I quickly wipe my sweaty palms on my pants, then crouch behind the drum. Standing, it comes about to my thighs. It’s one of the smaller ones. My hands curl around my bachi – drumsticks – and I take a breath. I can’t see much of the audience from my crouched position, and because of the blinding stage lights. I try to pretend they aren’t there. The heat from those same lights beats down on me. In my long, blue costume I’m sweating already, and we haven’t even begun yet. I force all the thoughts from my head and stare down at my hands, waiting.

The first resounding boom of the big drum echoes over our heads. Our song has begun. The beat gradually gets faster and louder. It makes your blood pump. You feel it in your bones. Then comes the sharp to-ko-to-ko-to-ko of the little shime drums in the front row, followed by the throaty, rolling baritone of the big drums in the back row. I can feel the vibrations through my feet. The beat builds. I keep track of the count with my fingers.

And then comes my part! I stand and all that’s in my head is the song now, the one I’ve worked for months to learn. I’ve practiced it enough times that most of it comes without thought, but a few parts require more concentration. Halfway through the song, my muscles are burning and I’m dripping with sweat. I’m only too happy when the part comes where we get to throw off the blue overcoats.

I pound out the final beat with a feeling of accomplishment and power, glaring at the audience. I feel like I did my part fairly well. Maybe the best I’ve done so far. I feel strong, empowered by the drums and the passion that goes into playing them.

This is the joy wadaiko, Japanese traditional drumming.

wadaikoThe first time I saw taiko I was in my 2nd year of University. It was a Canadian group, the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble, who put on a show at my Uni’s Convocation Hall. Walking into the theatre that night, I had no idea what to expect. It blew me away. I’ll never forget the awe I felt watching them on stage. They were so strong and muscley! I marveled at their physique, especially that of the leader. Near the end of the show, he strolled out on stage wearing nothing but a white loincloth and posed himself dramatically in front of a gigantic drum. When he played, he threw himself at it with all his power, and he looked amazing, 50-something or not. I could feel the beats pounding in my chest. It felt like the power of the Earth was coming out of them. It was primeval, and transcendant.

Although I fell in love with taiko that day, I never imagined that I would eventually be on stage playing myself. Nonetheless, two years later, on a muggy September evening, there I was standing in front of a drum with the bachi in hand while a spunky, curly-haired Japanese woman walked me through the basics. Don-gu-ri, don-gu-ri, don-g-uri. She gestures to her arms. Lift them higher! Up around your ears. To-ko-to-ko-to-ko-to-ko DON DON. Put all your strength into each hit! Widen your stance! Hold your bachi this way. Te-tsu-ku te-tsu-ku te-tsu te-tsu-ku. (I can’t imagine trying to learn these beats in a language other than Japanese).

The next thing I knew, it was my first performance. It was awful. I was horribly nervous and I made so many mistakes, and I was the foreigner sticking out the end of the second row so everyone could see my blunders. In spite of all that, I don’t regret it in the least. Every Monday, from about 7:00-9:30 pm, I join those older ladies (and one man) to practice and sweat together. There are days when I don’t feel like going; days when I get fed up with all the repetition when it’s getting past 9:00pm and I just want to be lazing at home, and days when the sensei gets annoyed with us and I feel we are hopelessly amateur. But the moment I play that song all the way through the first time, the moment I start remembering the rythms in sequence, it all becomes worth it. I can lose myself in it. I can take all my anger and frustration or all my joy and just pound it into the drum.

Playing taiko has become a crucial part of being in Japan for me. It has helped me feel more a part of the community around me, as well as the Japanese culture, and it has helped me make new friends. Not to mention I’ve gained a few meagre muscles of my own that were decidedly not there before I began. It’s not only great for the heart and the mind, but it’s fantastic excercize to boot.

And I swear, if you let your mind wander while you play, you can hear beautiful melodies in the ringing echo of the drumbeats.



enkaiI wasn’t sure what to write about this week, so I decided to take the advice of “writing what you know” and touch on a recent experience once again. Well, by recent it’s really more like the most recent, since the rest of the time it’s periodic and ongoing. I’m talking about nomikai (drinking party).

Also known as enkai (I’m not sure the exact meaning of that one, other than just “party”), anyone who has been anywhere near Japan will have had some experience of this, even if they didn’t realize it. Case in point, I once got some stickers from a friend depicting drunken cartoon men in business suits. Well before I set foot in the country, those middle-aged drunkards were already creeping me out.

They are most often associated with the work-place, but also social clubs and organizations. The Japanese see them as a chance to “bond” outside of work, since friendship and work harmony are important principals. For the most part, though, they seem to serve as an excuse for the Japanese to get hammered and act like fools, forgetting for a while all their usual social constraints. Some men, especially in the cities, seem to go out to mini “nomikai” almost every night. In Tokyo, for example, I often saw small groups of young men dressed for business, passed out in squares, stations, parks, and on benches. I was just recently in Osaka and a man was passed out, still about 90% pissed, in the hallway of the building my business hotel was in. The man helping me with the luggage merely shooed him out of the middle of the hallway, propping him against the side wall, and told him not to bother customers. He lay there snoring and hacking while I waited for my friends, and he was there still when they picked me up.

For me, these parties normally take place at the beginning of term, the end of term, graduation and entrance ceremonies, and sometimes after long, all-day meetings or when some important professor comes to pick apart our classes. However I frequently also get roped into parties held by the Board of Education, and very occasionally there is one for my taiko group. I don’t always want to go, and they can be fairly expensive (especially if you end up dragged along to second or third parties, usually resulting in horrible karaoke at some point), but it’s all just sort of part and parcel to the Japanese working life.

The latest one took place just this past Sunday, at a little Japanese restaurant a five-minute walk from the teacher’s housing. I think it was the most awkward drinking party I’ve yet attended. I find the Junior High ones the highest on the awkward scale to begin with, but in this case people seemed tired or something. They weren’t very talkative, and hardly anyone was drinking. We sat around having jilted conversations over glasses of Oolong tea. You can imagine a setting that is already awkward, and then add my lacking Japanese ability to the mix, increasing the awkward two-fold. That is a lot of awkward. After the party, they invited me back to T-sensei’s place. T-sensei wasn’t there, K-sensei was “apartment-sitting,” which was already kind of strange to me. I didn’t really want to go, but I didn’t want to leave the only other female teacher to go by herself with the two dudes, and seeing as I live literally ten feet away from the place I didn’t really have a valid excuse to back out. I don’t think I had much to worry about with that female teacher. Most of the conversation took place between her and K-sensei, while Kyoto-sensei spaced out and laughed occasionally. From the little bits I could catch of their conversation, it went from subjects like teaching methods, to dating, to what happens to your boobs when you get old. There was also definitely some gossip going on; I caught the whispering, the exaggerated facial expressions, and a few familiar names, but I couldn’t understand enough to really get much out of it. I sat there for nearly two hours, alternating between fiddling with a rubber band, tracing the pattern on the blanket we sat on, and pretending to be interested. When 11:00 finally rolled around and Kyoto-sensei excused himself, I was thrilled to jump up and escape with him.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Lots of times these parties are plenty fun. I personally prefer the BOE parties. They always seem more laid back, and everyone is always drinking as much as possible. My personal favorite was a party in the city. It started out at a fancy Japanese restaurant where I obligingly ate whale. I’ll tell you, the bland taste was hardly worth the guilt. I really don’t know what’s so great about it. Following that was a second party and a third party at karaoke. I bellowed out a couple of badly pronounced Japanese songs and the Titanic theme song, much to the thrill of my inebriated spectators, and at last around 1:00 am we all stumbled out, our party diminished to four, to get ramen and gyoza at a late-night food stand in the street.

Another time we ate small birds, pheasant, and wild bore that one of the men had shot himself. It wasn’t so bad except for having to spit out little round pellets periodically. Oh, and at one point they whipped out a bowl of raw chicken and expected me to eat some. Sorry guys, I’ve eaten raw fish, nearly-raw beef and even horse, but completely raw chicken is just pushing it too far.

Ultimately, I’ll probably never be able to drink again without resisting the urge to clap and raise my glass in an enthusiastic “kampai!”

Hola amigos, I’m pintxo de tortilla, an English Language Assistant placed in the north of Spain. Unlike my fellow bloggers, I haven’t left the comfort zone of Western culture, so my experiences will likely vary enormously from what they see and feel. Now, I’m no spring chicken to the English Language Assistant work. I was in the same region last year, albeit at a different school. I genuinely adore the work and find nothing better than the “Oh my goodness, I get it!”-face you (occasionally) see made by a student. I will be in a small, coastal, fishing town this year working at a local middle/highschool. Where I’ll be living remains undetermined and will depend on a number of factors.

So how does it feel? Last year at this time, I was terrified. I was packing and preparing lesson plans like a fiend. I was enormously scared to think that soon I would be off to a country and continent that I had no experience in, and that I’d be there for a year. This year, I’m far more relaxed. I know exactly what I’ve gotten myself into, and the only thing stressing me out is the thought of renewing my government documentation. Why? Oh my. Bureaucracy in Spain is a trip. “Three copies of this page, two of that, ten of this, three mini-photos of an unspecified nature on a pink background, preferably taken upside down by a eunuch from Tajikistan. Oh, and please pay $1.67 at the bank of your choice and return as soon as possible with twelve signatures, one from the mayor and one from the prime minister.” This MIGHT be a slight exaggeration, but I’ll tell you – only slight. As long as you bring a good book, a positive attitude, and a strong grasp of Castillian Spanish, things get done. (Eventually.) I’ve given myself ten days to renew my identification. Let’s pray that it works out.

So what was my experience like last year? I spent the first half of the year finding my feet. While I had worked in classroom settings before, I had never received any formal feedback and thus was unsure about what to do. I jumped in head first, and was thrown back out of the water with confused looks from the students, and a “you talk far too fast!” from my co-teachers. Ok, try two. Try two went better. A few “bombs” of lesson plans, but the students got accustomed to me and I started to learn how they were learning. By the end of Christmas break, I was finding my feet. Decent lesson plans combined with silly gesticulations and acting out concepts seemed to get through to the students – thank goodness I have no shame! By the end of the year, I had it figured out; no ska songs as cultural/vocabulary lessons because the kids look at you wierd, and there’s only two kids in the class who like anything that’s not pop. “Pick on” the troublemakers and they’ll begin to pay attention and… *gasp*… contribute in class! I could spend all day talking about the things I learned as a teacher, but I’m sure many of you aren’t so keen on the classroom experience.

What about culture? Holy cow. It took a bit to get used to. I went to Spain armed with a largely Mexican/South American Spanish, a Spanish that is neither widely understood nor widely respected in Spain. I was lost the first few weeks, trapped by my own vocabulary and terror. Trying to find an apartment was a nightmare. I hardly understood folks on the street, how on EARTH was I going to understand them on the phone? Thankfully, I was lucky enough to stumble across a roommate (re-)named “O” who was kind enough to deal with my terrible Spanish and show me the apartment anyhow. I ended up living on the outskirts of town, a five-minute walk from the beach, with a Spanish masters student and a British girl in the same program as me. I made friends with a number of the British, Scottish, and Irish program participants, largely because I met them before I met any other Americans. Our English-speaking group of comrades provided a sort of linguistic and cultural comfort zone to fall back on and to party with on the weekends. For the first few months I was in Spain, I didn’t really do much with the Spanish, afraid to depart from my comfort zone. Thankfully, I threw myself face-first into Spanish culture around Christmas time and haven’t looked back since. Was it difficult? Yes. Do I always know what I’m eating? No. Do I mess up verb conjugations and say shocking things on accident? Of course. However, it’s been a great experience so far, and I’m looking forward to next year’s adventure!

When in Rome…

I am angry and I’m disappointed. Recently, a couple of anonymous fellow JET participants, for unknown reasons, decided it would be a good idea to order illegal drugs on the internet and have them shipped to their houses. Shortly thereafter, surprise, surprise, the drugs were apprehended at customs and the JETs were arrested, now subject to Japan’s strict and uncompromising criminal punishment.

Despite the fact that they are more than likely going to face some considerable time in Japan’s infamous jail system, I can’t bring myself to feel much sympathy for them. I am not only utterly bewildered by the sheer stupidity of their actions, but I’m upset by it. These people have not only gotten themselves into severely hot water, but what they’ve done will reflect very poorly on the rest of the JET programme.

Japan generally expects a lot more of people in regard to their role in society, particularly if those people are “public servants,” paid with Japan’s tax money and responsible in some way for the care and well-being of large chunks of the general population. It is made clear from the beginning that, as a JET, we are teachers and therefore classified into that same occupational sphere. We are expected to set examples within our communities and to show that we are taking our roles and our work seriously, respectful of the trust and finances provided to us by the rest of the population. Even something as seemingly insignificant as a speeding ticket can turn into a huge problem if a public servant is involved. Punishment is harsher, and apologies to the public are expected from not only the offender, but from those responsible for them as well.

This is also a country that tends to lump people together, seeing the infraction of one as a reflection on others from their group. I’ve heard and read about places banning indefinitely all foreigners from their establishment because a couple of Russians or what-have-you acted out. If this is the case, I can only imagine what the ultimate ramifications of these JETs’ foolish actions will turn out to be. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t agree with this rather inefficient and evasive “blanket blaming” system, but I am aware of it and therefore take the proper precautions. After all, “when in Rome….” I am also aware that foreigners can’t possibly fulfill every nuanced aspect of Japan’s unspoken “code of conduct”; it is a complex society and a big part of our reason for being here is to showcase alternative lifestyles and perspectives. However, breaking a few unspoken societal “rules” and breaking the law are two very different things.

I will admit that I even have friends who have driven after a few drinks, despite being aware of Japan’s “zero tolerance” policy. I have also known people who have gotten drugs, somewhere, and used them. To be quite frank, it pisses me off. We are all here on a privileged basis. It really is an unprecedented opportunity. It is a wonderful chance to for personal growth, and to influence people in some small, special way. We are welcomed here with open arms by the Japanese and treated extremely well by them. Our jobs, including more than ample vacation time, better than decent wages, and generous living accommodations are indeed made available to us from public funding. How can it possibly be too much to ask that, in the brief few years we are here, we at least abstain from intentionally breaking the law? To do so is, in my opinion, utterly selfish and inexcusable. You’re only going to ruin it for someone else, and you’re trampling all over your host country’s hospitality. JET is alive and well because of the excellent reputation it has gained thanks to hard-working, honest and in some cases even stellar individuals. How dare any of us belittle or even destroy what they have built for us here? Is it worth it for one night of getting high and staring at colours in the ceiling?

I bet those JETs are now thinking that it decidedly is not.

Summer Vacation

I’m back in Japan after a 3-week sojourn in my home country. I was, quite honestly, a little bit nervous about going back after having been gone for a year, considering I’d never been away that long, but I realized almost immediately upon stepping off the plane in Toronto that I really had nothing to worry about. It was like putting on an old, familiar shoe – just as one of my friends had already told me. She also mentioned that the shoe didn’t quite fit as well as you remembered, another point on which she was correct. I think the feeling has more to do with growing up than being in a foreign country, but I also admit that I saw things back home in a new light because of my time in Japan. I’m not going to rule it out completely as a factor in the vague out-of-place feelings I experienced.

A big part of it, of course, is that I’m seeing my home in a more objective light than I ever have. I noticed this in not only my family and friends (having been away from them for a while), but my own culture, language, and the daily life of Canadians. I now have another standard with which to compare them to. They were still amazing and I love them, but until you’ve experienced living in another culture I guess it’s just simply not something you think about.

Coming back, I packed two heavy suitcases full of new clothes and souvenirs, and I still had to leave some stuff behind for the mail. I was greeted instantly by the oppressive heat. It’s almost too easy to forget about it in the cooler, fresher air of Canada, but stepping out the doors of Osaka Itami Airport was like stepping into a sauna.  Everyone was walking about with fans and faces shiny with sweat. Although it was hard to have just said goodbye to Canada and come back to this, the kindness of the people here quickly warmed me up again. I was charmed anew by the clouds of fireworks seen from the train, and the clusters of girls in Yukata, colorful and femenine, with little delicate accessories jingling and swaying with each movement. And when I caught my first glimpses of Shikoku’s lush green mountains and misty valleys, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d returned home. What a strange feeling, to go from home to home, both familiar and foreign in different ways.

It’s not raining now, but this is the first time it’s let up since I arrived yesterday. Last night, the thunder woke me up several times, one deafening crash in particular scared me into sitting straight up in bed. I think the mountains magnify the sound. It stormed away all night long. My JTE informed me that it’s the tail end of typhoons passing nearby.

There hasn’t been much fanfare since I got back. A lot of people are simply not here, I guess on paid leave or summer vacation. Some were excited to see me, others appeared to have barely noticed that I’d even been gone. I can’t help but wonder if some of the teachers notice my boyfriend coming and going and look down on me for it. I don’t care about that so much anymore, because quite frankly he means more to me than they do, but that doesn’t mean I want them thinking poorly of me, either. No one has yet noticed that I cut my hair short while I was home. They did evidently enjoy the Coffee Crisp that I brought back for them, but haven’t yet broken into the Tim Horton’s coffee or Smarties. I have also only seen a handful of students since I arrived, which seems strange. They are around, doing their club activities, but the school seems extra quiet and empty compared to the usual hustle and bustle that goes on during the year.

Already I’m scrabbling for things to do. I’ll be glad when there is a routine and something for me to occupy myself with again.

In this sometimes chaotic and tumultuous world, one thing is certain: the proliferation of English.

Relating to our situation is how the Japanese have adapted to a world dominated by English speakers. Let’s face it, some of the most powerful countries in the world have a  majority of Anglophones. The Japanese in particular do not seem to have lost that affection for “America” (unlike countless other countries) and so they still try to emulate certain aspects.

This is probably the most noticeable in the English borrow words (written in the Katakana syllabary). While most older Japanese will remember or at least be aware that these katakana-ized words are not native to Japan, as each generation progresses this knowledge is not being passed on.

In fact, sometimes my students will try and tell me something, thinking they’re using a Japanese word (which is actually English) and become completely astonished when they realize that I understand them. It also leads to some frustration when the Japanese say that they can’t speak English and subsequently you are told, “donnto minndo” (Which, if you couldn’t sound it out says, “don’t mind”).

Indeed some even joke that a student of the Japanese language could survive by simply learning katakana (and how to discern English words from it). Essentially, the Japanese have taken what was once something else and made it into their own; another pattern often joked about, that the Japanese are world’s best innovaters.

In some ways one could argue that perhaps this adaptation of English into Japanese is similar to what occurred when the Japanese “borrowed” the Chinese writing system. It seems that even though these words are not authentically Japanese, they have been innocuously entered into the culture and have become genuine components of the language. My father used to say that Japanese (regardless of it being the 9th most spoken language in the world) was a dieing language; however, I would have to argue that Japanese is a fighter and comparatively to the Japanese society, it is also open to new experiences. A necessary trait to save itself from the onslaught of more potent contemporary powers.

And just for fun, my favourite katakana words often thought to be Japanese!

-sutoroberii (Strawberry)
-baibai (Bye-bye)
-chikin (Chicken)
-biifu (Beef)

…any more you would like to add, Osushi-san?

For me it does, anyway. That meaning is kyushoku. This is the worrd for school lunches in Japan. Asking around has led me to believe that there are, in fact, schools with regular cafeterias (especially in High Schools), where you exchange money for various dishes, but an awful lot of schools use a different system; the wonderful and mysterious School Lunch.

 These lunches are actually very healthy. Unlike back in Canada, where I ate french fries and gravy (Canadians read: poutine), Nacho chips, and a can of Pepsi every other day for lunch, the lunches here are prepared at a local food centre for all the schools in the area. The centre hires nutritionists to ensure that the students get a balanced diet and enough energy to get them through their long, busy days. Kids in Japan often stay at school doing their club activities until around 6:30 or 7:00. That means the lunches have plenty of calories to keep them going. The kids are, naturally, muscular and skinny as rakes. The teachers on the other hand…well, just think about what drinking 3.5% milk and eating a huge bowl of sticky rice every day could potentially do to your figure. I’m afraid to get on the scales anymore. (It’s also too bad that so much of the flavoring used in Japanese food contains MSG. Watch out if you have any intolerences! My predecessor has suffered some serious health problems because of MSG.)

 In spite of being pre-prepared and delivered in mass amounts, I actually find the meals quite delicious. The food centre surveys the students every year, and an overwhelming majority state that they “like the school lunch” and that “school lunch is more delicious than bento [boxed lunch].” What? I was pretty shocked to hear this from the students. Certainly no one back home would have ever said “I like the cafeteria food at my school.” Typically, the meal consists of about 350mls of whole milk, a big bowl of rice, some kind of salad and a main dish, usually meat and veggies of some sort. There is frequently some kind of “dessert” in the form of fruit, typically mikan [Japanese Mandarin Oranges], pineapple, or apple. On the odd occasion, we get lucky and get MIRUMEEKU, flavor for our milk, or cake/sweets for dessert.

If one is brave enough to join the students and teachers each day, there will occasionally be upleasant surprises. For example, a favorite here in Kochi is jyako salad. Jyako are tiny little fish served boiled and whole. Ever eaten a bowl of salad with eyes? Around here it seems to be more common than tomatoes. I have also had to eat these lovely little wonders dried and crunched up on my rice or mixed in with stir-fry or fried rice. The fish they serve here are often small, and not often gutted – so you’ll get a fried trout, guts and all. Yummy. My personal worst were some very strong tasting small fish, about 3-4 inches long, served coated in stale-tasting fried batter and placed before me in a bowl. The vice principal picked one up and cheerily informed me to “start with the head!” CRUNCH.

I haven’t yet had to eat natto for a school lunch, but I hear it does occasionally happen. Or rather, it’s actually quite infamous. If you can imagine what fermented soy beans would smell and taste like, you’re probably pretty much right with whatever you come up with.

But really, I’m not trying to scare you off. The school lunches are not that bad, usually they’re actually quite good, and it gives you a great opportunity to sit and chat with your students and co-workers. Nothing like complaining about food to start a conversation!