As of writing this, I have been in Japan for exactly seven weeks, which seems impossible; I feel like I've been here forever. Since my last post, I've started doing a number of things:
1.Taking Japanese lessons. My teacher is one of the Japanese staff members from the school, and I'm in a class with one other person. So far, it has mostly been review of things I studied on my own, but I need the practice!
2. Walking around my neighborhood. My favorite time is late at night, around 11 or midnight. The first night I was out for almost an hour and I just wanted to keep going and going and going. I live right near the very busy main road, but it's strange how quickly it turns into quiet suburbs the moment you walk away from it. Even one block away feels like a completely different place.
I've said this before, but I love that I can safely walk around by myself after dark here. Even though I'm a giant fraidy-cat, on the first walk, I ended up alone on a dark street with a construction zone on one side and a swatch of forest on the other. I had only the faintest idea where I was, and it was great. To be fair, I live near a couple of the tallest buildings in the area, so there isn't much chance of me getting lost, but I like fearlessly losing sight of those landmarks from time to time.
3. Ordering for myself in Japanese. My first order was in a karaoke room, ordering over the phone (linked to the kitchen) for a friend, and it went something like this: "Nama beeru, hitotsu, onegai shimasu. Eeju desu." (One Nama beer, please. That's all). It was irrationally exciting! I've ordered for myself since then, either telling the server what I want or--when I can't read the menu--pointing and saying please.
4. Treating typhoons with indifference. There have been at least four since I've been here. I don't know if it's because typhoons happen so often here or if they generally aren't very destructive, but no one (including me) cares when a typhoon hits. There was one a few weeks ago that howled a deep, throaty howl all night, and it was bizarre to open my eyes in the morning to find that howling wind accompanied by blue skies and sunshine.
5. Becoming (slightly) more self-sufficient. Aside from being able to order my own food and navigate the subway alone, I've gotten better at working around not reading or speaking much Japanese. The day after I got my Japanese phone, I figured out what charger I needed without being able to read the packaging and bought one. The next day, I was able to guess my way through the Japanese-only voicemail system and check my messages. I've learned to treat these little things as big victories.
6. Adopting Japanese habits. I find myself automatically gravitating to the left side of staircases and sidewalks now instead of the right. By day two of being sick last week, wearing a medical mask around felt as natural as breathing. I sometimes use chopsticks even at home. Instead of a napkin, I reach for a moist towelette before and during meals.A few weeks ago, I had a birthday. It was easier than I expected to be away from home for that, probably because it was an insanely busy day. My birthday was on a Saturday, which is my early day at work. When saying our birthdays during greetings, a couple of my elementary students recognized the date and wished me happy birthday, which was very sweet. My afternoon break was spent getting my Japanese phone, which ended up taking more than two hours. We had to leave before it was done because I had an evening class to teach, and I ran back into the school with less than five minutes to get things around for my five kindergarteners.
After work, my coworkers gave me a birthday card and a few of us went out to karaoke. We called it an early night because we were supposed to have a school event the next morning, but it was still a very good day and night. Bonus language skills: I told a woman in the bathroom, in Japanese, that her shoes were cute. In an elementary class the next week, one of the girls noticed I was a year older when we were saying our ages, asked in Japanese if I had had a birthday, and then wished me happy birthday in English. I was so proud of her for noticing and knowing how to say happy birthday in English, and I was equally proud of me for understanding her Japanese!
A few weeks ago, I attended the Kobo-san festival in Kakuozan and visited my first temple. This is a monthly festival held in honor of a famous monk named Kobo-Daishi, who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. (He is also credited with the invention of the Kana, one of the main components of written Japanese.) The entire road leading up to the shrine was closed to traffic and lined with booths selling everything from greasy street food to fresh produce to jewelry to knitting supplies. I've heard it described as a giant flea market, and that's essentially what it felt like. Despite there being hundreds of people there, I was the only foreigner in sight.
The temple yard looked impressive to my virgin eyes (though I have since seen enough others to know it was fairly small), but inside the Hondo (the main temple) was what took my breath away. It had an atmosphere all its own--quiet and cool despite the heat of the day, filled with chanting and drum beats and history. Everything inside was incredibly ornate, rich, and beautiful; you could sense the care put into every minute detail. I stood and just absorbed for quite a while, watching people toss coins into the offering box and pray. Quite a few monks came out while I was waiting, and I lingered for a long time to see if something was going to happen, but it never did. Later, I found out I left just before the monks started chanting sutras.
Last Sunday, I participated in the Katayama-Hachiman Jinja Grand Festival. Riding the crowded subway there, I was near three young boys who were very awed by my foreignness. One of them said hello to me--in English--and was quite proud of himself. Another one kept talking to me in Japanese. I told him--in Japanese--that I didn't understand, but he kept trying. They were very cute, and their excitement at seeing me set the tone for the day.
At the festival, I met up with some international students from Nagoya University, and the six of us were the only foreigners in the 200-some festival participants. This was a shrine festival (Jinja means shrine) in which we carried two VERY heavy shrines--one for men, one for women--through the streets all afternoon. For this, we wore special festival jackets, pants, shoes, belts, and bandanas. Even getting dressed for this was a challenge--the pants were a strange wrap-pant/diaper combination that--happily!--many of the other women struggled with, too. Some of the men dressed more traditionally and wore a festival jacket and no pants! Secretly, I think it was because they couldn't get them on ;)
When everyone was dressed and fed, we lined up and the festival started with a Shinto ritual. I was near the back and couldn't see much, but I followed everyone else's lead in removing my bandana, bowing, and clapping.
When we foreigners lined up for a picture, you would have thought we were movie stars. Cameras just appeared out of thin air! It probably didn't help that two of the guys were VERY foreign (one was about 6'5 with crazy hippie hair, the other from West Africa, so his skin was very dark), and we drew attention every time we moved. After the Shinto ritual, one of the head honchos who had just spoken spotted me in the crowd and came to talk to me. He asked where I was from and if I was interested in Japanese culture. It was very nice but strange insofar as he completely ignored the other foreign girl standing with me. Even more strangely, this became the trend for the day in which people would come up and ask me typical foreigner questions while my friend was ignored. The only thing we could figure was that because she is from El Salvador and her coloring is a bit darker, she wasn't as noticeably different as I was with my pale skin and blue eyes. Saying, "Claudia isn't foreign enough" amongst ourselves became the day's running joke.
Shortly after the ritual finished, we picked up the shrines and headed out. Both shrines had about twice as many carriers as necessary (so we could trade on and off), and I carried a very light sawhorse for the first leg. I was fine when we stopped for our first break about 15 minutes later, but the women who had carried the shrine were ready to collapse. When I took my turn carrying on the second leg, I found out why.
The problem with carrying things on poles like this is that the weight is unequally borne mostly by the tallest laborers. The shrine started off heavy in a challenging but bearable way but, as shorter girls subbed in and the ground tilted one way or another, a huge amount of the weight fell on me and the other foreign girl, as we were the tallest ones on our side. I have no frame of reference for how much weight I was holding; at one point, even breathing was a challenge. I barely lasted the 10-15 minutes to the next stop, but I felt so accomplished when I did! Though I theoretically wasn't supposed to carry on the next leg, a girl dropped out and I got drafted in. I can only guess that our chant of "Oisa" translates to "Spinal compression."
At the halfway point, we took a long break and ate udon (noodle soup) while a dance troupe performed. I was exhausted by this point, but some of the others had enough energy to join in with the dance troupe and jump around. While eating with the other foreigners, I was quite embarrassed to find out that they all spoke at least three languages fluently (except for one slacker who only spoke two). I felt so inadequate! It's also worth noting that, after plying us with free drinks at every stop and no food until lunch, parts of the day were marked by drunk, half-naked men carrying an immensely heavy and (presumably) expensive shrine. Only in Japan.
In the second half of the day, exhausted girls started dropping like flies. By the time we hit our last leg, as we carried our shrine through the dark streets, our four lines were on a constant rotation--the front girl would tap out, the line would shift forward, the new front girl would tap out a minute later, and the line would shift forward again. I don't know how many times I jumped in the back of the line, shifted up to the front, got sent out for a rest, and got drafted back in. The temple guides who had been with us all day, guiding and encouraging and keeping a beat with a whistle blows, became bonafide cheerleaders. Our constant chant of "Oisa" became a mantra that fueled us and pushed our exhausted bodies to carry us back to the temple where crowds of people waited for the end of the festival.
Standing in front of the temple, rocking back and forth with our shrine and yelling our chant as if our volume was holding us up--it was the best kind of exhaustion. The feeling of camaraderie in that dark yard, the only lights from the temple, all of us sweaty and aching and a couple inches shorter than beforewe were a team who had climbed a mountain together. Even though I could barely raise my arms the next day, it was amazing and worth every exhausting, painful, sun-blinded moment.
It has been a crazy, busy, exhausting, fun few weeks. Outside of work, I've been attending and enjoying cultural events. At work, I'm still getting used to being a teacher, and with that comes normal teacher frustrations. Right now, I'm struggling with a couple classes in which one or two kids who don't want to be there try to ruin it for everyone; it's very unfair to the other kids to have to limit what we can do because of those few, and that frustrates me. For the most part, though, my students are great, and I keep reminding myself that I'm very lucky to have them.
Writing this, I'm coming off a week-long break from school, during which I had many more adventures. A breakdown of those will be coming soon!