David Chart's Japan Diary

October 26th 2003

Last week was the first 'normal' week of school, in that we had a full five days of lessons. By the end of it, I was quite tired. I've come to the conclusion that the reading comprehension option class will also be difficult, but the composition option class will be good. It'll still be hard work, but I think I'm going to enjoy it. I like writing, after all, and I really want to be able to write in Japanese.

On Wednesday I had a consultation with Haruki-sensei. Everyone in the class is getting one, and it was a chance to talk about what I wanted out of the course, what I thought my current problems were, and for Haruki-sensei to give me specific advice. I was told to use longer sentences when talking, so I'm trying to remember to shove lots of complicated grammar in there, and to watch more television to help with listening comprehension.

The problem is that most Japanese television is very bad. Most of it is game shows or variety shows, which are virtually impossible to follow without being fluent, and which look stupid anyway, or reviews of onsen, which invariably show attractive women enjoying the baths even if the narrator is male. (They have strategically placed small towels, but are otherwise naked, as is conventional at onsen. I think the towels are a concession to televisation, though.) I did watch a two-hour crime drama last night, which was about a "Women's Crimes Investigation Division". In this case, they were investigating rapes, and all the police officers were (attractive) women. (OK, the fact that they were all attractive is a universal of television, not just a feature of Japan.) I followed what was going on, and at least some of the conversation, but as I result of watching it I stayed up quite late last night. The plan was to sleep in this morning, but I couldn't sleep past about half past eight, because my body clock is decisively set to waking up early now. So I'm not sure when I'm going to have time to watch television. I think I'm going to look for anime -- that has potential application in RPG writing, as there are anime-based RPGs, and it tends to be at the higher end of intellectual attainment. If it's aimed at small children, I can even follow most of the dialogue.

On Thursday, I bought a mobile phone. I've sent the number to almost everyone I think is likely to want it in the near future. If I've managed to forget you, or you want it despite being on a different continent and neither of my parents, email me and I'll send it to you. (This offer assumes that I know who you are when I get the email, of course...) I can receive international calls, but this appears to be rather harder than would be ideal. Talking to Amy, a Canadian student here who has the same network (Vodafone) of mobile as me, this problem may not be unique to me. Her father and boyfriend have a lot of trouble getting through, but her mother doesn't. The difference appears to be that her father and boyfriend use those cheap calling services where you dial another number first. Given that Dad has succeeded at calling me using a straight international call, and had a lot of trouble using cheaper services, it seems that the choice might be between spending a lot of time trying to get through, or spending a lot of money on the phone call. So email and this diary are likely to remain the preferred means of communication.

A view of one part of the festival A general view of part of the school festival.

Yesterday, I went to a festival at Aya's university. She invited me to go along on Thursday, which was the main reason I bought the mobile then rather than waiting until the weekend in accordance with my original plan. The festival was very interesting. The best way I can think of to describe it in English terms is as a primary school summer fair, but run by three universities. There were food stands, various events, a main stage, and exhibitions, mostly put together by the students.

The first thing we went to was a fashion show, where I believe that the designers and models were part of the university's fashion department. This was very interesting. The clothes ranged from 'Hmm, I could almost wear that' to 'Er, no-one in their right mind would step out of a fashion show in that thing.' Most of the models were female, which helped to maintain my interest, although the two most bizarre outfits were being modelled by men. I didn't take any photographs, because they would have had to be flash, and that didn't seem too polite. Not many people took them, anyway. Quite a lot of the clothes took traditional Japanese forms and remodelled them, and there were only a few that seemed to be crazy for the sake of being crazy. Overall, I thought there was an impressive amount of creativity on display.

Aya's ikebana Aya's ikebana. There are displays by other members of the club off to the right and left, out of shot.

From there, we went to see the bit that Aya had done. This was an exhibition of ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, and it was a little way off the beaten track, so it was quiet. The arrangements were very nice, as you can see from the photo. They were displayed on a bridge over a road on the campus, and that's where I took the general photo of the festival (above).

After the ikebana, we went to have lunch. This took us past the main stage. The actual displays were the sort of thing you might expect: bands, martial arts displays, dumb quizzes, and the like. However, between events they played music over the PA. At one point, while I was sitting there while Aya spoke to one of her friends, the song they were playing had a chorus which included the words 'f**k you' (with no asterisks, obviously) shouted quite loudly. Obviously, the Japanese audience wasn't able to pick out the word, and probably wouldn't realise if they could, but it did make for a surreal experience.

The t-shirts on the okonomiyaki stand The people working on the okonmiyaki (a kind of food stand). Er...

The food stands were all manned by students, most dressed in strange outfits. One was being run by the karate club, and they were all wearing their karate uniforms. Another may have been being run by the kendo club, because they were wearing clothes that looked a lot like the non-armour part of kendo uniforms. Other outfits were more interesting. One stand was manned by women dressed with little cat ears and pom-pom tails, another by women in high-school uniform, yet another by women in high-school uniform and bunny ears. But we bought lunch from the stand where one of Aya's friends was working, and they were wearing, well, the T-shirts you can see in the picture.

After lunch, we went to a tea ceremony. My practice at kneeling has paid off, because I was able to stay in seiza (formal Japanese kneeling) for the whole ceremony. I was in the 'guest of honour' spot, possibly because I was the only foreigner there, which meant that I was served the tea that was actually made in the ceremony, and I was served it in a very traditional, and probably very valuable, tea bowl. Certainly, after I had finished drinking, I was asked to pass it along so that everyone else attending could have a look at it. I think I could get to enjoy the tea ceremony, although I would need to get a bit better at kneeling before I could really concentrate on it.

Me, making teat Me, spooning the powdered tea into a cup before making matcha.

After the ceremony, we were invited to grind our own tea and then make it, at another tatami-matted area off to one side. This meant more kneeling, but it was fun. Grinding the tea was hard work, because matcha, the tea drunk in the tea ceremony, is ground to powder. You then add boiling water and whisk it to a froth with a bamboo whisk. Aya took a photo of me doing this, which is to the right.

We had to leave about three pm, because Aya had to be back in her home town by the evening, and she lives further from Nagoya than I do. It was a really good day; despite the similarities to western events, the whole thing was uniquely Japanese, even ignoring the tea ceremony, and it was a lot of fun. Actually, that seems to be a recurring feature of the Japanese things I see; they are fun, uninhibited; almost organised spontaneity. So far, at least, it seems that the Japanese are better at formal permission to be silly than the British or Americans, those being the only other cultures I know in enough detail to compare.