My First Shansi Report

My first report, summarizing briefly the important parts and events of my life thus far…

As I write this report, I have just finished my second full week of teaching at J.F. Oberlin University in Machida, Tokyo.

 

Settling into Life in Japan

After traveling around Japan during my summer break, I was excited and nervous about moving into my new apartment, the Obirin Co-po, at the beginning of August. Although this was my third time being in Japan, it was my first time living on my own. My first month, however, was filled with one challenge after the next.

My “new” apartment is actually a very old building. From the outside it looks pleasant enough; it is painted an astonishingly bright, borderline garish pink. My first night was rough. Despite having been cleaned and checked before my move in, my bedroom was quite dusty, and this agitated my acute dust allergies. I found tons of mysterious black dots under the kitchen sink. In the afternoon I realized that one of my gas burners was broken. That night I found that the bathroom light was broken. Later when I showered, the water alternated from burning hot to freezing cold. What really ruined my night, however, was when a cockroach scuttled out in front of my face as I reached for a cup at the bathroom mirror. Being alone and terrified of cockroaches, I was utterly helpless as it escaped, rendering me paralyzed in fear for the rest of the night. I knew that the next morning I had to be up at seven to commute to my 9AM Japanese class, but I was unable to sleep more than a restless, itchy three hours. I spent much of that first night looking up how to get rid of pests and dust bunnies.

Starting the next afternoon I cleaned fanatically and set up cockroach traps and baits everywhere. I slowly got used to being alone. I felt at ease as I started accumulating more household goods and then comforts. It took one month for everything broken to get fixed one-by-one, thanks to the help of former Shansi coordinator Yukiko Ebara-san. Only after my work visa finally arrived at the end of the month was I able to step out of limbo and open up a bank account, buy my first smart phone, apply for mandatory city health insurance, and feel like a functional human being, just in time for school to start. My apartment is now fully functional with the only problem being its thin walls: I am woken up at six every morning by either one neighbor’s barking dog or another’s screaming baby.

 

While I settled into the apartment I commuted during Tokyo’s insane rush hours to my Japanese test-prep program at the Kai Language School, where I studied four hours a day for the most difficult level (1) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) in December. There were seven students in my class from six different countries. It was demanding, challenging, and draining, but my classmates were so motivated and teachers so engaging that I had a wonderful time studying. My classmates and I consistently spoke in Japanese long after we left school grounds to travel around Tokyo. In particular this course drastically raised my critical reading ability. Nowadays I study casually with a classmate in Tokyo.

 

Teaching at JFOU (Obirin)

Despite being someone who has sung in front of large groups of people throughout my life, I experience mild to extreme stage fright when I know I’ll be alone at the front of a room. After teaching for two weeks, however, I have become much more relaxed. I am becoming more comfortable with my own teaching style, and I am starting to understand and respond to the different dynamics of my four classes. I teach two level-one reading classes and two level-two writing classes. Each of these classes moves at a different pace, with some better behaved than others: Class 3 is a group of theatre majors, and many are visually artistic. Class 80 is the best at working quietly. Classes 35 and 72 can be chatty, but they are good kids. In addition to teaching these four classes, I facilitate lunchtime Conversation Circle one to two times a week and tutor one-on-one at the Writing Support Center on Mondays.

Before I began teaching I imagined that I would be very strict and speak completely in English. By now I have realized that in some cases Japanese is necessary, particularly when they cannot understand instructions. While I can explain one set of instructions in four different ways in English, sometimes using Japanese is much more time-efficient. My students quickly realized that I can understand everything they say, and they can’t get away with gossiping or talking about non-related subjects. With some exception, I teach almost completely in English and encourage questions in English.

 

Taiko

            Outside of the apartment and school duties, my priority after coming to Japan was to find a taiko dojo (school) to attend throughout my two years in Japan. After much searching, I took the recommendation of taiko teacher and performer Kenny Endo and checked out the very old and prestigious Oedo Sukeroku Daiko Dojo in Ochanomizu, Tokyo. The first time I went I got lost and fell immediately in love with the dojo when their trainee picked me up from the station. (Turns out it was so unexpectedly inconspicuous that I had walked right by it.) Now I commute a total of three hours every Thursday evening for a one and a half hour class, though I would go more often if I lived closer. The dojo was nice enough to let me join five months after the start of the term, and I get a lot of extra attention as I simultaneously adjust to an unfamiliar form and learn the dojo’s arrangement of the traditional “Bon Daiko” song. My class is very rigorous, and my new bachi (sticks) and blisters-turned-calluses have become my pride. My teacher who is also the master of the dojo is an impossibly strong and energetic older man who doesn’t let me get away with a single error. Sometimes he refers to himself as a “Spartan”, and jokingly brings out a bamboo kendo stick with which he might have wacked students in decades past. I am very lucky he does not do that anymore.  

 

Social Life

            One of the most surprisingly difficult parts of being in overly-populated Tokyo as an English teacher is finding opportunities to make friends. This was not an issue when I studied in Osaka in high school and college. Fortunately, I seem to have a knack of meeting wonderful people by accident. Some of my closest Japanese friends I met from complete coincidence, whether it was stumbling upon a local Obon festival and speaking to the taiko player, or approaching a girl my age after getting on and off a bus at the same stops. From now on I hope to keep finding these accidental friends. In the meantime, I am very grateful to be in the company of Senior Fellow Lissette and co-fellow Anabel. We have become very close and spend much of our time together, whether Lissette is giving us advice about teaching, Anabel is encouraging us to jog on the nearby nature path, or I am taking them to see a taiko concert. I look forward to the rest of my Shansi term in Machida and can’t wait to visit the other Fellows!

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「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.