The Halloween Spirit

Judging from the explosion of dollar-store decorations and the confused responses from my students, everyone in Japan wants to Halloween, but no one quite… knows… how.

Pumpkins are involved, that’s for sure. And costumes–Japan is great at costumes, and they run with this element of the holiday. The costumes–in Tokyo, especially–are insane. But as for why America celebrates Halloween (and what exactly we do for it)… that’s mostly up to the imagination.

Recently, I’ve been teaching a string of Halloween lessons. There’s so much you can do in the classroom with this particular holiday, but the low level of my students and the caution of the teachers has led me to keep it pretty simple. (Although for one of my higher-level classes, I had the students write short ghost stories in groups, and it worked really well).

For the most part, though, we start out with a 7-minute slideshow of the basic history of Halloween (lots of pictures are involved to keep students’ interest), then we move on to vocabulary and team games, finishing off each class with candy prizes from my plastic Jack-O-Lantern bucket. The kids have a blast, especially when my co-teachers really get in the holiday spirit with props… for the past two weeks, I’ve been wearing capes and witch hats, declaring correct answers with a flourish of my dollar-store pitchfork, and it really livens up the classroom.

With my English clubs, though, (both the official one and the unofficial one) there is a chance to get a little more hands-on with the holiday.

And for Halloween, “hands-on” means carving pumpkins.

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Of course, American pumpkins are difficult to find here in Japan (and usually, they are quite expensive when you do manage to find one) so we worked with what we had. Which, on Tuesday, consisted of various bell peppers and the decorative pumpkins that I didn’t know you could actually carve.

However, the teacher who monitors my unofficial English club at another school managed to find an unclaimed American pumpkin in the rural mountains of Gunma prefecture, and the students and I spent a good two hours carving their very first Halloween Jack-O-Lantern. We were all surprised to find a few squirming maggots inside, but they were quickly scooped away and my students learned a new English word.

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We held a little design contest for the face, and in the end the styles were merged to create the beauty you see above. The teardrop was explained to me as being “punk.”

One of my favorite parts of that evening was seeing the joy on my students’ faces as they carved the face of the pumpkin by themselves… and later, seeing the pride as they showed their Jack-O-Lantern to all the teachers who were left in school at 6:00 p.m. (as it turns out, quite a few).

The history of Halloween might not be known here in Japan, but the spirit of the holiday and the fun that surrounds it–luckily, those both translate really well.

Karen Wears a Kimono

My sleepy town is known for two things: locally, it’s famous for Cafe la Famille… and a little more broadly, it’s known for a silk-weaving technique called Yuki-Tsumugi.

And actually, silk is kind of a big deal here in Yuki. The particular weaving technique that my town is known for has been passed down through generations for nearly 2,000 years. Its importance has been recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. But most notably, perhaps, are the products of all this silk-weaving, and those are kimono.

A few weeks ago, my town held a small Silk Festival to highlight the intricacies of this honored craft. By far the biggest event of the day was the kimono fashion show, featuring about 50 beautiful kimono as well as student models from three of my five schools! It was great fun to cheer them on. However, I think everything in the festival was more fun for me… simply because I had the privilege of wearing a kimono for the first time!

Along with maybe 15 of my students, I was dressed in a beautiful Yuki-Tsumugi kimono before the festival really began. It took two ladies to dress me because wearing kimono is an art more than a simple act. There’s a lot of strings to be tied and fabrics to be straightened before perfection is achieved.

One noteworthy thing about the actual process of putting on kimono: the silhouette of a person wearing a kimono should be straight. Your shape is not shown… which meant that my chest was an issue. So the solution was to wrap multiple towels underneath my bust, making my body appear, well, less curvy. I thought this was hilarious.

Walking is a bit of a pain–you have to take short, shuffling steps–but I eventually got the hang of it. I was most worried about having to use the bathroom in a kimono, but luckily I never needed to find out how that worked.

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Highlights of the day included:

  • Watching my first tea ceremony performed by the students of my Tuesday school’s tea ceremony club.
  • Eating the fabulous bento lunchbox provided for all teachers and students at the festival.
  • Trying my hand at silk weaving on the jibata (ground loom) and impressing everyone who thought I would fail miserably (I was complimented by one of the professional ladies on my weaving rhythm, and I honestly think it was a genuine compliment).
  • Being photographed for a blog as I used said jibata (I mean, a foreigner wearing a kimono weaving silk on a traditional loom. I was the jackpot for any photographer).
  • Being asked to take selfies with my students (who were also in kimono).
  • Watching the kimono fashion show!

Overall, the Silk Festival in Yuki didn’t draw massive crowds like those found at fireworks festivals or Oktoberfest. Really, it was a lot of local residents and their families, or the parents of the high school students participating. Even so, the festival made me proud to be a new resident of my sleepy little town. I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to take part. It makes me feel a little less of a guest, and a little more at home here.

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Questions, Questions

I get asked A LOT of questions here. Which is great, because it means that the students (and teachers) are genuinely curious! But sometimes, it gets to be a little too much. I feel like I’m constantly being interviewed, and there is some imaginary pressure to always say the “right” answer–an answer that students understand, an answer that other people can relate and respond to. (For instance, I’ve stopped responding completely truthfully to questions about my music preferences. No one in Japan knows Ludovico Einaudi and OneRepublic, so conversations die quickly when I mention them… but all my students know Lady Gaga and Beyonce). In some ways, though, the barrage of questions is my own fault, seeing as my self-introduction lesson worksheet includes an area where students can ask me any question.

So, the most popular queries are as follows:

  1. Do you like sports?
  2. What Japanese food do you like?
  3. What do you like about Japan?
  4. Do you speak Japanese?
  5. Why did you come to Japan?
  6. What music do you like?
  7. What is your favorite movie?
  8. When is your birthday?
  9. Do you know ____ J-pop group/anime/Japanese celebrity?

However, one question takes the cake. It’s the most frequently-asked question, the one that all my female students (and apparently half my male students) are dying to know the answer to:

Aside from the really popular questions, I’ve also been asked a few gems. In no particular order, these are a few of my favorites–some hilarious, and some incredibly thought-provoking–asked by real Japanese high-school students (and I’ve copied their exact question without fixing spelling or grammar):

  1. “Do you like America bison?”
  2. “What is your favorite UNESCO World Heritage Site?” (This one was asked in front of the class, and admittedly, it threw me for a moment.)
  3. “What is a secret of your beautiful?” (I cracked up at this one. Maybe it’s Maybelline?)
  4. “What is a good point and a bad point of America?”
  5. “Who is the most famous person in your country?” (I ended up giving four answers, listing the most famous people in politics, in the music industry, in history, and in Hollywood).
  6. “Why very cute?”
  7. “Why you are here?”
  8. “What is differences between high school students in Japan and high school students in America?”
  9. “Which is more difficult for you Tennis or Soccer?” (This sounded like a challenge.)
  10. “Do you like baseball player? I play baseball.” (This sounded like a hint.)
  11. “Your brother have girlfriend?” (And this one just made me burst out laughing.) 

Chestnuts and Fireworks

Last weekend was the annual Tsuchuria Fireworks Festival — one of the top three fireworks competitions in Japan, held right here in Ibaraki! It’s an opportunity for fireworks companies to show off their best and their brightest, so the hype and the proximity to Tokyo draws about 70,000 people to sit in rice paddies and watch fireworks for two and a half hours.

Which is exactly what I did last Saturday. I sat on the edge of a rice paddy with a number of other Ibaraki JETs and we watched fireworks for two and a half hours.

All in all, it was a fantastic evening. I was highly amused by the people who brought beach chairs and actually sat in the middle of the flooded rice paddies. The fireworks were lovely, but not overwhelming — there would be a minute-long pauses of dark, empty skies as companies took turns shooting off their fireworks . And of course, there was delicious festival food to be enjoyed as well (like baked potatoes topped with butter, corn, and kimchi. It sounds weird, I know, but it was actually a great dinner).

The nightmare began, though, when I realized at 8:28p.m. that the last series of trains I could take to get home left Tsuchuria at 9:17. Thirty seconds later, the firework competition ended, and 70,000 people all packed up their beach chairs and started booking it back to the train station (a half-hour’s walk away).

Understandably panicked, I ran, dodging hundreds of tired festival-goers on the streets, trying desperately to make my 9:17 train.

And I would have made it. Really, I would have. Because I arrived at the station at 9:08…

Only to find about 5,000 people also waiting at the train station. Nobody was moving. Mobs of people were crowded around the four staircases that lead up to Tsuchuria Station, and police officers were blocking all of the entrances. Every so often, one staircase would receive the green light and for a few minutes, the mob around it would be sucked into the station, but then there would be a lot of police whistles and the standstill would recommence.

It took me a solid 80 minutes of waiting in the crowds (in spitting distance of the station!!) to be finally allowed up one of the staircases and onto the platform. In that time, I witnessed two fights (Japanese 20-something punks who were throwing punches) and was actually concerned about being trampled when the police opened the staircase I was waiting for (the mob’s excitement at the chance to enter the station led to some pushing and shoving). It was the most un-Japanese experience I’ve had here, though I guess it was still pretty calm compared to what it might’ve been in America. And of course, it was all for nothing because I missed all possible ways of getting home for the night. Luckily, I caught a north-bound train and crashed with S, who kindly offered me a futon and a toothbrush at her place.

In the end, it was pretty lucky that I stayed with S. It turned out that her little town (Iwama) was having a Chestnut Festival on Sunday, so the two of us met up with 3 other Ibaraki JETs and attended, if only to see what a Chestnut Festival would be like.

Chestnut everything. That was the festival.

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The five of us ate chestnut cakes, chestnut ice cream, chestnut rice, chestnut and chocolate shaved ice…. We enjoyed skewers of  hot-off-the-grill pork (which was featured because the pigs were fed chestnuts with the idea that their meat would be sweeter — I got a real kick out of this. Not sure if it was true, but the pork skewers really were delicious).

We walked around, listening to the live band and eating all things chestnut. We watched children decorating chestnuts. We watched people try their hand GOLFING with chestnuts (which turned out to be highly amusing, since chestnuts are not perfectly round and therefore do not roll in the direction you intend them to go).

Basically, it was the best Sunday ever.

So lessons learned for next time: leave the Tsuchuria Fireworks Festival at least 20 minutes before the end so you can beat the mobs and actually make it home. But… if you don’t learn from your mistakes…. crash on someone’s couch and enjoy the Chestnut Festival. Because who doesn’t love a day of chestnut fun?

Silver Week in Nikko Day 3: A Shortcut to Mushrooms

For the third day in Nikko, I was all alone. J and S took an early train to Nagano Prefecture, while I spent the day hiking in Oku-Nikko before heading back home to Ibaraki. I mean, we had already spent the 3,000 yen for a 2-day bus pass in the Oku-Nikko area, so why not get the most for my money and use the pass again before leaving?

My trail began at Ryuzu Falls and led me through the stunning Senjogahara Marsh, ending at Yumoto Onsen. Altogether, it’s about an 8km (or 5 mile) walk. Thanks to the detailed descriptions of the route found on this blog, I didn’t get lost once!

The first part of the hike winds along the river that turns into Ryuzu Falls, through a very peaceful forest speckled in light. At one point, though, there was a very Jurassic Park-like fence dotted with warnings about bears and monkeys. The trail was still pretty quiet at this point, and I was all by myself. By all rights, I should have been nervous… but the only thought that popped into my head was a radio story that my mom couldn’t stop laughing at, about a hiker being mauled by a bear because instead of running away from the creature, he had crept closer and started taking selfies with it.

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After about 20 minutes in the forest, I crossed into the boardwalks of Senjogahara Marsh. This part of the trail was very popular — and it was easy to see why. For quite a few kilometers, I just walked and took pictures, listening to the chorus of jingling bells that EVERYONE seemed to carry to ward off bears.

I spent about three hours on the boardwalks of Senjogahara Marsh. In all of that time, I encountered just two other non-Japanese hikers. As I passed people, I would always smile and offer a friendly “Konnichiwa!” My foreign presence was a real shock for some, but others (especially elder Japanese hikers) lit up in response to my greeting. I even had one elderly couple ask to take photos with me… so somewhere out there, there’s a vacation album that includes a shot of me posing with said couple in front of one of the scenic overlooks.

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By far, though, my favorite part of the walk occurred at the end. All that remained of the trail was a half-hour stroll around the small lake that leads to Yudaki Falls. On the other side of the lake lay Yumoto Onsen, where I would catch a bus back to Nikko Station.

The lake itself was stunning. The colors of the water were absolutely unreal. But while circling the lake, I discovered something even better: mushrooms. And more specifically, the elderly Japanese couple who were hunting them.

As I passed this couple, I threw out my customary Konnichiwa. But the conversation didn’t end there. The woman mistook my ability to say “hello” as a sign that I was fluent in Japanese, and she began excitedly asking me questions. Of course, my less-than-elementary ability was soon realized, but the couple didn’t give up. I, too, gave 110% of my effort to communicate.

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The three of us circled the lake together, and during that time I informed them that I was “eigo sesnei” (English teacher) in Ibaraki-ken. I pointed to them and asked “doko?” (where?) and found out that they were from Chiba, which is the prefecture on the other side of Ibaraki. They asked where I was originally from and were pleased when I managed the full phrase “Amerika kara ki mashita” (I’m from America). I pointed to their bag of mushrooms and asked, “Shiitake?” to which they shook their heads and spurted out the names of mushrooms that I have never heard of. They asked for my name, so I pointed to myself and said “Watashi wa Karen desu” (my name is Karen) and they responded with their names so fast that I didn’t even process them. Basically, our conversation consisted of wild gestures and pointing and random words and misunderstandings and laughter.

When the three of us reached Yumoto Onsen, they asked if I were staying in one of the village’s hotels. I shook my head and said “Busu. Tobu-Nikko.” Then I looked at my phone and somehow conveyed that the bus was leaving in 10 minutes.

The couple freaked out. We were still on the edge of town–far from the bus stop–so they started running and urging me to run as well. Panicked at this new development, I made more wild gestures and started running along side of them, yelling “Daijoubu! Daijoubu desu!” (It’s alright! It’s alright!). We made quite a scene in the quiet little onsen town.

I made it to the bus with two minutes to spare, and the couple stood a little distance away, waving me off as the bus departed. It was the sweetest thing. As I waved back from the window, I only regretted not knowing their names. All too soon, the couple from Chiba disappeared from view, and I was headed home to Ibaraki.

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When this fisherman saw me, I swear his only thought was, “Damn tourists.”

Also, a quick shout-out to the people who know where the title of this post comes from!