Sunday, July 24, 2011

Five Months to Spring - November 2010

Before I left for Japan, an acquaintance of mine who’d been here before told me that if there was one thing I did, I had to visit Nikko in the fall. I’m really glad she did, because it gave me some much-needed impetus to get out of Sendai and see more of Japan. My first major excursion on my own was actually pretty easy to plan: the person who told me about Nikko also gave me the name of a bed and breakfast to stay at, a guide book, and a brochure with travel information. I took one day of leave between a couple of holidays for an extra long weekend. And my tea lady was nice enough to help me book my train tickets, saving me some hassle and about ten dollars.

I started early on Sunday, taking the shinkansen from Sendai to Utsunomiya and then a local train from there to Nikko. The bed and breakfast was a half-hour up-hill walk from the station. With my back pack on my back, the climb was difficult, but I got there eventually. I arrived at around 1:30. By the time I’d checked in and dropped my stuff off it had started raining, but I decided to go for a walk anyway. I took the road going down towards the temple area, and stopped into the Kosugi Hoan Museum of Art. A small museum, it wasn’t really worth the $7.00 admission, but at least I got out of the rain for a while. Then I walked into the main town. The town itself is small and touristy; it reminded me a bit of Nanaimo, B.C. I headed back to the hotel and stayed in all evening.

Monday morning it was pouring rain, but I manned-up and made the best of it. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to bring my raincoat, rain boots, and umbrella, so the only part of me in serious danger of getting wet was my knees. Still, the rain did tend to mute the beauty of the city. I’d been told before I came that Nikko was famous for its fall colours, and looking around I could certainly see how the leaves would look very nice in the autumn sunshine, but the greyness of the day somewhat muted the effect. I spent the day walking around the temple area. This was a slightly costly endeavour, because although one could buy a pass that included several of the buildings, there were still many more that charged separate admission. First I visited the Rinnoji Temple and the Toshogu Shrine. The former contains the “Sanbutsudo” (“Hall of the Three Buddhas”). The latter features famous carvings of the “three wise monkeys”, “Mizaru”, “Kikazaru”, and “Iwazaru”, who “see no evil”, “hear no evil”, and “speak no evil”; and of the “nemuri-neko” (“sleeping cat”), which I had to pay extra to see. Then I spent some time in the Toshogu Art Museum, which contains a large collection of painted screens. At $8.00, the admission was a bit steep, but I enjoyed the museum. Then I went up to the Futarasan Shrine and the Taiyuin Temple. On the way out of the temple area, I stopped at the Toshogu Museum. This one was only $5.00, and well worth the cost, with its collection of artwork and both Japanese and western armour. My last visit was to the Rinnoji Museum, where the $3.00 admission let me see not only the art collection but also the garden, which was quite pretty even with the rain. I again headed back before dark.

My last day in Nikko defied my expectations by finally being sunny! After checking out of the hotel, I went up to Lake Chuzenji, a large lake up in the hills, about an hour’s bus ride from the town. First I saw the famous Kegon waterfall (more money), then I decided to make the most of the sunshine by taking a walk around the lake and enjoying the scenery. I stopped to visit a temple to Kannon, and eventually ended up at the Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park. This slightly unlikely attraction is the former residence of the Italian ambassador, preserved with early twentieth-century décor. Though definitely more western than any of the other buildings I’d visited, it was relatively interesting, and at only $1.00 admission, easily the cheapest attraction I saw the whole time! I got back to town in the late afternoon, grabbed dinner, collected my knap sack, and got the train back to Sendai.

I went to Nikko partly for its fall colours, but I really needn’t have gone anywhere. I returned home to find that fall had also hit Sendai, and that the hills all around my apartment were ablaze in a glory of green, gold, and red. The weather has continued to cool, and the teachers who were complaining about the heat back in August are now making continual remarks about how cold it is. I’ve finally caved and pulled out my winter duvet. It’s remarkably warm, actually, but I don’t know what I’ll do if the temperature continues to drop. It’s still only November, after all. I keep thinking to myself, “Five months to spring. Five months to spring.”

This month market the beginning of the JET Programme’s correspondence Japanese course. I’m taking the beginner level. Since I’m already taking Japanese classes, I find I know a lot of the material already, but it’s good reinforcement to be studying it again. Anyway, classes only go till the end of the year, and I’m glad that I’ll still have a way to keep studying the language.

At work, we’ve started our fall series of training seminars. The board of education organises the seminars to teach ALTs various job skills. I attended ones about activities for elementary school students and making cool handouts. Besides being interesting and useful, the seminars are also an excuse to get out of school for an afternoon, which is nice on days when I’m feeling under-utilised!

I didn’t really have a chance to celebrate Hallowe’en this year. The only thing I did was to dress up in last year’s Hallowe’en costume for my elementary school students. Given that Star Trek isn’t that popular here, I suspect that the point was lost on them and that I just looked skanky. Some of the other ALTs organised a Bonfire Night celebration on the fifth. It was only my second bonfire night, my first having been in Hong Kong. The first time we had to make do with a barbecue. This time we made a proper fire and actually burned an almost life-sized Guy Fawkes effigy. There was no barbecue this time, unfortunately, but there were snacks, and more s’mores!

The youth at my church held an imonikai, which I guess is a kind of picnic. We lit a campfire and made stew in a big pot, played games while the stew was cooking, and then ate. I also went out for sushi with some other ALTs. That dinner was significant because I finally tried natto! Natto, if you don’t know, is fermented soy beans. It’s famous as a food that many foreigners – and not a few Japanese people – strongly dislike. A favourite question for newcomers here is “Can you eat natto?” I’d only tried it once, briefly, and hadn’t been able to form an opinion of it, so I ordered a piece of natto sushi so I could see how it tasted.

When I first put it in my mouth, I didn’t think it was so bad. It tasted kind of like strong cheese. Really strong cheese. Without the cheese part. That is to say, it tasted the way edam cheese smells: like mouldy sweat-socks. And the more I chewed it, the stronger the taste became. After a minute or so of chewing, I still had no desire to swallow it, but my gag reflex started to kick in, and I realised it was either that or spit it out. So I swallowed the whole thing in one go, and declared that I’d tried natto, and had no need to try any more.

I’ve been to several cooking classes this month. The first was a cooking with miso workshop put on by a miso company. The dishes we made were actually fairly conventional recipes that just happened to have miso added to them, but it was fun to read the recipes (which were all in Japanese) and try to figure out what they said. And when the lesson was over we each got a tub of miso to take home! There was a journalist there taking pictures, and sometime afterwards my co-workers all started telling me they’d seen my picture in the paper! My school’s tea lady invited me to go with her to a Korean cooking class. We made kimchi, which I’m not too fond of, and although I took some home I didn’t end up eating it. The most fun one was the mochi workshop. Mochi, sometimes referred to as “glutinous rice”, is a sticky substance made from mashing rice until it turns into a paste. At the workshop we actually got to take turns pounding the rice with a giant hammer until it turned into mochi before our very eyes! Then we got to eat it with various toppings. I only ate a few pieces, but they were very filling.

In the news this month, North Korea opened fire on a South Korean island, leading to increased tension in the area. Given my relative proximity to Korea, I find this somewhat worrying, but I’m not going to look into fleeing the country just yet. Haiti held its first election since the earthquake, and it was apparently a disaster. Sounds as though the recovery isn’t going too well, either.

Books I’ve read this month:

Japanese Folk Tales: Book 1 – A collection of Japanese fairy tales written in English and Japanese. Designed as a tool for studying English, it works equally well for studying Japanese. I read the Japanese version of each page first, and then read the English, and although I understood almost none of the Japanese, I still thought it was good practice. In terms of the stories themselves, it was fun to see a bit of what Japanese folk tales are like, and I’ve learned that all Japanese stories begin the same way: “Mukashi mukashi, ojii-san to obaa-san ga sunde-imashita.” (“Once upon a time, there lived an old man and an old woman.”)

Eyewitness Travel Guides: Japan – The Japanese guidebook I was lent before coming here. Over the past few months I’ve been going through it and inserting sticky notes in all the places that sound interesting. At this rate it’ll take a while if I want to get to them all, but top of my list are Tokyo and Kyoto. Interestingly, the guide has all of one third of a page devoted to Sendai!

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