winter coming…and it’s around 25°C every day. Forget hellish Japanese winters!

NO MORE SQUAT TOILETS.

Squat_toilet_Japan_culture_shock

The Bad…

Green tea in Australia sucks. Period.

Red lights actually mean stop, not three-more-people-can-make-it-through-the-intersection-still.

No road cones to feed my weird addiction…

The Aussie…

People wave acknowledgements of kindness from their cars instead of bowing or flashing their hazard lights.

I can say spesh, noice, netty, chook, suss, arvo, sanga, Maccas, cuppa and all other manner of Aussie slang and be understood.

Meat pies.

The Good…

The earth doesn’t shake every day…or…well…ever.

I don’t have to eat rice.

I now work for myself and I love it (WARNING: imminent, shameless self promotion: threefold.com.au)

The Bad…

Australia stinks…literally. After living in Japan I can’t handle strong fragrances anymore.

The speed limit is actually the speed limit.

NO ORIGAMI PAPER.

koala2

The Aussie…

Everyone is up for a chat…the postman, the checkout chick and the pizza guy…

Men. With the ability to grow facial hair. With muscles. With height. With masculinity. Enough said.

Tim Tams, Vegemite, Caramello Koalas…nomnomnom…

The Good…

Anonymity. Sweet anonymity.

One word…organic.

I keep reaching for XL size clothing in stores…only to remember I’m not a giant in this country.

The Bad…

I can feel my Japanese ability leaching out of my brain with every English conversation I have.

Small showers.

No fan club of adoring teenage kids to stroke my ego every day.

The Aussie…

Competitive sport.

Fresh, un(less?)polluted air.

Thongs are things people wear on their feet and there aren’t many Kiwis, Americans or Brits around to refute the point.

The Good…

I can enjoy a restaurant meal without having cigarette smoke billowing in my face.

I don’t have to carry a wad of cash around in my wallet (though the card charges from my first night out in Australia might make this a moot point…).

I sleep on a bed…not the ground.

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The Bad…

No rainbow of KitKat flavours…though this might in fact be a good thing…

My Converse addiction will cost me double than what it did in Japan.

No amusing Engrish.

kinkakuji toilet sign

The Aussie…

Triple J music.

The Hills Hoist in the back yard…which virtually snap dries my clothing immediately.

This…

Fortunately For Me…

The last time I put stock in fortune telling was when I was 15 years old and I read my horoscope religiously over a bowl of cornflakes every morning before school. Given the only other thing I took notice of in the paper was the Garfield comic, it’s safe to say that neither I, or the horoscopes, could be taken too seriously.

This fact, combined with my feelings about love (The ‘L’ Word) should give you a clear picture of how my eyes rolled when I was coerced into getting a ‘love fortune’ during my recent Christmas travels. I was skeptical to say the least (about the fortune and my love prospects), but in the spirit of the moment, with my three lovely travelling companions, I paid my ¥100 and fished out a little slip of paper (omikuji) from the timber box.

After a quick view of the fortune and realising I could only read a quarter of it’s content, I handed it over to Ms. French-Fluent-Japanese-Speaker for the translation…

Each omikuji contains five sections, the first being an indicator of whether you have received a bad, average or good fortune. The scale is long and detailed and looks like this. My fortune was an average one (吉), which (for me) seemed like a pretty good start.

The next section is the ‘song’ of your love fortune…which is where things got a little weird. Loosely translated, my ‘song’ was this:

Ice cream is bittersweet and heart break will invite the recollection of heavy love.

The following section goes into greater detail of what the ‘song’ means (really…it seemed so clear to me…?!). This is where my skepticism wavered a little…

Unrequited love is here. No matter how long you wait and how sweet the ice cream (love) tastes at the time, inside a sad cold rain has been crying and made for a bitter heart. Your heart has been crying for a long time.

Hmm. When Ms. French-Fluent-Japanese-Speaker read this, it was like she was reading it straight from my soul. This is exactly how I feel about love and my experience of it to date. But then the fortune felt bad about pointing this out and tried to lift my spirits…

But the day will surely come when your love expectations are met. Don’t close yourself off and stay open and positive about love. The future is positive.

And the fortune didn’t just give me hope…in the next section it also gave me a very specific check list to look out for in my future partner. Apparently this is what awaits me in my perfect guy…

– Mr. Right should be a Sagittarius…if not, a Taurus or Aries will suffice

– Mr. Right should be within three years of my age, older or younger…it doesn’t matter (so I’m free to be a cougar)

– Mr. Right should be blood type B or O, but definitely not A (A guy won’t mind a blood test on a first date, right?!)

– Mr. Right should have been born in either the year of the sheep or pig

– Mr. Right should be the one to choose the first date, but I should avoid someone who talks about marriage too soon (Keen but not clingy, got it)

Mr. Right will not be rich but he will be honest and a good match (Of course Mr. Right will not be rich…that is just my luck)

So ideally, I’m looking for an honest, B or O blood type guy, born between November 23rd and December 20th in 1979 or 1983, who is willing to ask me out on a (modest) date and not be so clingy as to want to wed me straight away. Well, if I’d known it was that easy I would have been onto this years ago.

And just when I was getting my head around all of that, like Jerry Springer, the fortune had some final thoughts for me…

You have a bad memory. Work on improving it.

Fortunately for me, the fortune wasn’t bad enough to tie up and leave behind at the shrine, but my memory is bad enough that I might just forget about it anyway…

Who Cares if They’re Naughty or Nice?

Three weeks before Christmas, I initiated an ‘English Christmas Challenge’ for my students. The concept was simple…if they wrote me a Christmas story or letter in English, I would write them a reply and give them a small present in return. The only rules were that they had to write a minimum of three sentences and they could only receive two presents…any letters after that were purely for the joy of corresponding with me in English (ha).

Two days and 20 letters into the challenge, the teachers started calling me ‘Santa’ as I wandered the halls giving out presents from my Christmas stocking (it’s all about the theatrics…not the hundred yen gifts). With a total of 434 students, I started to wonder…had I bitten off more than I could chew? Come the end of semester, was I going to end up with carpal tunnel from hours of writing replies? Would I be rocking myself in the fetal position having nightmares about the 2nd year boys trying to pillage my stocking?!

I came to realise that children can be bought (quite cheaply apparently) and by the end of the challenge I had received 164 letters in total. I had been Santa to these kids and received letters from all kinds of students. From the ones who can write English in their sleep to the ones who still can’t spell their own names after three years of study. From the kid who never opens his English textbook in class, to the cute little 1st year girl who writes to me every week. The letters and the students who wrote them were many and varied, but in the end I realised… who cares if they’re naughty or nice? As long as they use English…

There were the cute letters with declarations of adoration and love…

There were the comments/pictures regarding my appearance…

There were letters about music (good and bad)…

There were the students channeling Yoda into their writing…

There were the sweet talkers (who were clearly only in it for one thing)…

Then there were the unexpected presents. Some cute…

And some not so cute (a picture of Arashi and a scrunchie)…

And some just weird…like ear buds these pellets that expanded in water?!

There were the letters to make me laugh…

There were the letters containing Engrish…

Oh and then there were the letters from the Gods…

And lastly, there were the hand made Christmas cards from my special needs students…

The experience was possibly more entertaining for me than the students but nonetheless, it got them reading, writing, listening and speaking English more than they would on a usual day.

While I am secretly glad I don’t have 20+ students writing to me every day, I was happy to receive these cards in the mail over winter break and know that at least some of the kids will continue writing for the joy of an English exchange with me…even now that the presents have dried up and Santa has retired…

Still, Only in Japan…

…are VPL (Visible Panty Lines) acceptable in public…or at all.

…are Lilo & Stitch actually popular.

…are snowmen made of only two parts and not three.

Japanese Snowman

…are people only considered sick if they have a fever.

…are you expected to fully wash yourself before getting into a bath.

…are aprons a fashion statement for housewives.

Still, only in Japan…

…does sock glue need to exist.

Girl's gotta have sock glue...

…do shop assistants yell ‘irashaimase’ (welcome) at you repeatedly throughout the duration of your time in their store.

…do elementary school children raise their hand in the air to cross the road.

…does using your hazard lights give you the ability to break any traffic law without penalty.

The hazards of driving in Japan

…do most houses not have an oven.

…do construction workers warm up before starting work with a stretching routine that resembles the YMCA.

…do people’s car dashboards look like a Disney Store shopfront.

Shoe horn?

Still, only in Japan…

…is playing the pokies/slot machines deemed an enjoyable pastime for people under retirement age.

…is it considered rude not to slurp your noodles/soup/tea/any edible substance.

…is Christmas celebrated with KFC and sponge cake.

KFC Christmas

is dancing illegal.

…is there an irrational fear of bugs.

…is a 2.4km race referred to as a ‘marathon’.

Still, only in Japan…

…can peanuts appear on the school lunch menu at least once a month without a student going into anaphylactic shock or their parents suing the school.

…can a person face jail time if a stranger drinking in the same bar as them gets behind the wheel of his car and breaks the law.

…can you make a sport out of sumo and geisha spotting.

Sumo spotting

Geisha stalking

…can I step out of my front door, walk 100 metres in any direction and find a vending machine.

…can trying to heat your apartment become a game of Russian roulette.

…can you find cleaning products sold in gift sets.

Cleaning gift pack? Oh, yes please!

Still, only in Japan…

…will people send New Years cards, as opposed to Christmas cards.

…will you find people own cars bigger than their apartments.

Giant car

…will the movie title ‘This Means War’ be changed to ‘Black & White’.

…will a cars be given names like ‘moco’…which means ‘booger’ in Spanish.

…will you see teenage boys being more openly affectionate with each other than dating couples.

Still, only in Japan are there so many cultural quirks that I could write this threequel to ‘Only in Japan’ and ‘Again, Only in Japan’

Ode to Yuji

Yuji, the baseball player, with bat and glove,

The fifteen year old boy, who adorned me in love.

Yuji, school life just isn’t the same,

With you in Kyushu playing the game.

Yuji, I wonder, how are you today?

In the south of Japan, so far away.

Yuji, six months, since you left my life,

Are you cheeky as ever, causing all kinds of strife?

Yuji, I’m left, incomplete and in pain,

Without you here, to drive me insane.

Yuji, to me, you played a large part,

The only J-boy, to capture my heart.

Yuji, the others, they try to be you,

Kazuki, Ryuji and the senseis too.

Yuji, the others, they fail to be,

Your replacement, they aren’t, it’s plain to see.

Yuji, these days, no love comes my way,

No smile, no message, no sweet words you say.

Yuji, have you moved on, and left me for dead?

Those advances you made, just words you said?

Yuji, since you seem to have cast me aside,

Is there another, along for the ride?

Yuji, who is it now, you give your love to?

Some teen, a groupie…or worse, tell me true!

Yuji, what English are you learning these days?

On who are you honing your lover boy ways?

Yuji, be honest, tell me, who’s your ALT now?

Have you replaced me with some other foreign cow?!

Yuji, why bother, she’s no me, I’ll bet,

Not rolling her eyes, nor playing hard to get.

Yuji, she won’t be a challenge for you,

You need the chase, you know you do!

Yuji, forget her, this other ALT,

Get on a shink and come back to me!

Yuji, our history, please don’t forget,

Don’t let this end, in a poem of regret.

Yuji, I’m sorry, I treated you so bad.

No, that’s not true, I’m actually glad.

Yuji, you loved it, no need for lies here,

So please just come back, so we can be near.

Yuji, you’re gone, but I want you back,

My days at Omiya-chu, your love they lack.

Yuji, I miss those games we played,

Oh how I wish, you could have stayed.

Yuji, I wait for your return to me,

While you’re off playing baseball, a star to be.

Yuji, when you’re a man (and baseball pro),

Look me up in Australia, I’ll be ready to go…

A Pain in the Proverbial…

It’s no secret that Japan is littered with examples of misappropriated English…or Engrish, as we foreigners like to call it. The bane of an English teacher’s life in Japan, Engrish is everywhere…on clothing, in restaurant menus, on stationery…and most frequently…on toilet signage.

In all of those instances I can grit my teeth, take a photo and present it on facebook or Paperdoll (remember A Picture is Worth a Thousand Kanji?!) for the amusement of people all over the world. But when the mistakes appear repeatedly and right under my nose at school, it becomes a real pain in the proverbial

It seems that the teachers and students forget that they have a native English speaker at their disposal to consult in matters like these, before ‘going to press’. But this is Japan and the stubborn mistakes will persist…and besides, sometimes they get it right…in more ways than one…

Backchat…

Last week was the first week back at school after summer break…and a lengthy six weeks off. After the freedom of such a leisurely lifestyle, the start of school was probably more dreaded by ALTs than students (who pretty much still have to go to school every day  in that time). When school went back, Facebook became the soapbox from which ALTs could moan about the misery of hot classrooms, hours of sports day practice and early starts once again.

I on the other hand (surprisingly), was pretty excited about my first week back at school. I had actually missed the kids (well…not all of them) and was looking forward to catching up with my teachers after my ‘Soba Up‘ experience. With all this anticipation I must have been exuding some good vibes, because in my first week back, I have been rewarded with some interesting and amusing back chat both in and out of school…

First day, first lesson back…

Me: ‘How was your summer vacation?’

Student: ‘It was great!’

Me: ‘What did you do?’

Student: ‘I did sex!’

In the teachers’ room…

Me (in Japanese): ‘Excuse me, T Sensei? (who I haven’t spoken to since my bike had a puncture two months ago) I have a favour to ask you…’

T Sensei: ‘Yes, what is it?’

Me: ‘Well, umm, it seems as though my bike has a puncture again…and well…you look really busy…but I was just wondering…if you could…maybe…?’

T Sensei: Shaking his head and laughing, ‘You want me to fix it again?’

Me: ‘Yes, I’m really sorry! You don’t have to do it now, just whenever you have time is ok.’

K Sensei (who was listening in to the entire exchange decides to offer his two sents worth in English): ‘Carla Sensei, no problem!’ Pointing to T Sensei, ‘Professional!!!’ Laughing.

T Sensei: Gives K Sensei a death stare and immediately goes and fixes the puncture on my bike.

I felt so bad about T Sensei that I left this ‘thank you’ present on his desk the next day…

At the grocery store after school, a little old man sidles up next to me as I’m bagging my groceries…

LOM: ‘Konnichiwa!‘ Smiling broadly at me.

Me: ‘Konnichiwa’ Smiling back.

LOM: ‘Chikaku (Do you live nearby)?’

Me: ‘Hai, chikaku ni sunde imasu (Yes, I live nearby).’

LOM: ‘Aparto (In an apartment)?’

Me: ‘Hai, aparto desu (Yes, in an apartment).’

LOM: ‘Sayonara!’ Walks away smiling.

In class with my third year students…

O Sensei: ‘Ms.Carla, what did you do during summer vacation?’

Me: ‘I went to Morioka and did the Wanko Soba Challenge. I ate 60 bowls of soba.’

36 students simultaneously move their eyes from my face to my stomach.

At the teachers’ drinking party with the second year social science teacher (who may have a slight thing for me)…

SS Sensei: ‘If I could take you on a date, first we’d go for a walk in the park. Then we’d go and eat spaghetti. Then I’d take you to karaoke and sing ‘Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma, c’mooooooon Caaaaaarlaaaa.’

Lunch with Class 3-1…sitting next to Ayumi…

Ayumi: ‘Summer vacation. Australia.’

Me: ‘You went to Australia in summer vacation?’

Ayumi: ‘Yes, yes!’ Screwing up her face, ‘Hamburger, on, red vegetable…NO LIKE!!!’

Me: Giggling, ‘Ahh, you don’t like beetroot?!’

Ayumi: ‘Yes, yes! NO LIKE!!!’

In the third year hallway between classes…

Female Student: Pointing to male student, ‘Up, up!’

Me: ‘What? He got taller over summer?’

Female Student: Looking disgusted, ‘Noooooooo! Dick up!’

On the sports field practicing for sports day with Kazuki…

Kazuki: Grinning upon seeing me, ‘Ms.Carla, Ms.Carla!!!’

Me: ‘Hi, Kazuki!’

Kazuki: Looking very excited and gesturing a lasso above his head, ‘Ms.Carla. Cowboy game, c’mon!’ Dragging me out to the middle of the sports field.

Me: ‘Ok, Kazuki…teach me. What do I do?’

Kazuki: ‘Ball, guruguru’ Repeating his lasso gesture with a rope and ball in hand, ‘Hit!’ Pointing to a road cone sitting on a desk about four metres away.

I complete the task, knocking the cone off the desk on my first attempt. I turn around to be greeted to applause from the entire second grade…they had been watching the whole time.

At the teachers’ drinking party…schmoozing with the big guys…

Sports Sensei: ‘Carla, you’re drinking red wine tonight?’

Me: ‘Well, I was drinking beer, but now I’m drinking red wine. I prefer red wine.’

Vice Principal: ‘Yes, Carla is a strong drinker!’

During English class with 3-4…

Me: ‘Yudai, you have to write your name in English on your worksheet.’

Yudai: Gives me a blank look (Yudai is a jock and a low level student who is notorious for distracting the whole class).

Me: ‘Kengo, can you please show Yudai how to write his name in English?’

Kengo: ‘Sure!’ Writes ‘Youdie’ and grins at me proudly.

It’s now the second week back at school and as the heat continues I hope this back chat does too…

Soba Up

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.

Soba Up

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.

Up sized

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.

Speaking Up

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…