Gem is officially licensed to tea!
Or in other words: Our last chance to run out and about, without any worrying about packing, posting or looking for jobs back home!
Long walks (at Fushimi Inari in Kyoto)
The return of outdoor life.
In more than one environment!
Happy times for Gem in her pots.
And for other gardners as well! (Wisteria festival, Shiga)
A return to green fields.
And outdoor living. And it’s always time for tea!
May was also a long, long time ago now! We’re sorry for our longish silence; as you may have guessed, June has thus far been very, very busy! May was outside-the-house time and a sudden jump from “Soon it will be warm enough to wear kimono” weather to “Good God, it’s far too hot to wear kimono” weather. May was also busy-time at work, so our jobs and our running around meant we’re both a bit disgusted with ourselves: not much drawing time for Kin (although he did lots of pottery!) and not much writing or music time for Gem.
Most importantly, May was Kin’s birthday! His brand new birthday-gift travel bag, helped make our May the runaround time it was. May was also time for long train trips, with all the time for thinking, planning and talking things out that they allow. You’ll see some of the results in June and July!
Kin and Gem
It’s spring alright! The rice fields are green and full of joy (for frogs) and the nights are dark and full of lurve… also for frogs. As well as having bats to watch, every evening we can also listen to the chorus of croaking from all directions.
Of course, all of this activity means that other creatures are becoming active too, including this fellow:
This is a Japanese rat snake (Elaphe climacophora) that I spotted while watering the beans. It seemed pretty determined to work its way up the canal, so we figured it was heading out to the big rice fields to find frogs like the one above. Being Australian, I immediately yelled for Kin to grab his camera and he raced up the canal in pursuit.
Unfortunately, his model did NOT feel cooperative. Rat snakes are quite timid (and, apparently, very bitey) so it decided to try and pretend that it wasn’t there and wait for the camera to go away.
Kin was a little disappointed but, as it turns out, he didn’t need to be! When I went for a run along the same canal, I found another friend for him to photograph!
Another rat snake! They must be everywhere at the moment! This one seemed a little less timid than the first and allowed Kin and his camera to get quite close. It was proceeding in the same direction as the other fellow, so there must be something attractive (to snakes) in that part of town.
It seems that Japanese people respond to rat snakes much the same way as Australians do to carpet pythons, so our friends should have a safe journey, wherever they’re going. It was lovely to see these beauties and we wish them well on their travels. It’s also fun giving our U.S. friends the screaming heebie-jeebies with these photos!
Is anyone interesting out and about in your area? Have they come to say hello?
…or maybe not. That is my school this morning. What the hell, man?
To an East-coast Australian, ice is NOT a substance that occurs in nature. Ice is produced by machinery and found in drinks. There is no good reason for it to just appear all over the place and even less reason for it to hang around for months at a time, getting thicker and meaner-looking every night. And there is absolutely NO possible excuse for it to roar back again NOW, when both the plum blossoms and my spirit were just starting to unfurl some tentative blooms.
…plum blossoms are tough and there have been some signs today that I may soon get my spring; like the honest-to-goodness waterfall tumbling off the roof of the gym. This morning, it was just beginning to trickle, but it was cascading by lunchtime and now it resembles alpine thaw in a nature documentary, just before the music turns to woodwinds and a time-lapsed field of edelweiss blooms.
I can only hope.
During the relatively snow-free weekend, though, Kin and I both popped on our coats (and hats and gloves and boots and scarves and mufflers and three layers of thermal underwear) and went to meet Gecko Sensei, my Tea Ceremony teacher in a watery little town to the south of Nagahama, called Gokasho.
To Grandmother’s House
Gokasho is one of Shiga’s Omi merchant towns from the Edo Period. The Omi merchants’ business took them all over Japan, but their families and their valuables remained safely installed in exquisite (not to mention highly secure) mansions in Shiga. Omihachiman is probably the most famous of these towns, but I find Gokasho with its spectacularly laid-out gardens and population of fat, friendly carp in the canals beside the roads, far, far more charming.
In theory, we were there to see the town’s Hinamatsuri displays. Sensei is the archetypal Yamato Nadeshiko, so a visit to a girl’s festival is exactly the sort of outing she enjoys. Kin finds Hinamatsuri dolls as creepy as hell, but is fond of Sensei and doesn’t trust her wobbling around unaccompanied when she’s wearing zori (which is pretty much all of the time). I find the displays fairly interesting, but mostly want any excuse to poke around in the magnificent gardens and old family homes (not to mention tickle a carp or two, should the opportunity arise).
For all of this meticulously planned magnificence, Gokasho isn’t imposing in the way that, say, Kakunodate or Nara can be. For one thing, it’s very obviously a little country village, even if it IS a little country village built and maintained by fabulously wealthy businesspeople. For another, any family home which has lasted for more than two generations develops a really awesome “Nan’s place” vibe ESPECIALLY if that home has since been making an effort to hang onto any item of potential historical value. That means that every old box that every Omi Mum has packed away for the last several hundred years has been unpacked and displayed, including the recent ones, so that next to each other are centuries-old teakettles, exquisitely lacquered furniture, plastic elephants on wheels and shelves of things like combs, old toys and tacky seaside ornaments made from shells, glue and googly eyes.
It’s an incredibly relaxing place for somewhere so interesting. And just look at this kitchen!
I’m always drawn to kitchens, but this was a particularly beautiful example of its breed. A person could really work in a kitchen like that.
The Gokasho gardens are surrounded by high walls and each one is different from all of the others.
I’m certain that the houses and gardens were planned simultaneously, as they complement each other so perfectly and each household seems to have chosen their own aesthetic. One family constructed a fascinatingly erratic landscape with hills, cliffs and a boulder-filled river. Another produced one that was peacefully flat, rambling and flower-filled, except where it rose around the lake (which the house was constructed to showcase).
My favourite garden looks like a small, dry forest with uneven stone paths winding through it. It’s kind of hard to explain what exactly is so breathtaking about that, but somehow this garden manages to feel completely peaceful and separate from the world outside its walls.
And any way, any town where the fish follow you around has to be pretty cool.
(A more complete album of Kin’s pictures can be found on our Facebook page.)
Keeping it cool (unfortunately).
EDIT: Ugh, I’ve just seen some of the photos of Gokasho available online and they give COMPLETELY the wrong idea of the place. It may be time to buy Kin that 32mm Prime lens and let him do it right.
…but it’s not here yet! We’re throwing off the outdoor chill along with our coats and enjoying afternoon tea together every day.
Kin is also doing a lot of drawing (since it’s too cold to play outdoors). Mostly for work, but a bit for fun as well. Keep an eye out; he will post some soon on our Facebook page.
Gem has resumed plunking at her guitar for the first time in over a decade and is playing lots of Beatles and Monkees songs.
We are enjoying our newly tidy apartment, eating a lot of soup and drinking a lot of tea. We are only very reluctantly leaving our warm futon on weekday mornings. Gem is reading Vanity Fair (and it’s AWESOME! It’s like Jane Austen, only everyone’s evil! – Gem) and Kin is working his way through a variety of old DC cartoon series.
We’re wrapping up closing lessons, marking exam papers and scratching our heads at some of the answers we see and hear….
In Kin’s case (junior high), most questions result in roars of “It’s orange!”, “I’m sunny!” and “I like pussy!” all of which require his gentle correction: A thump on the head with a rubber hammer and “I’m sorry, the answer was Tuesday.”
Gem’s (much younger) students offer sweeter, yet infinitely more perplexing answers:
“Momoka, where do you want to go?” “I want to go to Kenya! Because, I like black people!”
We’re looking forward to better fruit, to our spring holiday and to Shallow’s visit next month!
And in the meantime….
We’re breathing deeply and waiting for the warm.
Kin and Gem
New Year pilgrimages
And New Year’s cakes!
A disappointing lack of snow (when it’s still so cold!)
And comfort food
And comfort food
(it’s a good thing there are all of these scary festivals going on to keep us walking around)
Fresh meals from our indoor refugees.
And comfy times indoors (with Gem’s new favourite reading material).
January was frosty times outdoors and winter comforts at home. It was soggy footprints, creepy snowmen and blue-faced six-year olds at work, with wooly scarves to seal ourselves away from the artic winds that whistle through our classrooms. We have had small adventures and happy experiences without straying far from home, staying snug, merry and cheerful (with a bit of excitement sprinkled here and there).
2014 is well and truly underway!
Gem and Kin
P.S. Our Facebook page is playing up again at the moment, but links are still getting through okay. Gem will give it a kicking during the week to try and sort it out.
By the end of this year, we won’t be here any more!
The start of a new year has really brought it home to us; our time in this little apartment, in this little town is going to end in 2014! This place has become so much our own it’s hard to believe that, this time next year, it will belong to someone else. Time is suddenly a limited commodity.
But the start of a new year in Japan is a difficult time to manage any sense of urgency. New Years in Japan is like Christmas in Australia; it’s the time when the whole family get together and then just kind of sit around. For a week, the country shuts down, while people eat, gossip and walk to local shrines to pray for good fortune through the year. It’s not a time for exciting trips or big projects, but for kotatsu-snuggling, cups of tea and big bowls of mandarins.
Not to mention New Year cakes!
And other lovely things!
Right now though, we’re still in Nagahama and we still have things to do. On Monday, Japan restarts itself. Our evening classes will resume, our friends will return from their home countries and we will be back at our schools, doing our best to slide some English into stubborn little skulls.
At Kin’s school, there will be a continuation of the dramatic investigation into the identity of the elusive Dick Phantom; one of the boys (we assume) has developed a taste for penis-based graffiti. The Phantom spent the final months of 2013 creating elaborate, phallic extravaganzas over every wall and piece of furniture a kid that age could reach. These works don’t show a lot of dedication to accuracy, but, particularly toward the end of the year, a real focus seems to have been given to scale. We can only imagine that his scope will expand in 2014.
I never really feel I’ve left my school, as half of it seems to live in this building. The very, very small first-grader with the very, very big eyes has finally worked up the courage to ask why I seem to spend so much time here. Her eyes got even bigger when I told her this is where I live!
Although Kin and I enjoyed the Japanese-style New Year, in time-honoured Western fashion, we have made a resolution or two; or rather, have reviewed how our Tanabata wishes and our everyday goals are going.
This is one of Kin’s tanabata goals… or sort of. He never got to start those glass-blowing classes; the college filled up before his enrolment was processed! Instead, he’s been spending his weekends up to his elbows in clay and is having a wonderful time. His very, very earliest work (above) has just returned from the kiln.
Kin never made it to cooking class either but, on the domestic front, is now single-handedly responsible for the running of our household (a development we will share at a later date) and is getting better at it every day. And on the artistic front, with blue plastic document sheets, sticky tape and a stanley knife, he produced a photographic soft-box that make today’s pictures even nicer than usual!
As you can see, I didn’t learn to braid my hair; I cut it all off, instead! In my defence, though, this has made it a lot easier to reach my goal of learning to swim properly and I HAVE successfully poached an egg, so I think I’m still ahead of the game. I also finished my first knitting project!
Kin’s scarf is so long that he can (and does!) wrap it around his entire head to keep the wind off his face when he rides to work. I’ve started a scarf for myself, now and once that’s done, I’ll be ready to get a little more ambitious.
Learning to draw underwent a lengthy hiatus during our illness, but during this week of shutdown Japan, I’ve picked it back up. Kin is excited to share his skills with me; I think he’s too optimistic, but I’ll keep trying.
We’re ready for you, 2014. We might end the year in New South Wales, but we’re starting it in Shiga, and we’re going to enjoy every single day of both!
The day that ALTs from all over Shiga come to chat and play games with our sixth graders, giving them a chance to meet people from a variety of nations and, hopefully, give them a chance to use their English in a social-setting. The kids spent several weeks making decorations and preparing little speeches and interviews for their guests, while Nanook took them through some small-talk conventions and discouraged them from yelling “BUTTS!” when there was a gap in the conversation.
As well as Nanook and I, the children were going to meet Prozac, Tank, Angel, Sailor and both Timbuktus.
The original Timbuktu was having a difficult English Day. Kin, as part of his long-term campaign of harassment, had recently decided to rename her. (Kin is actually quite fond of Timbuktu, but her anti-gay attitude infuriates him; in earlier semesters, they could talk reasonably about these things and for a while he had her converted, but since then he’s worked less at their shared school and she got a new homophobic preacher, so she’s unfortunately regressed. Q-tip, who attends the same church, has thankfully not picked up this attitude.)
“I’ve decided,” announced Kin, flinging an armload of sketches onto his desk, “From now on, I’m going to call you “Bigot”.”
Timbuktu, who is a gentle spirited person despite the inner nastiness encouraged by her church, cringed, certain she knew why, but still unable to resist asking.
“Well, with the new JETs here, we have two Timbuktus. Both of you are about the same height, so we can’t do “Big and Small Timbuktu”. You’re both from the U.S., so I can’t differentiate by nation. BUT, only one of you is a bigot! So, I can call you “Bigoted and Not-Bigoted Timbuktu, only yours turns into “Bigot” for short! It’s perfect!”
Deciding not to argue (in the interest of the illustrations he was currently producing for her) Timbuktu made her weary way to Nagahama Elementary, taking the chance to plead with me as we put up posters and stuck balloons on the wall.
“Can you do anything, Gem?”
“Nope.” I grinned a bit too, but compared to Kin’s, my grin is nothing. “We’ve got gay friends visiting again soon, and you’re going to embarrass everyone if you don’t get this out of your system.”
Timbuktu knows when she’s beaten, so she just set her shoulders and prepared for an afternoon’s chatter with dear little innocents.
…whose first question to her was “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“What?! No, I… Gem, what are you teaching them over here?”
“Don’t look at me,” I smirked, surrounded by my own little gang of journalists. “I haven’t taught these kids since February. Now, what were you asking me, Taro?”
“Where are you from?”
“Minna, shiteru! You know this! Where am I from?”
“Guys, come on, I taught you for almost a year. Kazoku ni atta! Where am I from?”
The kids shuffled a bit and whispered frantically to one another, while I glowered around the circle.
“Don’t say America! She gets really pissed off if you say America!”
“Where else is there?!”
The group searched their folders, rolled their eyes desperately around the room, then, noticing the last ALT they had spoken to, lit up with new confidence.
“The… The USA?”
“That’s America again!”
Over their protests that there WASN’T anywhere else, I only just heard Timbuktu snigger.
Prozac, meanwhile, was having his life-choices evaluated by three earnest-browed girls in cardigans.
“How old are you?”
“I’m twenty six years old.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, I don’t.”
“HOW old are you…?”
While Tim was wondering if she needed a stronger moisturizer.
“How old are you?”
“I’m twenty two.”
Deeply unhappy with the direction our lives were taking, the children fretted, tutted and advised us to change our ways.
Sailor’s group commiserated with her on her failure to find a husband (“Kids, I’m twenty eight!”) and wondered aloud if, at this age, she would ever manage to catch one. Mine expressed doubt as to whether my decrepit ovaries would ever be able to kickstart themselves when Kin and I finally decide to reproduce. Prozac’s desperate assurances that he just needed to meet the right person were met with skepticism so great it bordered on disdain. At our ages, the children felt, we were already halfway dead, yet none of us were doing anything worthwhile with the limited time left to us!
Basically, it was your typical, everyday conversation with twelve-year-olds. It was a relief when the interview section was completed and we moved on to activities. Each of us had prepared a game or dance, all of which went down well with the kids and we gradually got them to forget what miserable failures we all were as people. After collecting our autographs, the kids gave us each an origami crane covered in English messages and we all exited the gym.
Cheerful, despite a remaining trace of uncertainty regarding our life choices, we teachers retired to the meeting room to devour Pocky and minestrone-flavoured chips.
“It could be worse,” pointed out Tank, on his seventeenth stick. “Last week my second graders asked their teacher if his wife is cheating on him.”
“My third graders learned to say ‘SEX!’ from someone,” added Sailor. “And when they learn a new word, it’s all I hear.”
“Mine just learned how to say ‘Poop’,” confirmed a gloomy Tim.
“If only mine learned ANY English,” sighed Prozac. “My first graders spent our last lesson having a farting contest. The winner got to fart in anyone’s face.”
Pocky froze between packets and mouths as we all waited.
“I was too tall,” he added, and everyone relaxed again.
Aren’t children just a joy? Does anyone else work with the little darlings? What do yours come up with?
As ever, all drawings were produced by Kin. Don’t tell him I used these ones though, because he doesn’t like them much!
Yesterday, we waved farewell to the other Shiga JETs, as they set off on their Halloween adventures in Kyoto and Osaka, and we’ve been living vicariously through our newsfeeds as they party on down (in costume) across two cities and three prefectures. It appears that a good weekend has been had by all, with only minimal vomiting (which is nice).
The two of us, however, are not the most active of beasts, so we decided to take advantage of a weekend when no-one would be attempting to lure us out by lurking in our apartment and embracing the Lazy.
It has been wonderful.
We’ve enjoyed the sort of breakfasts that you simply can’t whip up in under fifteen minutes on a weekday morning. We’ve dug out scarves and gloves from summer storage to help keep out the new nip in the air. We’ve aired our futon and other bedding while there’s still some sun to do it in, as well as catching up on pre-winter cleaning tasks.
I’ve planted the very last crops we’re likely to harvest before the cold really sets in; new spinach, lettuce, coriander and rocket seedlings, as well as some Asian greens and chrysanthemum seed that I don’t really expect to do much before the snow falls. Still, it’s good to hope.
Kin has worked on his T-Shirt design for JETs in our prefecture (yes, that is a scrotum; google “tanuki” and you’ll understand).
We’ve rugged up and gone for lovely walks (before the temperature gets too low), and enjoyed the Nagahama sights.
We’ve caught up with beloved friends in Australia and sent lots of long-awaited emails to our wonderful families (aided by rather too much red wine in the evenings). I’ve also dug out the scarf Kin has been waiting so patiently for and have added another couple of feet to it. We’ve had a couple of full-day meetings, so I’ve had plenty of time to get my speed up. I think he’ll finally get to wear the thing this winter!
…and then start complaining that real wool is itchy and never put it on again, I bet.
We went to Hard Off (our local second hand store) and bought a lovely new (ish) nabe pan for delicious winter hotpots. Our old one was looking a little ill and had an unsettling crack in one side that was getting longer and longer every time it was used! I also bought this wonderful book, full of simple sewing patterns that Beans can hopefully help me work out when I’m back in Australia. I can’t sew at all, but I’m definitely ready to learn!
Goodness me, looking back at all of that, it looks as though we’ve had a very busy weekend! Somehow, though, there’s still been plenty of time for Kin to play Pokemon and for me to catch up on Downton Abbey (and my ironing, damn it).
A few more of Kin’s shots can be seen on our Facebook page.
We may or may not be back in the social whirl next week, but whatever happens, we’re both so grateful for this downtime together. It’s lovely to be lazy!
By Gem (A more complete album of Kin’s pictures can be found on our Facebook page.)
Every year, a thousand glamorous butterflies dress in their most beautiful kimono (both modern and traditional) and descend on the town for their chance to eat free ice cream, win lottery prizes, and be relentlessly photographed. And photographed. And photographed!
One of the nicest things about this festival is that, unlike most kimono-related occasions, you get to wear any sort of kimono you like. Traditional Kyoto, modern Kimono Hime vibe, formal, informal, anything goes.
Most gorgeous were the young women in furisode, the brilliantly coloured, long-sleeved kimono traditionally worn for Coming Of Age. I believe that I, along with the other matrons, carried myself well in paler robes with simpler designs. But the furisode girls’ showy designs and spectacular hairstyles definitely put us in the shade!
Fortunately (unfortunately?) even if I weren’t in furisode, an Anglo-Saxon in Japanese formal wear is unusual enough in a country town that I still attracted plenty of attention. I did mention there were photographers, right?
A LOT of photographers. And when you have that many photographers, it actually gets a little hard to deal with. Of course, when you’ve dressed up to feel beautiful, it’s lovely to have other people think you look beautiful as wel
But not, actually, as lovely as you’d think. The photographers were like seagulls at a picnic; as soon as you toss a crust to one (Hai, shashin OK,) the whole flock spots it and before you know it, you’re surrounded by thirty lenses and your friends have disappeared.
I don’t think anyone was as relentlessly pursued as this little one, pictured here trying to hide from the solid mass of photographers surrounding her. Fear not, this photo did not add to her woes! Kin’s work is very subtle.
Poor Kin, who absolutely HATES being photographed, was also a popular target, thanks to his blonde hair and red hat. Luckily, he had his own lens to hide behind, and managed to fight back nobly.
Of course, like any festival, the kimono ladies weren’t the only attraction. Kurokabe is popular with tourists at any time, and many local organisations were also out showing off, like the local antique gun club (weapons manufacture is another local specialty…yay?) and a group of Imperial Guards in badly-fitting uniforms.
This gentleman was a noble-looking exception to the rest of his cohort, and we suspect this was mostly to do with his age. The rest of the “guards” were scruffy looking young men in their teens and early twenties, who were FAR too scrawny for their jackets, while he was probably more the age group who first commissioned the uniforms (and had the income to pay for them).
Our commitment to living locally was wonderfully rewarded by this festival. Rabid photographers, beautiful ladies and firearm enthusiasts (not to mention giant beers and samurai cats) make a combination that will definitely live on in our memories.
Again, for a more complete album of Kin’s photographs, please check out our Facebook page. Meanwhile, what amazing events are happening in YOUR area? Let us know!