Location: Toi, Japan
The Shrine Carrying Festival
I realised recently that The Shrine Carrying Festival that I mentioned at the end of my last post deserves a write-up, as it was probably one of the most interesting days I've had so far in Japan (all be it quite a long time ago now).
The morning began in a familiar abruptness that I have grown to cherish, otherwise known as 'sleeping in'. Shower or breakfast? Shower or breakfast? If I spend too long thinking about this I won't have time for either. Shower it is.
So on an empty stomach but feeling significantly refreshed I headed to my friend Ikuma's house to get ready for the big day. Ikuma's grandmother was waiting with a kimono that I soon realised represented my 'shrine carrying' team. Ikuma's grandmother does not speak any English, but I think even if she did, she would have spared with the small talk as she dressed me with the ruthlessness of someone who doesn't appreciate having to dress a 23 year old foreigner. I was glad I went with the shower.
I was feeling quietly confident as we approached the starting point. I had been disconcerted at first, when upon telling anyone I was involved in 'the shrine carrying festival', being treated like someone going to war. But I remembered that when I tell people I sometimes walk to school (living only ten minutes away) and they respond 'Oh my God!! You walk! Wow, that's far!' It followed that maybe they were building up this shrine carrying malarky more than neccessary.
The shrine was tiny! It looked like a miny version for children, and as I soon discovered, that's exactly what it was. Our shrine was much bigger and actually quite impressive. I tried lifting it on my own and instantly gave up with one of those embarrassingly false casual moments that people pull out when they just miss a bus. I was comforted when I realised that there were about 30 people in our team and only space for about 15 or so to actually lift the shrine. Some of my students were also in our team playing musical instruments and carrying the smaller shrine.
The objective seemed so simple. We were to carry the shrine to various places in the town, bringing good luck to everywhere as we went. So when kick-off came around I was eager to get involved and volunteered to take one of the corners for the first leg. As we lifted the shrine I regretted my enthusiasm (and not having breakfast). We left to the sound of taiko drums, Japanese flutes, and general cheering, and I really did feel like I was going off to fight for some cause I didn't quite understand.
I have never wanted to speak Japanese more than when I heard Ikuma (who turned out to be the William Wallace of the operation) start screaming something at the top of his lungs. I looked around and could gather that everyone was preparing for something. In the same nightmarish moment, the shrine came crashing down on my shoulder, I realised it wasn't an accident, and I realised it was about to happen again. I scolded my brain for not adapting to the situation as the shrine came crashing down on my shoulder for the second time. Above me was only pain and people shouting in Japanese, so I looked down for some answers- everyone was now moving in a strange motion that involved sort of jogging in a squating motion, but in time with the shrine being raised up and down. 'Ok'. I thought to myself 'so we're running because there must be some sort of time factor (there was no time factor). But why the flair with the shrine going up and down?' I managed to mouth the simple word 'why?' to Hideaki but he seemed to think I was joking and laughed it off. The ridiculous things we were doing with the shrine only became more and more ridiculous, and you'll have to ask me to describe the worst one the next time you see me in person, as it can't be done without diagrams.
The saga was broken up by stops at various hotels in Toi where we would be fed and forced to drink beer. I used these pit-stops to try and work out what was happening and when we would finish. I also got to know my fellow Shire Carriers, and bearing in mind this all happened back in May, it was an invaluable 'foot-in-the-door'. I'm sure suffering in numbers is supposed to help with bonding or something. I've experienced this as a Villa fan for years, but times they are a-changing!
Anyway, it turns out that there are loads of other teams carrying their own shrines around the town, and the more you display your courage and strength with your shrine, the more luck the god will bestow on your shrine. I didn't care about how much luck our shrine was receiving towards the end of the ordeal as I kept finding myself in the thick of the action.
The system was simple and in fact very Japanese. There are 30 people and only half that number need to be carrying the shrine. So you rotate and when you're not carrying the shrine you scream and pretend your contributing. But the problem with this arises when no one wants to rotate. For instance-
I had found myself (I believe I was maneuvered into) one of the toughest positions for the above mentioned indescribable stunt. I just about pulled it off, but i couldn't hide a look of near death from my face. As soon as we finished people were saying to me 'are you not tired?' and 'please let me take over'. While at the same time backing slowly away. So I was left to take it on again and this time my legs gave way. I almost destroyed a shrine by this point bursting with good luck. Don't ask me why, but one of our team members ('who' is still a mystery to me) was dressed as a monster and running around with a branch, and generally being a nuisance. He didn't have to carry the shrine at all or even pretend to. The joker took this moment, as I had to roll away in shame from the shrine and force someone to take over, to come up to me and wave his branch around in my face. Though he may have not spoke English, I think he understood my response.
Satan's idea of relaxing was swiftly followed by excessive drinking and exchange of compliments. My naivity in being stuck in the worst shrine carrying positions was confused with bravery, and I was hailed as a hero. Feeling used, shattered and generally abused, I took the moment to request that next time I got to be the guy running around with the branch. They laughed and said 'no'.
Greetings and salutations!
I think in all honesty I may have exagerated the length of my last e-mail but I intend to make up for that by making this one twice as long. Beware of Deep-Vein-Thrombrosis! The last few months have gone so quickly I wonder if I haven't developed some kind of control over time. I haven't, but I wonder.
My Japanese friend Hide (pronounced Hiday) persuaded me to play baseball under the pretence that it was a relaxed 'throw-around' and would just be a bit of a laugh. Three hour later I was standing in the middle of a floodlit baseball ground, dressed head-to-toe in ridiculous baseball attire, fielding attrociously for a Toi-based team called The Dax. Such is the Japanese way, they have convinced me I am a natural. Even though I rarely hit the ball they tell me I have 'good sense'. I've even started to get into it. The first time I managed to connect with the ball was entertaining- after hitting the ball I started running with the bat in my hand (you're supposed to leave it at the base), before discarding it in a slightly over-zealous manner towards my team's dugout. I felt like I might not get to the 1st base in time so I decided to try one of these slides I'd seen them doing. However I should have learnt from my inability to slide-tackle in football that I wouldn't be able to pull this off. I slid in at what felt like the perfect angle, and launched myself into a ridiculous roll that although did make contact with the 1st base just in time, also left me in a crumpled mess. I guess this is comparable to when David Dunn tried that trick and fell on his arse. Brilliant entertainment.
Aside from injury and humiliation, baseball has also given me an opportunity to get to know loads of Japanese people roughly my age in Toi which has been great. Knowing a decent group of Japanese friends here has completely elevated the experience, and in a bizarre way I will always be grateful to baseball for that. I try and imagine the situation in reverse, and it would be easy to get frustrated with someone that spoke so little of your language. However, with the help of my dictionary and considerably more help from the dictionary on my Japanese mobile phone (it translates into kanji so they can read it), they seem to be embracing the challenge just as much as I have been. One guy is a prolific pool player and has been trying to teach me so Andy, I'm afraid your life-long domination on the pool table is soon to become a thing of the past. I've even learnt to use maths when lining up doubles! Yes maths! Now I understand what people mean when they say maths is useful.
One of my teachers and his wife took me to watch the 'local' football team play in the J-League (Shimizu S-Pulse) and it was awesome. An immaculate stadium and surface, largely intergrated fans and perfect weather made for a great day topped off with a meal at a Korean resturant, where you cook your own meat on a hot-plate in the middle of the table and order everything on a touch-screen menu. A beautiful glimpse of the future I thought. The style of football seems to be pretty entertaining and attacking, and at a surprisingly impressive level. However the lack of organisation defending set-pieces and the staggeringly amateur lapses of concentration left S-Pulse leaking goals and they lost 3-1. Great game though. I've been watching all their matches on Japanese TV since and am hoping to go again in August. Speaking of football, through baseball I met a guy who knew a football team I could play for so I played in a mini tournement the other day. It was 15 minutes each half which seemed short but I soon realised that 5 minutes playing in 27ish degrees is quite enough (I really struggled actually). The manager (who's job is apparently to sit in the shade and drink beer all day) filmed our performances and there's a great shot of me stumbling into shot looking like a demented ghost. We lost in the semi-finals anyway, but I'm playing 5-a-side with a couple of the lads next week so I'm looking foward to that.
Schools going well. I'll be ready for the summer holiday though as it's pretty draining stuff. Highlights include playing a form of dodgeball at Elementary School, where the basic idea is to protect one guy on your team (the king) at all costs. Seeing a ball being launched towards our 'king' (and wanting to get into the spirit of things), I launched myself into the path of the soaring dodgeball hoping to sacrafice myself for our 10 year old king. I did deflect the dodgeball away, but I also left our king in a crumpled heap having completely taken him out with my leading elbow. Rather than protecting our young king, I sent him to the infirmary. School is being spiced up by the various creatures that seem to be organising a well co-ordinated assault on the school at the moment. I have always been secretly pretty petrified of wasps back home, so I was thrilled to learn that they are about five times the size here and look like something out of a Salvadore Dali painting. On an unrelated matter, interestingly and some what worryingly, my 'Junior High School' is currently undergoing construction because it is not strong enough for the impending earthquake apparently /:
There's some kind of festival in Toi next week, and I have volunteered to help carry a shrine as part of the proceedings. I didn't know 'carrying the shrine' meant carrying the shrine while running 4km though, but it should be fun regardless. That's about it anyway so basically everything's going really well!
Hope you're all ok and keep in touch
Location: Toi, Izu City, Shizuoka, Japan
I have been here for over a month now and I'm having a great time. This is going to be a long one, so you may want to go and get a drink or some kind of snack to have after your first hour of reading. Or break it up into more managable chunks. 2000 words a day possibly.
Getting the internet has been a struggle but I got there in the end, and I can almost say it has been refreshing to be shut off from the rest of the world for a while. Although, having to hear about the Champions League via ten year old Japanese kids is just not on. Their English was just good enough to say- 'Manchester United 7 1 Chelsea and Liverpool' But I was grateful for the update regardless. School has been a constant source of entertainment.
I am working at two Primary Schools and one Junior High School, and my job varies largely at each one. At the Junior High School my job is basically to talk to the kids as much as possible. In the lessons I am basicallly a tool for the actual English teachers (who speak amazing English and have been really helpful). I'm getting to know the kids though and having humiliated myself trying to learn baseball, they are now trying to teach me 'soft tennis'. Soft Tennis is the same as normal tennis except you use a soft ball, and you can only hit the ball with one side of the racket.
The Primary Schools are a little different. I am considering getting on E-Bay and trying to find a full length chainmail suit, a shield and possible a sword. I 'walk' from class to class with two kids dragging behind me (one on each leg), some of the more placid children holding my shirt, the inquisitive ones rooting through my bag and trousers pockets, and worse than all this is the constant threat of... The Koncho.
We were actually warned about 'The Koncho' in training but I was sure it had to be some kind of American/Canadian humour, and was disturbed to discover that 'The Koncho' is as real as Robbie Savage is annoying. 'The Koncho' is not something I ever thought I would have to describe but it basically involves the kids interlocking their fingers, sticking the index and middle fingers out (in an appropriately gun-shape fashion) and then ramming them up your arse. I was recently boasting to my friends from training that the kids hadn't 'konchoed' me yet. I put this down to my subtle evasive tactics (keeping my back to the wall) but they were biding their time and they have since 'konchoed' me from here back to Ilkley. It's more sickening than painful for those of you that were wondering.
However, the actual teaching is much more challenging and needless to say more tiring. The Japanese teachers take a backseat (I'm beginning to understand why) and I get free reign of the classroom. I hid behind my guitar for the first couple of weeks, but successfully taught them the chorus to Let It Be- 'Let it be, let it be, la la la la la la, let it be' and they all know Oasis are from Manchester. I'm getting into the swing of things now though, having ripped-off Strike It Lucky and converted it into an English game. I've got a strange looking hand-puppet I use with the younger kids which I named Kekko (see photos). This christening was based on looking through a dictionary and finding a pleasant word. 'Kekko' means 'excellent', although apparently the way I have been pronouncing it means 'cancelled flight' which must have been confusing. Also, when introducing myself, I was amazed how many children shouted out 'Beethoven' when I held up a picture of Queen Elizabeth. I can see where they're coming from though.
One of my favourite features common with all the schools I've been at is their brilliant use of music. Any chance they get they will blast out music round the school. At my Junior High School lunch is usually accompanied by some relaxing classical music. Apart from one day, when Bon Jovi came blaring out! The strangest thing was looking around the staffroom, I seemed to be the only person who noticed this dramatic change!
Life in Toi has been great. I am a five minute bike ride from a beautiful beach, and the view out of my flat is of massive rolling hills so I really can't complain on that front. Toi is lucky to have a ferry port so while it is somewhat isolated here, I have been able to get the ferry to see my friends from training and vice-versa. Toi has three or four 'bars' and I was stunned to stumble upon The Beatle which is a bar dedicated to The Beatles, surprisingly. The Japanese don't do things in halfs though and it's a pretty impressive place. She religiously plays nothing but The Beatles (I've even tried sneaking in to try and catch her listening to Simply Red or some other such vice). I've been getting to know the owner of another bar called 'Bar Smooth' (it sounds like the only thing I've been doing is drinking!) Anyway he's a nice guy and he speaks a little English so it's been fun chatting to him.
My opinion of the Japanese hasn't changed all that much although somewhat predictably, I have been realising how similar alot of things are to back home. For example, I was amazed to realise that a bus driver was waiting for me to sit down before setting off again. Only to learn on the return journey that this is not a rule set in stone, as the driver slammed on the accelerator and sent me stumbling down the aisle.
Anyway all in all it's been an amazing experience so far, and there is far too much to write about. I have the internet now (clearly) so don't hesitate to send an e-mail in my direction to let me know how you're all getting on.
ps- i could talk about the food all day, it is simply awesome.