Life in Japan and Summer Travels abroad- Sept. 30, 2014

In which I wrote about my life updates…

Quarterly Report

Summer Vacation

Since the start of my Fellowship I have tried to make the most out of my extended vacation times to travel to as many places as possible. This summer vacation I was lucky enough to travel to Okinawa, Taiwan, and Indonesia.

Okinawa

Gasshuku (training camp) with Obirin’s Eisaa group Oukaji Eisaa was just a bit different from what I expected. For some reason I had imagined one big beach party with lots of sightseeing and some practices sprinkled in between. It was actually a boot camp with days of intense practices with our sister group from Okinawa Kokusai Daigaku, Okinawa International University. For two evenings we went to see various performances at the enormous Okinawan All-Island Eisaa Festival. It was humbling to come from Tokyo and see so many amazing groups on their home turf. I felt insignificant compared to these awesome performers, who were sometimes as small as an elementary school boy.

I was amazed at how the senpai (senior members) of both Eisaa groups had organized every detail of this week-long trip, from major details like event scheduling and daily transportation to other important details like how our 45-person group could wash our stinking clothes and shower after evening practices. (Campus water shut off at 11pm.) While my body sometimes complained (I started developing muscles in interesting places characteristic to a real Eisaa performer), I developed a stronger foundation, became comfortable with our repertoire, and became better friends with the members of my group, including the dancers I had never gotten to talk to previously. I had an incredible time, all the while raining sweat in our greenhouse-like practice areas.

In my June narrative I wrote about the strange mix of feelings I had being all of a teacher, a foreigner, and a beginner. Being with this group for a full week, I felt like I had returned to my exchange student days. The only instance when I felt remotely authoritative was when I scolded students for staying up past two every night when we had early practices the next day, and some people’s alarms would ring too early, at six. (“Since you’re up so late now, definitely don’t wake Miss Cassie up tomorrow!”) There were a total of four Americans in the gasshuku, including three exchange students from Kansas, California, and Hawaii, and amazed by how gamanzuyoi the group was (they never seemed to complain), we used each other to whisper our little complaints: “Ahh my arms hurt!” “My legs hurt!” “What are we waiting around for?” “I was slipping in my own puddle of sweat.” After the summer the three girls returned back to the States, and for now I am the sole foreigner at practice. On one hand it is a bit lonely. On the other, I now know the Japanese members much better, so I am more comfortable than last semester.
Taiwan

After a few days recovering back in Japan, I went to Taiwan for about two weeks to travel, eat, and visit friends from Oberlin, my exchange student days at Kansai Gaidai, and elsewhere. Similarly to when I visited China in the spring, I had a fun time practicing speaking Mandarin. Unlike in China, I felt much more relaxed and at ease in Taiwan, which is clearly influenced by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture. People were also more likely than in China or even Japan to try to help me in English if I seemed to be struggling. A highlight of my trip was a spontaneous solo adventure to Tainan in the south, where I expected to be totally solitary for the three days and soon befriended a group of young people around my age from my hostel, including a girl from Hong Kong, three girls from Taiwan, a woman from Niigata, Japan, and a boy from Shibuya, Tokyo. With these people I walked all over Tainan, ate delicious things I might not have tried alone, and went to one of Taiwan’s largest night markets. I would definitely go back again some day if I could.

Indonesia

Going back to Indonesia and particularly Aceh after last year’s spectacular adventure was inevitable. Knowing what to expect, I was much more comfortable. It helped that we were constantly with a great group of people. Karl and Tino’s friends had become my own friends. It was exciting to meet Leila in her first few weeks in Aceh and first week of teaching.

Later Anabel and I went to Yogyakarta to visit Julie and meet Ruby. We were only there for a day and a half or so, but it was wonderful catching up with Julie, who is a truly inspiring person. Before leaving, we spent a long layover in Jakarta with Cory Rogers, who was kind enough to come out with us to dinner and lend his couch for a few hours. It was nice to see he was doing well and working in Indonesia even after Shansi. I didn’t like urban Jakarta as much as the other places; in contrast to tiny Aceh and nice-sized Yogya, it felt too huge and we were constantly overcharged by cab drivers. I’m sure if I had more time I would find parts of it to like.

Life Back in Japan

Classes at Obirin

Although a bit nervous about the first day of school, I was super relieved to be able to teach the same students as last year. It was not until after the first week that I read the evaluation comments they had written about me and my teaching style at the end of last semester, and was pleasantly surprised to see comments that were overflowing with positivity. Most said they looked forward to the fun classes. One student said they liked my “brightness” and enthusiasm. A few said they had worried about English but felt they improved in writing and reading. One said she learned to like English. One person even said she was “blessed” to have a fun teacher. I really felt that I had improved tremendously since my first semester, which I can most aptly summarize with the word “bumbling”. What is most important to me is that compared to my first semester, I feel I have created a stronger bond with most of my students.

Miscellaneous

In addition to Eisaa I am still continuing my taiko classes. I have been officially taking classes from my taiko dojo since last September. However, lately I have mixed feelings. It is a shame that I can only practice once a week and that there are so few occasions to perform. Because of our long spring break next year, I may halt classes and search for other venues to practice and perform.

Now that I am in my second year of Shansi, it seems time will fly quickly. I am already thinking about where to travel for my New Year and spring vacations. Before my fellowship ends, I want to travel all over Japan, as well as to Vietnam and perhaps India, the only site I have not been to. I am also thinking about next year. My strongest options now include finding more teaching work in Japan, a Fulbright in the Philippines, or returning to the States for graduate school or perhaps as the Returned Fellow. My interview with the Oberlin Fulbright committee is this Saturday. I’m nervous and excited to see how things will go in the next few months.

「縁があるんだよ」: Two stories of “fated” encounters

Before I talk about my summer experiences with Japanese transportation as well as my language course, I want to take this time to talk about an important and amazing Japanese word: 縁, or en.

「縁がある」、en ga aru, or “to have en” is to have a destined connection with someone. Be it coincidence or fate, an unintended meeting has resulted in a special or 大切な relationship.

The first time I encountered this experience and the word en was when I studied at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka in 2011:

The summer between my semesters abroad, I decided to invite a Japanese friend to go see a taiko happyokai (taiko recital or concert) with performances by various classes in Kyoto’s “Taiko Center” school. At that happyokai I saw my first eisaa performance. エイサー、or Eisaa is a traditional Okinawan performance art, including dance, music, and Okinawan handheld taiko, and is the Okinawan equivalent to mainland Japan’s Bon-Odori, or “dance of Obon”. Obon is the Japanese festival of the dead, and likewise Eisaa was traditionally performed to honor the dead. Obon in Japan just ended yesterday, August 16th.

This is a sidetrack! I saw my first eisaa taiko performance, fell in love, and went on to study eisaa in Japan until after returning to Oberlin. Then for the rest of my college career I studied the Okinawan conflict with the Japanese and American governments over the US military bases and aircraft that occupy the island today. (My senior Capstone paper was on this subject!)

Still sidetracked. After seeing this concert and becoming interested in Eisaa, one day I was biking from Gaidai to my sharehouse (dorm-like apartment) and passed by a group of five or six people doing eisaa in front of Hirakata Station. Although they did not have much of an audience, I decided to double back and watch. After they finished, I decided to ask them about their activities. Long story short, from then on I befriended the members of the group, and through the leader, elementary school teacher Honda-san, met another important friend Matsumura-san, a sanshin (3-stringed snake-skinned banjo type instrument, the Okinawan shamisen) teacher who has never been seen in anything other than traditional yukata and geta (sandals). Throughout the rest of that semester Matsumura-san taught me much about Japan, Japanese language, about Okinawa, about people, and about life. He was the one who taught me about en, or a fated relationship.

If I hadn’t doubled around to speak with Honda-san and her eisaa companions, I never would have met Matsumura-san, and I would never have been able to proceed with my Okinawan research as far as I did.

Honda-san's students performing in the Hirakata City Eisaa Festival.

Honda-san’s students performing in the Hirakata City Eisaa Festival.

Matsumura-san invited me to his sanshin class. He also taught me in a tiny Okinawan restaurant near Gaidai.

Matsumura-san invited me to his sanshin class. He also taught me in a tiny Okinawan restaurant near Gaidai.

And now for my second story. Coincidentally, it takes place around the time of Obon.

As you read in my last post, I had a rough first week in my apartment. One night after meeting a friend in Tokyo for a farewell lunch (she just finished one year of teaching for JET in Aomori), I caught the end of the Fuchinobe (town) Obon festival just to realize that the free Obirin shuttle I usually took home was no longer running. Unsure of where the public buses ran and unwilling to pay for a taxi, I decided to walk home. I’d never done it before, and was told by Lissette that it would take about 30 minutes. I was dead tired from a long day and lack of sleep (caused by trauma from the first cockroach). I wanted to fall into a bed (or some hole) rather than walk even ten minutes home.

As I was walking home feeling exhausted and lonely, I’d reached the halfway point when I heard the sound of taiko in the distance.

I was drawn to the sound of taiko like the giant, dumb bugs outside are drawn to my building’s lamps. (Cute, right?) I followed the sound down a narrow road and was shocked when it opened up to not just a temple, but an entire Obon festival with men, women, and children in yukata.

Imagining stumbling from a deserted road onto a scene like this.

Imagining stumbling from a deserted road onto a scene like this.

I honestly thought the police were coming to stop the party and the noise. They actually came to join in the last dances.

I honestly thought the police were coming to stop the party and the noise. They actually came to join in the last dances.

These kids had a fun time running around before joining the dance.

These kids had a fun time running around before joining the dance.

Emotionally I’d been completely revived. I was happy and excited. Although a dancing, yukata-clad obaasan (older woman) gestured for me to join the dance, bone-deep exhaustion led me to politely decline with a wave of a hand and an apologetic bow of my head. After the very last dance (they seemed to have a “last dance” about three times), I approached the man playing the taiko to ask him about where and with whom he played. After telling him I would be teaching at Obirin for two years, he told me he had to leave but introduced me to a man who lived in the neighborhood, Suzuki-san.

After talking excitedly for a while and introducing me to others in the neighborhood (as almost everyone but me was from the neighborhood), Suzuki-san introduced me to his daughter Satomi who studied and worked in the US for about 10 years- and had also been standing right near me the entire time I was there. (I almost tried approaching her beforehand, but was too tired.) Turns out she teaches shime-daiko (small taiko) to young children every Sunday.

The Suzuki family then brought me to their house for tea and traditional snacks. I was taken in like a stray cat. Usually you should never ever go home with people you just met, but I had a sense that these two people were special, and realized I was right when I saw their beautiful and enormous traditional house, with a large yard and garden. The warm and genki Suzuki-san says he’s seventy, but looks so youthful that it’s impossible to believe. He is a retired teacher (or professor?) and likes to grow his own vegetables. His wife, Satomi-san’s mother, passed away a few years ago from illness. She was an amazing woman and a social worker who was so influential she won an award of recognition from the Japanese Minister of Welfare. They set up a small Buddhist shrine to her in their traditional Japanese tatami room, complete with a large picture, offerings, and incense. After fun conversation and feeding me yatai stand yakisoba (fried noodles), traditional snacks, and tea, they drove me home with a full bag of home-grown vegetables.

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I ate the cucumbers raw, without cutting them up or anything. The bag of popcorn was plopped into my hands by the festival’s popcorn seller without me even asking for any.

Today I visited them again and once again was filled with tea and snacks. They had a total of six different guests come in and out throughout my stay to pay respects to Satomi’s mother and to give post-Obon gifts. They took time to help me figure out my internet situation in my apartment, then sent me home with another bag of goods:  This time, canned peaches, a Madeleine cake, mini tomatoes, and an apple.

If I hadn’t missed my bus, decided to walk home, stumbled into the temple celebration, and called out to the taiko player, I wouldn’t have met and befriended such amazing people. Like two years ago, this could just have been a series of great coincidences, or it could be because of my love for taiko. Or maybe en really exists.