Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Omagari Hanabi

Fireworks! and crowds. And lots and lots of fireworks!!! All set to music.

Complimentary bentos with our tatami seats.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Festival Season

Summer is the time for festivals in Japan!! Every town has some sort of small festival (usually many) that they celebrate every year, and each one has its own quirks. Paper decorations hang in the streets, taiko drums start up, women float around gracefully decked out in yukatas, and everyone eats and drinks and watches and listens and fans themselves because it’s soooo so hot. Festivals are possibly my favourite thing so far about this time of year (not much to compete with considering the humidity). I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the chance to check out quite a few, including one up in Aomori prefecture.

KANTO – Akita City

My first night in Akita, we trekked up to Akita City for Kanto festival. It featured lots of taiko drumming (a festival staple) and people balancing long bamboo poles strung with paper lanterns in the air. This requires some mad skills - they put these poles on their hands, their arms, their hips, their chins, and *usually* manage to prevent them from toppling. We did see a few go down, which can end badly, as one pole often seems to take others down with it. The poles look kind of like tall stalks (heads? shoots? what’s the word here?) of rice.

NEBUTA – Aomori City

This festival is quite famous, and worth the 5-hour drive to get there. On the way we drove through some pretty stunning scenery in the mountains of Akita and Iwate, along with abandoned ramen and soba shops on the edge of a cliff. I’m pretty sure they were haunted.

The festival was like a huge parade of elaborate paper and bamboo floats that were of course lit up inside. Teams of people pushed the floats along, turning and tilting them towards the crowd.


A pretty small, chilled-out festival. Lots of painted lanterns, mostly with images of ladies in kimonos, lined the streets. There were some performances going on too, and we caught the last song of one band’s set; I remember this being one of the first times I understood something I heard in Japanese – “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much) as the last few guitar strums rang out. Pretty standard phrase, but it felt like a bit of an accomplishment at the time.


The first day featured lots of dancing and music. After meeting two friendly Japanese ladies in the grocery store who were participating in this aspect of the festival, I was invited to join their dance group and get dressed up. Which obviously seemed like a good idea. So there I was, wearing a yukata and wondering if I was going to make a complete fool of myself in trying to properly perform the traditional dances we were learning, waving my arms (attempting grace) and shuffling along, eyes fixed on the lady in front of me. Surprisingly, it went ok, even though I couldn’t move more than a few inches at a time in the tightly-fastened robe. This is probably the most Japanese I will ever feel.

The second day: BOAT CRASHING. Sounds pretty exciting. What could be more epic than smashing meticulously-crafted straw boats into each other until one of them collapses? Well, it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that; rather there was a lot of build-up, and slowly carrying the boats around, and drumming, and fireworks, and emotional music…then the teams would face off against one another, raise the front of their boats into the air, hit them, and see which one fell first.

…the origin of this festival completely baffles me, but I’m sure it’s a good story.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Only in Japan (pt. 1)

...have I been given the gift of a melon for my birthday.

The melon was from a local bartender (restaurant owner? something like that?) who heard from another ALT that it was my birthday. Thanks, whoever you are!

Said melon was later very artistically decorated and used as a sort of prop/alternate microphone for karaoke.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wise words from an intensely intensive Japanese teacher

A couple of us ALTs took part in a beginner intensive Japanese course for 4 days in Akita City. Now I at least have the capacity to have various simple conversations (ie: ordering food, asking someone if they like Jonny Depp, counting into the hundreds and thousands)...but of course these conversational tools usually evade me when I'm actually faced with a situation in which to use them.

The course instructor was a right riot. One especially noteworthy thing he said, while teaching us colours:
"Blue is 'aow'. To remember it, think of Michael Jackson - AOW!!!"

To this day it is the one colour I have no trouble recalling.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Made it through the 13-hour flight, made it (jetlagged) through the 3-day Tokyo orientation (JET put us in quite the swanky hotel, I might add), made it north to Akita prefecture, made it through a self-introduction to the Yokote board of education, and I am making it through the ridiculous heat and humidity. So far so good!

(View from my hotel room on the 26th floor of the Keio Plaza Hotel, Shinjuku (the sky wasn't really that bright, camera exposure was just playing tricks; it was actually quite dark. The city does go on and on as far as the horizon, though)

Oh...and Akita is absolutely beautiful...

(...and these photos don't even do the landscape justice).

The first few days in Tokyo were a bit of a blur and, more than I expected, it was a relief to arrive in Akita and find a serene, rural area full of mountains, rice paddies, and trees. LOTS of trees. Our prefectural mascot is even a tree. His name is Sugichi (exact English spelling unknown to me). I got a picture taken with him along with my fellow Yokote ALTs after being lovingly bombarded/welcomed by them all, along with my supervisor, at the Akita airport. Which really was the best possible greeting I could have imagined - a happy tree and some friendly people.

The pace of life here is much more relaxed, even though Yokote is one of the more "urban" centres in Akita. It feels more like a large town, spread out over lots of space and interspersed with rice fields. I now have a bike, and one of my favourite things to do is cruise around the streets of Yokote at night, when the temperature`s actually cool enough to move outside. It`s so dark here at night (probably because of energy saving efforts?), and it`s so quiet it feels like I`m the only person around. It`s a good time to sort out my way around my neighbourhood, though I have gotten slightly lost when trying to find my way back to my apartment in the dark. That`s always fun. As is remembering that the cars are on the LEFT side of the narrow roads, not the right. Sometimes I find cool things too; the other day it was a horde of straw boats that people built for the Yokote festival this coming week.

The next month or so will be busy - getting our cars, getting sorted for the internet, meeting staff at our schools, planning self-introduction lessons, and trying to attend as many summer festivals as possible. Gotta fit in some more Japanese studying too.