A potential change of career

Kanazawa is a wonderful little town on the west side of Honshu.  It’s wonderful for a number of reasons: firstly, it was the seat of an important feudal clan and so has many big houses, temples and shrines, secondly, it escaped bombing during the Second World War, and thirdly, it has one of the top-ranked gardens in Japan.

Being a garden lover, I decided to visit Kenrokuen garden first.  The guide book advised getting there early to avoid the crowds, so I bestirred myself and got there before 8 am, which was quite an achievement for a Saturday morning –

It’s full of trees, tea houses, statues, pagodas –

– and is a beautiful place for strolling and infusing yourself with zen first thing in the morning.

I wasn’t the only one there at that antisocial hour on a Saturday – there was the inevitable wedding couple –

who were shuffling in their traditional shoes from pictureque spot to picturesque spot, with a photographer and a woman who walked behind the bride with a battery operated fan –

Given the amount of clothing she’s wearing, I imagine it would be about as effective as cooling a blast furnace with a couple of ice cubes, but the thought was there.  That’s the great thing about Japan, there’s always a system in place to deal with any situation; I’ve never met such detail-focused people before.  Apparently they even have a special hoover to put down your throat if you start to choke on a mochi ball, which sucks the ball back up again so you can have another go at masticating.

Next door to the garden is one of the very few old samurai houses left in Japan; their fondness for building with wood in a very active seismic zone means that most things were burnt down at least once if not regularly, and most old buildings have been restored multiple times.  But this one has the original painted screens and wooden carvings –

Nomura house was built by a top ranking Samurai for his mother ‘so that she could live in comfort’.  I will be casually mentioning this to my children, and showing them some photos of the beautiful house and garden that this dutiful child created for his deserving mother.

All this tradition had whetted my appetite for more, so I went along to the kaga yuzen studio.  Kaga Yuzen is a technique for handpainting silk kimonos, and in the studio you can see them on display – or …. you can have a go at wearing one!

First you choose your kimono –

and then you put on the undershirt –

– which is tied very tightly around the middle in several places.

The kimono goes on, and then the obi around the middle.

Then the large bow is tied on the back, and several layers of padding are stuffed under the obi, so that you achieve the Japanese ideal of beauty, which is obviously someone who resembles a sake barrel, but has the nape of the neck erotically exposed.

Then it was time for the photoshoot for my new portfolio – first the looking-back-over-the-shoulder shot, which is very popular in Japan –

Then the parasol shot, showing that I can twirl with the best of them when it comes to being sun safe –

and of course, the tea ceremony –

– I won’t get a job as a geisha if I can’t whisk the client’s matcha into a steamy, frothing brew.

There’s a traditional geisha house in Kanazawa which is open to the public during the day, so I went along to sample some tea and a delicious little cake –

– everything is always so exquisitely made and presented – and this cake tasted divine too, whilst the tea was whisked to perfection.

I’m currently updating my cv to reflect my change of direction, and if you would like to book a tea ceremony or some parasol twirling, please drop me a line.

I know that a geisha is supposed to be able to play the shamisen –

– but you’ll have to put up with a few chords on my ukulele, I’m afraid.

 

 

 

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My first experience of sumo

It was most definitely serendipity times two; firstly to discover that one of the six annual sumo tournaments in Japan is held in Nagoya, and secondly to find that it would take place during my stay.  I felt that there must be a ticket with my name on it – but just to make sure, I booked one through an English language website.  It arrived by registered post –

– and I just had to hope I hadn’t been sent a ticket for the Under 14 badminton quarter finals by mistake.  The only information I could glean from the ticket was that I wouldn’t be able to smoke.

Next quandary … how to find the stadium?  I knew it was near the castle, so I set off purposefully in that direction, and before long, all I had to do was to follow a trail of sumo leading to the stadium –

– and a trail of sumo is much easier to follow than a trail of breadcrumbs –

It’s only when you see them with an average sized person that you realise how big they are –

Most of the seating in the basketball stadium had been replaced by mats for the sumo tournament, and you could buy a solo mat, a twin matted area, or a family space with four mats –

– and the posh ones here even have a little table so you can eat your lunch in a civilised manner.

I didn’t think my Western legs would be up to sitting cross-legged on the floor for about 8 hours, so I opted for one of the proper seats at the back, along with all the other foreigners, as it turned out.

The whole place was practically empty when I got there at ten o’clock, even though the tournament had started at 8.30; the diehard fans like to turn up in the early afternoon, just before the second division fights start.  The morning fights are the junior wrestlers, hoping to move up the ranks if they put on a good showing that day.

I was surprised by how small the ring is – only four and a half metres in diameter – not very big at all for two hulking men to be grappling around in –

– and there is a shrine-like roof suspended over the ring because it is a sacred space; only the wrestlers, referees and sponsors are permitted to enter.

Each bout begins with a lot of posturing, stamping, thigh slapping, throwing salt around to purify the ring … anything to try to discountenance your opponent.  Then when they’re finally ready, they lean forwards with their knuckles on the ground –

– and then suddenly lunge towards each other, both trying to grab hold of their opponent’s loin cloth to give him a massive wedgy and chuck him out of the ring.

Before each new division begins to fight, the wrestlers all parade around the ring wearing special aprons –

– a bit like the male equivalent of sexy waitresses in a strip club.

The Japanese love of queueing was in evidence at lunchtime, when a queue stretched the length of the stadium –

for the chance to eat a bowl of ‘sumo stew’.  Some people were prepared to wait for an hour in a queue in the corridor and miss the wrestling, just to eat a bowl of rather sloppy looking stew.  This young chap was rather unnerved to see me closing in on him and his lunch –

– perhaps he thought I wanted to avoid the queue and steal his stew.

And they’ve all got chopsticks – how can you eat something as liquid as that with a pair of chopsticks?

The place filled up in the afternoon, and the sponsors started parading their banners before some of the fights.  The winning sumo in those bouts is handed an envelope full of cash as he leaves the ring – perfectly safe, I suppose – who’s going to mug a sumo wrestler?

Everything was done with perfect decorum.  The winners didn’t cheer, punch the air or even smile, and the losers accepted their lot with equal equanimity; there were no tantrums, nobody was ‘gutted’, and no spectators questioned the referees’ eyesight.  I think sumo definitely qualifies as a gentleman’s game – in fact, it may well be the only one left.

 

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University life in Japan

Before I arrived, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about teaching in a women’s university.  How archaic, I thought, to have such institutions in the 21st Century in a first world country.  But now that I’ve experienced just how much of a man’s world it is in Japan, and how women are supposed to defer to men at all times, I think it’s better that these girls are allowed to be themselves in this female environment for another four years of their life.  Once they start out on their chosen career – unless they’re planning to be a nun or an infant teacher – they’ll be working with men and will be expected to behave in a dizzy way, raise the pitch of their voice by at least an octave whenever they speak, and giggle behind their hand like a demented hyena as often as possible.

One of the first tasks for my students at the beginning of term was to fill in an information card, so I could learn a little bit about them, and I was astonished when I read about their goals and ambitions –

 

I wondered when was the last time that an English university student regarded marriage as her only long-term goal?  Probably in the 1950s.

Other goals were equally lacking in ambition and drive –

Or how about this list of favourites from a 19 year-old?

No mention of alcohol, cigarettes, nightclubs, clothes, music or any of the other things that university students usually enjoy.

I soon realised that a university in Japan is more like a school in England.  They love a game of snakes and ladders –

And are definitely not too cool to do the Macarena –

I’m planning to teach them the hokey-cokey on the last day of term.

And another thing about these girls is that they’re always so exhausted –

They stay up half the night online, and then can’t stay awake during the day.  It’s such a common occurrence that one of the comments in our comment bank for writing reports says ‘she sleeps in class’.  Even the most disaffected students I taught in England managed to stay awake for the whole lesson.

I’m also getting an insight into the way the Japanese mind works, and for all their reputation for precision and detail, their measuring system seems somewhat vague –

And this girl wasn’t the only one who measured a character’s size in puddings, there were several others.  What sort of pudding, I wanted to know – is there a standard size for a big pudding?

Equally strange is a fondness for pop stars with dead fish eyes –

– I’ve never seen ‘dead fish eyes’ and ‘cute’ in the same sentence before.

The girls graduate in traditional costume, and a hire company set up shop next to the cafeteria a couple of weeks ago, so that the girls could get kitted out –

I was horrified by the price – nearly £400 just to hire the outift – but there was no shortage of customers having a fitting –

It’s different from a standard kimono because it has an extra piece, almost like a skirt at the front, and it’s worn with boots rather than sandals –

I suppose it’s good training for them, so they’ll be used to this formal attire when they finally achieve their ambitions and put on their wedding kimono, before settling down to a life of bliss with a salaryman who works 14 hours a day – weekends too – and hardly ever takes a holiday.

Japan may look Western on the surface, but once you get beneath the veneer you soon find out that it’s utterly, utterly different.

 

 

 

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