It’s school visit season again! I usually give presentations to 5th and 6th grade students. I’ve perhaps learned more over this process than the students have…

Seeing as I am a CIR (Coordinator for International Relations) rather than an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), my “regular” schools are the ones I only go to once a year or so. Rather than teaching English, I give presentations about the US culture in Japanese. This is so that everyone can understand clearly, but as you can see, misunderstandings sometimes arise anyway. Sometimes it’s a very brief presentation amidst five presentations about different countries and then I never see those kids again, sometimes the kids do research and I get to watch their presentations later (and correct them if necessary), sometimes the kids prepare fully rehearsed welcome presentations about their city and neighborhood and Japanese culture. Technically I can be called to a school any time of year, but autumn is usually when there is the most flexibility in the academic year to fit in some extra study about other cultures, or a day to hang out and play with the CIRs.

In a ten minute presentation to elementary school students I usually focus on basic facts about the US (as compared to Japan), geography, famous places and scenery, sports, and food—everyone loves to hear about food culture! If I have extra time or if the teachers have special requests I may add other topics, like more about my hometown or weather or wild animals or what US public elementary schools are like, or we play a bilingual version of Simon Says. I’ve only gone to a few junior high and high schools, but sometimes the teachers have heard that I was homeschooled and specifically request presentations about this, and the teachers tend to listen in with the most interest (though sleeping in and wearing pajamas all day and going to theme parks on weekdays always gets an “ii na~” out of the students, too). It’s so much easier to present about vastly different topics like that when you are able to devote the majority of a presentation to it, as it gives you a chance to give it more context and to clear up misunderstandings before they even arise.

I hope, anyway. Sometimes you only learn what leads to over-generalizations and misunderstandings after inviting them. It’s a learning process for everyone.

Sometimes, I give presentations specifically about Matsue’s Friendship City, New Orleans, and the chef and owner of Greens Baby (a social space with worldwide taste) teaches the kids to make gumbo (or at least, chop and saute the holy creole trinity of vegetables to add to the base he’s already prepared). One of my favorite school visits was one of these gumbo classes for the special ed kids, where they were really engaged in the presentation and asked all sorts of questions, and wrote very passionate thank you letters to me later. I went back a few weeks later to their school-wide concert, where they performed “When The Saints Go Marching In” and gave a little poster-board presentation to their entire school about New Orleans.

They nailed it.

I was so proud that I got a little choked up.

In Japan, April is not only cherry blossom season, but also the start of the new fiscal year and the new school year. Although New Years is the biggest holiday of the year and clearing out a lot of the staleness of the past year, spring feels most appropriate for new beginnings. New employee recruits and transfers are getting to know their coworkers at flower-viewing picnics, and s school opening ceremony without cherry blossoms would be like a Christmas without cake.

Girls and boys, be ambitious!

After the drive, after the museum, after the bus ride and along the hike, my friend and I were wondering how much further until we’d reach one of the tunnels of Iwami Ginzan. We passed some smiling groups of elderly travelers as well as some scattered young couples, and actually going through Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft seemed an afterthought to the comfortable mountain stroll.

Pleasant though the weather was that day, it was a long enough hike that no one would have thought less of you for taking a breather here and there, and in weather any warmer than that you’d be foolish not to take your own drink. For those who are forgetful, however, there is a light up ahead–a tea house called Ginzan Chaya.

In all my travels through Japan and in all my stories I write in my head and sometimes go searching out settings for, this place more than any other I’ve chanced upon inspired stories in my head right away. It wasn’t run by just anyone–it seemed to be run by children.

The first thing I noticed when we approached was the kittens–a cage full of them, people holding them, and a decorative hand-written sign saying they were free. As if selling used cars, the girl in the red apron–who, for as far as I could tell, was the oldest sister and in middle school at the highest–was holding a couple kittens herself as she smooth-talked the young couple cuddling one of the kittens. Seeing as my current lifestyle does not allow me frequent fluffy animal encounters I couldn’t help but smile widely at the unexpected sight. Catching my smile, the girl saw her chance, and before I knew it I was holding one. The little orange tabby looked just as surprised as I was. “Sorry,” I said to my friend, “I think I need to stand here and hold a cat.”

The young couple politely gave the kitten back and politely declined taking her home, and I knew I’d have to do the same with the one I was holding. The sales-girl seemed unsurprised though she might have hoped they’d be takers, and she returned the kitten to the cage. But this time I had noticed who else was occupying the cage–for all I could tell, it was her youngest brother?

He was wearing a worn-out one-piece hoodie with ears of some kind of animal or otherwise, and he had a terribly running nose, but it didn’t bother him in the least–not when there were kittens to be held! The little tyke obviously loved them, though the kittens weren’t quite as appreciative of his hugs.

The other brother was on the outside of the cage, and looked to be only about the age of a 1st grader. The two clear indicators that he may have been a sibling was the nature banter between him and the older sister in how she’d nag him to do something and he’d give her some lip–and that he and the little brother in the cage both had the word for “autumn leaves”, 紅葉 (kouyou), shaved on the backs of their heads. It certainly grabbed attention and whoever shaved them that way was very talented, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the school might have thought of that.

Speaking of, school… school? I’m fairly sure we encountered them on a Saturday, but the naturalness with which they took to running the tea house made it seem as though that was their daily life. The younger sister was sitting away from the kittens and handling sales of bottled drinks from an old ice chest, and the table area set up outside was dotted with buckets and buckets of toys for free use at the establishment–a business move it seemed that only children could think of and employ. It was as if they ran the whole place freely, and it was their home-grown practice that brought for such independence and lack of shyness very uncharacteristic in most Japanese children.

What were these kids, homeschooled?!

In my experience in the US I have noticed that the lack of needing to “fit in” makes homeschoolers very unafraid of doing unconventional things and, contrary to stereotypes, rather unafraid of approaching people they don’t know. However, in Japan, homeschooling is usually unthinkable and I often need to explain that it is a legal and recognized form of education, it is not a matter of quitting or refusing school, and it is not a matter of being academically unfit for regular school, and that it’s not a bunch of shut-ins. I don’t usually bring this topic up unless I have ample time to explain it because it’s such a foreign idea. That all said, there are homeschoolers in Japan.

So they probably weren’t homeschooled–but even after moving on past the tea house, I found myself wondering more and more. Were their parents inside where the “real” business takes place? Maybe they were covering up top-secret stuff their parents were involved in by running the tea shop and distracting people with kittens? Maybe their parents have gone missing and they’ve quit school while very capably running a business? Maybe the tea house is really Neverland hidden away in the mountains of western Japan? I could just imagine all the ways the story could go.

Not that I stayed long enough to know, just long enough to wish I could keep a cat and have the kids bury themselves in my imagination. But we couldn’t linger–Ryugenji Mabu was up ahead and waiting.

Many people across Japan are familiar with the basics of the tennyo (heavenly maiden) legend, and there are a lot of fun ways to read into it, and compare or combine it with the legend of the star-crossed lovers–including another heavenly maiden–who meet on Tanabata. Although commercially celebrated on July 7, the celestial activity it actually celebrates was on August 2 this year. Next year (2015), it will be on August 20.

This particular version of a well-known legend takes place in Kurayoshi, Tottori Prefecture. The kids of Kurayoshi still keep the associated drum and flute traditional alive, as you can see on their blog.

Click for source

A very, very long time ago, in the land of Hoki, a young woodcutter was going about his usual work when he discovered something hanging on a boulder which he had never seen before. It was a beautiful, pure white and transparent folded cloth. Something like this must belong to a heavenly maiden, he thought, and then took the garment home.

That evening, as he was eating dinner, there was a knock at the door. There, he found a frantic but very beautiful maiden. “I cannot return home. Please allow me to stay,” she said sorrowfully.

“Not to worry, come on in.”

The maiden went on to explain, “I am a heavenly maiden. The gods sent me on an errand to the land of Izumo, and on the way back I stopped to bathe. I lost my heavenly robes,” her voice began to waver as she succumbed to tears, “Now I can never return to the heavens.”

Upon hearing this, the young woodcutter decided to hide the robes and never tell her that he stole them.

The heavenly maiden remained at his house, and at some point she became his bride. She gave birth to two sons, and when they grew older, she taught them to play the drums and flute*, and the sounds reminded her of her time in the heavens.

The years passed, and one summer night her sons went out to the mountain to gather bamboo for Tanabata decorations. In light of the holiday, she decided to prepare a feast, and starting pulling out all of the dishes she would need from the cupboard. While searching for some misplaced dishes, she discovered a dark corner of the cupboard where there was a wrapped package.

Finding it curious, she opened it and was shocked. “Why, it’s my heavenly robes!”

Nostalgic over seeing her garment again, she immediately put it on, and her body became light and fluttered off the ground, lightly rising toward the sky.

Her sons returned from gathered bamboo and noticed her up above them. “Ma!” they shouted. “Where are you going? Ma!!”

They called and called, but her form grew further and further away and then disappeared from sight, and she never returned to them.

Since then, it has been said that you can hear the sound of drums and flutes coming from the mountain. This is the voice of the two children calling out to their mother in the heavens. At some point, they started calling the mountain Utsubukiyama* because of this. How pitiful! Even today, you can sometimes hear the sounds of the drums and flutes riding on the wind.

Click for source

*The name “Utsubukiyama” can be broken down as follows:
The verb for beating a drum is 打つ (utsu)
The verb for blowing a flute is 吹き (fuki)
The word for mountain is 山 (yama)
Utsubukiyama: 打吹山

Being a ninja of sorts is just part of the job description when it comes to relaying information, though this is more likely what she’s referring to, as the extra posters were to be found all over Matsue for a time. People I know also catch sight of me on traffic safety promotion posters, too. That’s not to mention how much media exposure I have in newpaper articles, pretty much every TV channel here, and being a semi-regular radio personality.

I sometimes think I should add “being a celebrity” to my list of CIR job tasks. Not that I’m complaining, but being so well recognized makes it a little hard to be a ninja sometimes.

Plus, when we–who certainly are not professional models–had fun taking pictures that day, we had no idea how many places we’d encounter our own faces. For instance, we’re on the cover this month’s Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR)’s newletters which ran a feature article about the roles of CIR in general around Japan. We are now the face of ninja–I mean, CIRs–everywhere!

CLAIR-ninja

Click for source

Happy Hina Matsuri, otherwise known as Dolls’ Day or Girls’ Day! At this time, families with young daughters decorate with elaborate dolls and eat delicate delicacies.

“But wait!” some of you may say. “Hina Matsuri is March 3! It’s April 2, so you’re a month late.”

To which I say, “No, I’m not! I live in the San’in region!”

Recall this lengthy explanation of why the modern Japanese calender, in an attempt to synchronize with the West and retain tradition, is more than a little complicated and maybe a touch crazy. For our purposes here, suffice to say the Gregorian calender tends to be roughly a month off the old Japanese agricultural calendar, and so holidays that mark the changing of seasons or events in nature may be celebrated weeks before these seasonal changes. Something that marks the beginning of spring feels even less festive when you’re in a colder area, so some areas–such as the Tohoku region and the San’in region–choose to celebrate the holiday according to the old calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar.

While today may be April 2 according to the calendar in broad use, it is 3/3 according to the old one, and Hina Matsuri as it is traditionally celebrated is going on today.

What do I mean by “traditional”? That depends on how far back you want to look, though there is “traditional” merit in how it is celebrated in any given time period. While the “traditional” mental image of the celebration may call to mind a multi-layered display of Heian courtiers and their accessories, there are of course modern families who find this a pain for the price and go with cuter, smaller renditions to enjoy the festivities. In the smaller towns where the houses are bigger, however, you’re somewhat more likely to encounter people with room in their homes for the full sets. Some friends of mine in Yasugi have three daughters, and they’ve had three complete sets on display throughout March and through now.

Part of the fun of observing the dolls is seeing all their unique expressions. Which doll has what pose and expression is generally determined by its position in the set, but it was fun to compare them between the three sets.

Or if you’re too lazy or cheap to get a set of dolls to display, or even if you don’t have any daughters to celebrate, anyone can easily enjoy the dainty atmosphere decked out in visions of peach blossoms, red, white, and green sweets, and luxurious kimonos and decorations.

I didn't plan on celebrating Hina Matsuri, but that was a delicious shortcake.

I didn’t plan on celebrating Hina Matsuri, but that was a delicious shortcake.

The doll set as we know it today didn’t really become a tradition until Japan was westernizing, though. The practice of making wishes for a girl’s bright future by making use of dolls goes back even further.

In fact, it didn’t even have to be for girls. We have records from the Heian era about a millenium ago that men as well used dolls in a special bina-asobi ritual. Dolls were not so much to be a toy as to represent the form of a human (hence, they are called ningyo today, a different pronunciation of the characters 人形 for hitogata as they used to be called, which literally mean “human form”). Representing human form gives them the ability to take human curses in our place. That’s great and keeps us from getting sick and all, but you can’t just keep that cesspool of bad luck with you. After taking the fall for us, the dolls must be banished so that the curses stay far away.

This is where we get Nagashi-bina, the ritual floating of dolls down the stream or out into the ocean. This grand sending-off is the more direct origin of Hina Matsuri as we know it today, though you could go back hundreds of years even before the Heian era to see some of the earliest uses of dolls for spiritual purposes in Japan, and you’d have to back centuries and centuries further in Chinese history to see where they may have even gotten that idea, what with burying dolls with deceased rulers as opposed to burying live people with them. Given the milleniums of dolls having the bad luck of taking away our bad luck, it makes the notion of a doll hanging around for amusement purposes something ponder-worthy.

In late February leading up through March 3, it’s easy to find doll displays either in museums, public gathering spaces, or personal homes, but what about this darker side of doll use?

The display dolls we now consider traditional come back into the mix here. There is a thought that old, damaged dolls should be allowed to retire, as by that time they have acquired a soul of their own and grown tired from their duties in providing good luck to little girls. Thus, they are usually entrusted to a shrine as opposed to haphazardly thrown out, and while some have taken on unique new lives in artistic displays, there are some shrines that simply store hundreds of these elaborate dolls. If this sort of thing interests you, might be able to visit these kinds of shrines around Kyoto and Wakayama to see the store houses in March, or if that’s not your thing you should beware of these rooms of soulless(?) eyes staring back at you!

You don’t usually find these dolls floating down the river, though… well, nowadays, you typically don’t find any dolls floating down the river. Tokyo makes a good show of it with sending paper dolls down a pink slide to the water, though.

However, then you have Mochigase, a district of Tottori City that has maintained a local practice with its roots in the Edo period. Paper dolls are arranged with sweets and other decorations on a woven straw basket, then sent down the Sendai River (not to be confused with a city in Miyagi Prefecture). This river runs through Tottori City on the way to the Sea of Japan, and runs right by the location of the Nagashibina-no-Yakata, a museum dedicated to the practice of Nagashi-bina and other types of Japanese dolls from different locales and time periods. Mochigase’s doll rituals frequently take place at the banks of the river around here, and it is one of the biggest events of its kind maintained throughout Japan. Smaller cities in Tottori also have their own traditional styles of handmade dolls and similar Nagashi-bina events as well. Unfortunately, I can’t be in Tottori today, so I’ve hunted around for some resources and borrowed from photos instead (click for the sources and more galleries!).

Click for source--there is a whole gallery of semi-official cuteness-in-kimono waiting for you.  FYI, that is the doll museum in the background.

Click for source–there is a whole gallery of semi-official cuteness-in-kimono waiting for you.
FYI, that is the doll museum in the background.

Click for source–Ojisan Jake has a couple of entries about the content of the museum, so I highly recommend check his blog out. These are the sorts of dolls being set afloat down the Sendai River.

Finally, here is a brief article about teaching the not-so-stereotypical sides of Hina-Matsuri to high school students studying Japanese.

I may not be there in person today, but that can’t stop me from enjoying some dainty (and more traditional) Hina Matsuri snacks here.

hina-tottori

hina-closeup

I am currently on vacation and will return to reply to comments and provide new content later. Until then, please enjoy an excess of doodles and comics about my daily life in the San’in region. See you in mid January!

Thankfully this is an old doodle from February of last year, but this moment was a turning point at my naginata lessons. Until that point there was an odd shyness around everyone even though they knew I could speak Japanese. Unlike ALTs, who work in schools, I usually only see kids briefly for a single presentation or event, and then I never see them again. However much fun and however insightful those visits can be, you don’t get to know the kids very well.

However, thanks to little things like playing tag for a few minutes before lessons, I now get to relax and have a lot of fun with my naginata classmates, their families, and my teachers. I look forward to it every week, and leaves me energized!

I am currently on vacation and will return to reply to comments and provide new content later. Until then, please enjoy an excess of doodles and comics about my daily life in the San’in region. See you in mid January!

Hello, my name is Brittany. You can call me amberjack.

Fresh from the Sea of Japan along the northern coast of Matsue.

Fresh from the Sea of Japan along the northern coast of Matsue.

I did have someone mistake my name for “purin” once. Pudding is cuter, so I’ll take it.

I am currently on vacation and will return to reply to comments and provide new content later. Until then, please enjoy an excess of doodles and comics about my daily life in the San’in region. See you in mid January!

My Japanese is usually pretty good, but speaking with very old and very young people can make it difficult to decipher their syllables. That, and when female students–elementary school through high school–get together and start speaking to each other, all of a sudden I don’t understand a word of what is going on. What’s slang, and what’s lazy Japanese, and what’s normal Japanese just spoken two octaves higher than usual? I can’t tell when you all get together! Then again, I was probably just as bad with my own friends.