Thursday, June 22, 2006

The "Sublime" of English

I went to Tokyo for a dreadful re-contracting conference - rife with all the inanity and frustration typical of the bureaucratic JET Program conferences and events - and then we had our school festival shortly afterwards. The school festival is a yearly event in which the all the students participate, both through their homerooms and in their club activities. Each homeroom or club is given a classroom or booth and decides on a theme and some activity. The theme of this year's festival was "The Sublime."

The English club was to translate the program for the festival into English. The program contained little descriptions written by students of what each club or homeroom was doing in their area. This simple translation taks became a chore since even in Japanese none of what the kids had written in the program made sense, and it was further complicated by the fact that most every sentence describing the different activities at the festival used the word "Sublime," rendering the entire thing nonsensical.

Some selections:

24HR "Sublime" Chocolate Bananas: Come taste the "sublime" in bananas!

(The two girls in the picture are advertising their bananas)
Calligraphy club: Has the calligraphy club reached the "sublime" of writing? The answer is...Takashi!
28HR Entrance of a large hall: Tokyo Friend Park! Enter the unknown world inhabited by a mysterious maid
30HR No Goblin!: Throw off your stress and destroy the goblins!

(and my favorite)
39HR Men's Paradise: A world-class paradise for men. We invite you to this world of both fear and laughter

As the program clearly completely fails to convey any idea of what one might find at the booths, the second year students in the English club were also to conduct tours of the festival in English for any foreign visitors. So they would have someone to actually give a tour to on the day, it fell upon me and my well-known contacts in the foreigner community to provide these foreigners who speak English. I brought Matt.

When he arrived, all the girls were busy so we had KMK - I believe I touted his greatness in a previous blog post - give us a solo tour. He took us around and gesticulated wildly at various exhibits.

Here is KMK and his harem. KMK actually has a girlfriend in the second year, but since I don't think she's good enough for him, Matt and I kept needling him about going after this first year girl on the right. As the girls here were in the cooking club, Matt played up that angle, while I convinced KMK that this girl had an elegant, rare "old Japan"- type of beauty. He went red and gesticulated in an even wilder fashion - if that can be believed.

Matt and I also enjoyed going to the biology club's exhibit, where a series of tanks housed various interesting fish and aquatic animals. After listening to the explanation given by the biology club students at each station, we would conduct this dialogue:

Student: This is a very rare fish.
Me: Hmm...that's very interesting. But let me ask this though, can we eat that fish, now?
Student: Oh oh! No no no no!
Matt: But I'm hungry (rubs stomach) and I want to eat the fish. C'mon buddy.
Student: No no no, I-we-ah ah, need the fish!
Me: Ah, okay okay, I totally understand. You can't give us the fish because you need them for the festival, right?
Student: (Visibly relieved) Yes, yes.
Matt: How about this then, we come back in a couple hours, when you close, and then we eat the fish?
Student: Oh oh no! (waving arms frantically as I reach my hand towards the tank)

We ran through this routine at every tank. Then we took turns distracting the students while we took pictures with our hands in the piranha tank. KMK was going into convulsions at this point.

We ended up back at the English club's room, where we had set up English karaoke. My laptop was hooked up to a TV and a stereo, playing music videos from a list of songs. The idea was that the first year kids would look up the lyrics for the songs on the internet and put together a booklet of English lyrics for visitors to our room to use. As it turns out though, none of the students were at all capable of doing anything with a computer, even typing the name of a song into Google, so in the end I had to set up the entire thing myself. The room also shut down for large amounts of the day as they would click on the wrong box and had to chase me down to fix the computer. This seemed to be pretty much par for the course though, with all the teachers involved in their homerooms and clubs doing enormously disproportionate amounts of work for something ostensibly to be run entirely by the students for the students.

Anyhow, our club event proved less than popular that day, so I also did a disproportionate amount of the singing - though I was less frustrated by that outcome - since even the kids in the club most enthusiastic about the karaoke balked about actually singing in front of others once the time came. In between bouts of my crooning though, KMK stepped up and delivered a surprisingly manly rendition of that O-Zone song, "Dragostea Din Tei"...And no one was left unmoved! I tried to counter by singing A-ha "Take on Me" as a duet with this quiet third-year kid (God knows why he knew all the lyrics), but we just couldn't match KMK's visceral power. It didn't help that my partner for the duet looked like a janitor in his outfit.

Most all of the kids were wearing their t-shirts for their respective homerooms, and those not in the shirts were all wearing costumes of a sort. The girls in the tea ceremony club wore yukata or kimono, the girls running the host club (more on that later) wore flashy dress shirts and skirts, others wore flowers in their hair.

While the girls seemed to be dressed up in adorable, graceful or (for school) almost indecent clothes, the boys had taken the occasion to voluntarily serve up their pride to the utmost derision, by me and Matt, at least.

Here is a prime suspect; a 17 year old guy wearing a monkey suit I assume he bought at some store selling little boy's Halloween costumes. Not only was he prancing around in the suit, but he also stopped to pose for this picture with Matt holding onto his tail. I suppose it could be fun for some to see kids taking themselves so lightly, but everyone should have their limits.

Though fortunately I don't have any pictures of this, there were also a disturbingly high number of boys dressed in drag of one kind or another. I suppose their lack of body hair and general possession of the physique of a prepubescent girl makes them particularly fit for this role, but I still found it rather baffling, aside from just unsettling. Boys wearing kimono, boys wearing girl's school uniforms, boys in tennis skirts, and - by far the most nauseating - a boy in a slit China dress. Ugh... (He danced up to me and asked, "Cute? Cute?" "No," I replied most emphatically, "Just disgusting.") Sorry dude, cross-dressing does not equal instant hilarity.

Later, I further fulfilled my bond by bringing a few more friends to get an English tour when Kevin, Joyce, and Yukari showed up. KMK, now joined by his friend, proved himself no more a master of verbal and no less a master of non-verbal communication on his second tour. After a few rounds of karaoke, we stopped by the tea ceremony club to have tea and a snack, and beckoned in by the girls outside, then decided to check out the room that was running a host club.

The fact that a host club had been allowed in the festival kind of confused me, since it seemed wildly inappropriate, even as a joke. Host or hostess clubs in Japan are bars where patrons pay to be waited on and surrounded by male or female hosts, respectively. Usually it's a place salarymen go after work to I guess pay to be fawned on and treated as the center of attention after a day of demeaning and humiliating servitude, though recently bars with young men catering to women are becoming popular as well.There is apparently nothing necessarily untoward about it - nothing is being bought except someone's company and time - but it still seems wildly inappropriate to field a mock one at the school festival. I've never gone to a hostess club because I have never had a conversation I would be willing to pay someone for. Let's just say the school's club didn't change my mind on that score.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Beer Festival

Matt came for another visit on the 25th, just leaving last week on the 13th. By the end, I was tired as hell and sick to boot. Now I think I can write a little about it, weekend by weekend.

I had already decided on our plan for that first weekend more than a month prior, when while reading the Daily Yomiuiri newspaper I found an article about the Japan Beer Festival. Over 100 Japanese microbrews? We were there before Matt had even finalized his plane ticket.

So we went to Osaka for the festival and paid 3,000 yen for a 4 hour nomihodai (all you can drink) of more than 100 Japanese craft beers. They tried to handicap us a bit by only providing a 60mL cup, but that proved a futile gesture. Within the first half-hour, we had already sampled all of the beers. By the end of the first hour, we had decided on our favorite brew and taken up permanent residence at their table. By the second hour, Matt had installed himself behind the counter of the brewery booth - despite the continued protests of the woman distributing the samples - and we made a vow to this boisterous Kansai woman that we would drink all of her sample bottles ourselves.

Kansai people - that is, those from the Kansai region of the main island that encompasses Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe - deserve their reputation as a fiery lot though, as you can see in the next picture. As they finally closed the show down and forced us out, we stumbled out with a few souvenir bottles and our skateboards. I think we were able to skate about 10 feet in a looping, parabolic shape before tumbling to the ground. Matt also managed the impressive feat of forgetting he had put this glass bottle in his back pocket, and cut his hand open right good. This would prove to be only the first of many, many falls. Eventually, after we patched him up, we headed off into the city.

We skated around the bright lights of Osaka, dodging frightened old women and chatting up various impressed locals. Later we went out for sushi at one of those restaurants with revolving belts, and, though I only vaguely remember this, I believe got kicked out after we started chucking pieces of tuna against the walls to see if they would stick. I guess it was just that kind of night. Eventually we made it back to a hotel.

The next morning we awoke to find ourselves covered quite evenly with bruises and scrapes. Matt's hand was killing him and I had a nice imprint of a button from my jeans etched into my hip like a head of branded cattle. Pulling it together, we eventually set off to see Himeji, the most impressive castle in Japan. A World Heritage Site, it did not disappoint, to be sure; a massive complex but with a rugged beauty and white exterior that lends it the nickname, the "white heron" castle.

The castle is also known for the maze-like path that leads to the main keep. The path circles around in a spiral with many dead ends, leaving any potential attackers open to constant attack from the surrounding walls. Himeji was never actually attacked however, so this design remains untested. I should say, "had never" been attacked, because Matt and I took it upon ourselves to take up the task it seems lesser men wilted at. Fortunately, this sign's improper use of indefinite articles (climbing "a" wall is prohibited, sure, but how are we to know which wall? It could be any wall, anywhere, right?) left us able to climb without fear of reprisal, as well. I think a young Japanese boy said it best who, after spotting us, cried out "NINJA!" Unfortunately, there were no more samurai sentries left in the castle to come to his aid when I fell upon him like cold, black night, cutting his scream off abruptly with a jab to the windpipe. When in Rome, you know?

We climbed several flights of steep stairs, pushing aside Japanese women, children, and the elderly in our wake as we made our ascent to the top. I fell prey to one of the other hidden defenses of the castle when I cracked my skull repeatedly on the low hanging doorways throughout the building. I definitely would not be the ideal person to storm a castle in which I would have to stoop down the entire time, leaving my neck generously extended for anyone who happened to have a really sharp sword or two in hand. As always seems to happen when I travel in Japan, I was embarrassed to be tired at the end when I saw how many old women past 70 had made the trek seemingly unfazed.

Later that afternoon we dropped in at Kobe - a charming city - and were, as you see here, greeted by many an adoring female admirer. We skated around, soaked up the local color, watched a terrible street band perform, and ate the local specialty, okonomiyaki, which is kind of a pancake with cabbage. We hopped a train back to Hamamatsu that night and laughed at how we had been in three major cities in that one day. In a reoccuring pattern for the trip, I arrived at work the next morning exhausted while Matt went off exploring somewhere else fun. He was, however, always kind enough to call me in between classes to tell me about all the fun places he was visiting. Thanks, buddy.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The School "Excursion"

For several weeks previous, anticipation had been building for our "school excursion", to which I was invited along. For some reason, this is the English translation of the word ensoku that apparently every Japanese learns in English class. Hearing teachers talk about this excursion business made me rather excited about what we might do. However, it seems that rather than "excursion" - which conjures up images of some voyage into jungle primeval, trek across the frozen tundra of the Far North, or perilous attempt at the summit of some great slag of rock - it turns out it would be much more accurate to render the word as "field trip", with all the banality that term usually conveys.

For banal our field trip was. All students in all homerooms of all three grade levels were loaded off into buses in the morning, each grade bound for a different exciting location, one homeroom per chartered bus. Since I'm teaching first-year students mostly, I opted to go along with the intrepid explorers of 14 HR. Due to rain that morning, a trip to a historic village and hiking was called off in favor of a visit to the Toyota Museum. I thought it might still be fun though, since some of the greatest art to be seen in Japan is owned by various corporations.

A 2-hour bus ride later, I discovered that this was not, as I had assumed, a museum of art owned by the Toyota corporation, but in fact a museum of Toyota cars. As in, a car museum. As in, a museum about the history of the automobile. As in, line after line of cars with placards in front of them. Kind of like going on a field trip to the exotic "Mile of Cars."

The excitement is palpableLook at the expression on the girl's face in the front in this picture. That's how we all felt. Upon our entrance, we were given about an hour to walk around and enjoy the exhibits. I finished my cursory walk around with some students in about 5 minutes. I gave a personal tour to the kids with commentary: "And here on your right, you will see...another car. And if you walk a little farther, coming up on your left is...this other car. Ah, now we've come to my favorite part of the entire tour - the part where we can all look at this car. Isn't this a particularly fascinating car?" Then I pretended to take an exhaustive series of pictures of the car in question. The tour was over in 5 minutes because I couldn't even amuse myself for that long, and I find myself quite amusing usually. I still can't believe we went to a car museum, but I guess it's hard to find a place to just throw a couple hundred kids in for hours at a time.

After a long lunch, we still had too much time leftover to just go back to school, so we headed to Nagoya to see Nagoya Castle. One teacher, noting my disappointed look leftover from the last stop, tried to buoy my spirits a little by talking up the castle. Unfortunately, I'd been there twice already, and that was already two times too many. Nagoya Castle is a reconstruction, and like many Japanese reconstructions, it's now a concrete edifice lacking any charm, soul, or real historical merit. Not only is the entire castle fake, essentially, but it's not even attempting to be an authentic fake; the rooms have all been replaced with lame exhibits on the castle's history and the center is hollowed out with a modern staircase and elevator. Once you pass within the imposing gates, it's a lot like walking around some public library built in the 50's. Sometimes I really think the Japanese have a gift for ruining their own historical sites.

Still, we managed to have some fun. It was a good chance for me to interact with the students outside of a school setting - although they were still wearing their uniforms. These girls walked around with this other teacher (the young tennis coach) and I most of the day. The tour of the castle didn't take much more time than the museum, so we hung out in the shade and ate ice cream. I chatted with kids in Japanese - it was their day off, after all - took lots of pictures, let them try on my sunglasses; the usual.

In the end, of course, the destination is not so important for the trips here, because it's more about fostering bonds between members of homeroom classes. The school system prepares kids for a place in Japanese society by emulating it on a smaller scale with the bonds formed as a class. Just like the sports festival, it encourages a sense of (and need for) belonging to a social group bigger than oneself. Even by the end of just one day trip, I could see this in the kids in my group and others.

We eventually piled back onto the buses for another couple hour ride back to school. By my estimation, we spent about 5 hours on the bus that day, and only a little over a 2 hours actually walking around.

"Excursion" my ass.