September 28, 2012

Some exciting news... Kizuna Project

I miss Japan so much. The other day it was cold, and I was wearing a jacket I haven't worn in months. I put my hands in the pockets, and what should I find? A map of the Tokyo subway. I remember exactly how it got there, too. First week in Japan, first time using the subway. We were stuck in some random station, trying to make sense of the Japanese map. A kind man came up to us and, with a wink, gave us this English-language version. It was our bible for the rest of the week, but would soon be replaced by maps of the Osaka subway. The Tokyo one has apparently lived in my pocket ever since.
Map of the Tokyo Subway... I'm keeping this forever.
I apologise for the lack of updates recently, I have been frantically working on my final papers so I can obtain my degree in Japanese at the end of the year. I'm also attempting to sort out my post-university life. I haven't really talked about what I do - except for visiting Sailor Moon cafes and eating far too much - but I want to be a journalist, and I'm currently in the process of applying for journalism school. I have an interview coming up next week, so cross your fingers for me, おねがいします。

Over the next few months I will have a lot more to write about, because... I'm going back to Japan! I've been selected along with 9 other students from my university (and about 100 other students from New Zealand and Australia), to travel to Japan to learn about the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the reconstruction efforts. From December 9-18, our group will spend time in the disaster areas in the Tohoku region, visiting local schools, taking part in volunteer activities, and staying with local families.

The programme is called the Kizuna (Bond) Project, and has been implemented by the Japan International Cooperation Centre. Over the next few years they expect more than 10,000 students from 41 countries to be involved in this programme - so if you're a high school or university student, check it out. Its goal is to promote global understanding about Japan's recovery efforts. Participants are to act as messengers to inform people about the state of post-quake Japan - which, as we know, has had a bit of a rough time in the global press.

It looks like I'm about to embark on a whole new adventure as The Only Blonde in Tohoku... stay posted!

September 20, 2012

Hanami - Flower Viewing

One of the strangest (and luckiest) things about being back in New Zealand is that when I arrived in Japan at the start of the year it was spring there, and now that I'm home it's spring again here! After what was apparently a warm winter, the cherry blossoms around Dunedin are in early bloom, bringing back memories of those first few weeks in Japan, drinking chu-hi at Osaka Castle and going on trips to Kyoto, making new friends and enjoying the hanami season. Last week, thanks to the Japanese Department, we had our very own hanami party at Otago University.
Clocktower and Cherry Blossoms
Otago University
We had rain, hail and snow earlier in the week, but luckily it was a beautiful day, and the sakura had survived the harsh weather. There were probably over a hundred people who gathered under the university's cherry blossom trees. We listened to the Koto and Taiko groups perform traditional Japanese music live, and enjoyed sushi... as well as chips, coke and muffins (proper Japanese food is slightly hard to find here). The party attracted quite a lot of attention from students walking to class, who seemed slightly bemused by all the people wearing yukata, dancing around, and worshipping the cherry blossoms. I was excited because I finally got an opportunity to wear a yukata my friends in Hiroshima had given me five years ago, which I forgot to take with me to Japan this time.
Yukata ladies... that's me on the left (ignore my shoes)!
It might not quite have had the glory or drunkenness of a hanami party in Japan, but the sakura were there, and that was all that mattered. It was awesome to be able to experience a little slice of Japanese culture right here in Dunedin.

September 10, 2012

Under the Osakan Sun by Hamish Beaton

Under the Osakan Sun: A Funny, Intimate, Wonderful Account of Three Years in Japan
Some books change your life. And some books confirm that your life is exactly what you want it to be. This is how I feel about Under the Osakan Sun (Awa Press, 2008) by Hamish Beaton, a New Zealander who spent three years teaching in a school on the outskirts of Osaka as part of the JET programme. I received this book as a prize for a Japanese speech competition when I was 17, and my copy is now thoroughly worn out. I've reached for this book when I've been frustrated with my Japanese study and wonder why I even bother. I've reached for it on the frantic nights before my trips to Japan, when I've been freaking out about leaving. And now that I'm back, I've reached for this book to ease my homesickness for Japan. Under the Osakan Sun never fails to remind me why I love Japan, and I think it would resonate with every foreigner who has ever lived there.

Hamish is a skilful storyteller, and paints a delightful portrait of his life in Kanan Town, and the people who become a part of it. He captures the spirit of the Japanese people - their overwhelming kindness and generosity, as well as some of their eccentricities. Particularly memorable are his lively colleagues at the Board of Education, who quickly enlist him as a popular drinking buddy, and the lovely group of middle aged women who regularly invite him to teach them English and, in return, they help him with his Japanese (with the result that his Japanese takes on a rather feminine vernacular). At the other end of the spectrum is the student's father who asks Hamish what sort of pornography he likes to watch, and the psycho girlfriend who forces him to wear clothes that match hers so they can be 'kawaii' together. Hamish has a great sense of humour, and most importantly, an ability to always make the best of things - which is so necessary when living in a foreign culture.

The fact that this book is set in the Osaka area made it all the more exciting when I went back and read it a couple of weeks ago. I recognised so many of the places that were referred to, and even went to some of the same events that Hamish talks about - Tenjin matsuri, and the PL fireworks event. I never quite made it to Kanan Town, where he lived, but I think I came close, on the night when we went to watch the PL fireworks out in the countryside. Another experience that was uncomfortably close to home was Hamish's introduction to that evil beverage, Chu-hi... but you'll have to read the book to see where that particular anecdote goes.

Hamish, good on ya mate. Under the Osakan Sun is a funny, gutsy piece of travel writing, and I haven't yet managed to find any book on Japan that has inspired me more. I always recommend it to people wanting to do JET, but anyone interested in Japan would love it. In fact, if there's anyone close by (Dunedin) who happens to be reading this and wants to borrow my copy, let me know!

What are some other good travel novels on Japan?

September 01, 2012

Final Night in Japan: Public Bathhouse (Sento)

It's almost 11pm on a Friday night here, and it's exactly one month since I left Japan. To mark this important date, and also sort of because I have nothing better to do this evening, I'm going to treat you all to a detailed account of what I did on my final night in Japan. I had a bath.

Now of course, in Japan, a bath is not just a bath. Bathing is a highly ritualized process in Japanese culture, and for this reason public bathhouses (sento) and hot springs (onsen) are as common as supermarkets. Like, it's completely normal for someone to say, 'I'm just popping off to the bathhouse, be back in a bit.' There is also a special etiquette surrounding baths in Japan, for example, while we use baths for cleaning ourselves in the west, in Japan you must scrub yourself practically raw before entering the bath, as the water needs to stay pure for all the patrons to soak in it. Another rule that is often enforced is no tattoos allowed, in order to keep the yakuza out.

I had managed to avoid going to a bathhouse throughout my stay in Japan, despite being told by many Japanese friends that it was an awesome experience and I should totally try it. But I was apprehensive about two things. First, the whole being-naked-in-public thing. And second (any relatives who may be reading this, promise not to tell Nana), I have a small tattoo. Ironically, of a Japanese peace crane. So it's probably unlikely that I would be mistaken for a participant in the Japanese criminal underworld. However, I still had this image of myself being kicked out of the bathhouse immediately, without being given the chance to retrieve my clothes, and then I would have to take the train home naked, all the while apologising to fellow passengers for displaying my tattoo in public.

Then, on our last night in Japan, our friend messaged us with the plan. A group of us were going to the PL Fireworks display near Tondabayashi - one of the largest fireworks shows in the world - and then we would visit a local sento, before going back to his house for the night. I had no escape. I was certain that my last night in Japan would be tainted by the embarrassment of being banished from a bathhouse.

We watched the fireworks display from a field in the middle of the countryside on the outskirts of Osaka, surrounded by peach trees and screeching cicadas. Halfway through the fireworks, it began pouring with rain, a freak summer storm. "Oh," I said brightly, as we all got drenched, "we won't be needing that bath!" Then the rain stopped, the cicadas resumed chirping conspiratorially, and I resigned myself to the fact that, like it or not, I was going to the bathhouse.

The sento was more like a spa resort than how I had imagined a public bathhouse to be (I was picturing something akin to a murky school swimming pool). It was also surprisingly busy for 11pm at night, and there were lots of families there, including little children. We were given a special bracelet with a locker key, and barcode on it which we could use to pay for things at the gift shop, juice bar and dining area, and charge to our account. We were also given a bag containing pyjamas, a large towel, and a facecloth. Then we split off into the girls and boys changing rooms.

One of my Japanese teachers had once told us that the great thing about Japanese sento and onsen was that, in such a hierarchical society, it was a place where everyone was equal, the rationale being that everyone is the same when they are naked. As a blonde, pale foreigner, I am not so sure about this theory. I certainly felt quite conspicuous. For obvious reasons there won't be any photos in this post, but I have put together an illustration to represent my bathhouse experience.
The only blonde in the bathhouse...
What happens is you go into the changing rooms, put your clothes and towel in your assigned locker, and then take your facecloth into the shower area with you. I sneakily used my facecloth to cover my tattoo the whole time, but I've gotta say, I would have preferred to be able to use it to cover other, ahem, parts... anyway. You then sit down at the little showers, which are set up in a row, and use the shampoo, soap and face wash provided to thoroughly clean yourself. After doing that, you're free to either soak in the baths and hot pools, or put your pyjamas on and roam around the bathhouse, which often have facilities other than just the baths themselves. The one we were at had a sauna area, so we decided to meet up with the boys in there.

The sauna area was amazing. It was full of different rooms ranging in temperature from about 50 to 80 degrees, and each room had different pebbles, rocks and minerals that you lay down on. There were also attendants with big leafy fans who would walk around the rooms and fan you if you needed it. It was clearly meant to be a place of silent meditation, but being the responsible young adults we are, we all kept getting the giggles and behaving inappropriately.

After a while we decided to go back into the girls/boys separate areas, and have a soak in the range of indoor and outdoor baths. To do this meant going through the lengthy showering procedure again, but funnily enough, by then I was strangely used to parading around the place in the nude. I got complacent. I confidently entered one of the baths, feeling quite satisfied with myself. Suddenly, a fully-clothed bathroom attendant came over to me, looking disapproving. Oh my god. The tattoo. It was all over.

"Please excuse me, but could you possibly tie your hair up while you are in the bath, miss?"
She smiled sweetly, and handed me a hair tie. I apologised, tied my hair up, and slid guiltily back under the water, like a slippery fish who had narrowly avoided being caught...

Just after midnight, we got out of the baths, got dressed, and went out into the dining area, where the Olympics was being shown on large screens. We drank bottled milk - in Japan it's traditional to drink milk after using the baths - and watched Japan win a gold medal in the gymnastics, staying until the sento closed at 1.30am. We were all in high spirits afterwards, and felt exceptionally clean, warm and relaxed. I felt like my muscles had been restored to their prime condition, and were ready for lugging suitcases all the way to the airport the next day. I would recommend it to anyone.

So, there you have it. I spent most of my last night in Japan in a bath. No regrets.