Birthday tears

I am not normally an emotional person. Ok, apart from welling up at the end of romantic films, or watching athletes see their dreams come true in the Olympics, or chopping onions for that matter. But I don’t usually cry on my birthday! I’ve always been a big fan of any celebration. Even when I was ten, somehow I managed to have two parties, two cakes, and at least two weeks of showing off my birthday cards! I loved the attention and I suppose I still do now, just this year, I wasn’t expecting it.

Cards and sweet notes from girls in my English club

Cards and sweet notes from girls in my English club

It’s easy to get into a routine here. Get up, go to school, see lots of faces you don’t really know but who all know you, teach a few classes, mark many books, come home, relax and then start again. Saturdays and Sundays are obviously a bit more exciting than this! But birthdays are an exception, a red-letter day, and usually my favourite day of the year, but not this year.

The night before my 24th birthday, Steve came round. He found me making cakes to take to school to share with my teachers. (In Japan the custom is that, whoever has had a birthday, wedding or new baby should bring edible gifts to share with everyone else. I’ve eaten enough of their beautifully crafted and ridiculously over-packaged gifts to owe them something in return.) Steve had brought round a handful of beautiful wrapped presents and a card, all from the Echizen washi paper village. I was not expecting to receive anything that night and was so surprised that I burst into tears! Steve thought I didn’t like the presents, but I loved them and it wasn’t that at all.

I suppose it’s because for four months I’ve been living alone, and been single for three of the months. I see my good friends in Fukui often enough but it just isn’t the same as living in dorms like at university. I’ve also had limited communication with my friends and family back in England. I usually Skype my parents and grandparents every week and send messages to my close friends on a regular basis, but it’s no substitute for someone handing you a present with your name on it or giving you a deep-felt hug. Those things cannot be said over the Internet, even with a video camera. It’s a lot easier to talk about the weather, strange foods or faux pas I’ve made, rather than say ”I really miss you!’’, if I did I’d probably cry a lot more and crying doesn’t exactly make interesting conversation! I’m not lonely, definitely not ‘home sick’, but my birthday realised that I’ve become unaccustomed to these outright displays of affection. Maybe Japan’s closed society has something to do with this too!

So on my birthday, I was afraid to open the cards my family had sent me whilst at school, in case the equivalent of the Three Gorges Dam broke open and flooded my desk! But I did open them, and trying to hold back the tears, put the colourful cards on my desk. The cards and cake attracted attention in the office and teachers who normally say nothing more than the obligatory ”Ohayou”, were wishing me a happy birthday. They liked the cake too!

The best congratulations I got was from my favourite class. They are an ichi nen-sei class full of bright eyed students who love learning English, or at least enjoy having me in the class. A JTE is their homeroom teacher and always persuades me to come to an extra class with them each week, and they’re so much fun, I can’t say no. I’ve even got to know a few of their names! They are very well disciplined, or come across so, mainly because the boy who says the introductory greeting to the teachers could be a future army general! This twelve year old always looks round to check everyone is standing behind their desks and isn’t holding anything, before shouting at the top of his voice, ‘‘Hello Ms Matsuyama and Sophie’’. I can hardly keep my face straight as the rest of the students repeat after him in unison, ‘Hello Ms Matsuyama and Sophie’ in the same army-like fashion, even though they are just saying ”Hello”! I pull myself together to say ‘’Hello everyone, how are you today?’’. The answers are always a jumbled ‘’I’m sleepy/ I’m hungry/ I’m fine. And you?’’. On that day I replied ”I’m happy as it’s my birthday today!”. Once the phrase had sunk in they all started clapping, whooping and shouting ”Tanjobi omedeto gozaimasu!” like the best thing in the world had happened! I looked to my JTE and we both  laughed at the students’ enthusiasm! I was happy at this comical display of excitement from the class and am always going to remember this moment with a smile.

All day the birthday messages kept flying into my inbox and I had a constant stream of new notifications on Facebook. All these old friends that I hadn’t spoken to for months still thought of me! I was very touched. I also loved spending time with my host family and my new friends here. Everyone made me feel so special, especially when I got to eat the chocolate decoration with my name on it on the cake!

My delicious and beautifully decorated cake made by my host mother

My delicious and beautifully decorated cake made by my host mother

So what is my message? It is simply this, when your next birthday comes round let people celebrate it. Don’t keep it a secret or brush it under the carpet, but go all out and shout it on the rooftops, as people love celebrating birthdays! Even if you’re turning 30, 40, 50 or 60 and want to keep it hush-hush, why not enjoy it instead of hide it? I believe we need to celebrate every good thing that comes.

Thanks to everyone who made me feel special, even from the other side of the world.

Party popping!

So don’t forget to celebrate your birthday and let me celebrate it with you too!

Unicycles are not for the faint-hearted

Over the last couple of months I’ve watched with admiration as the ichi-nen sei’s at my visiting school have been learning to ride unicycles (ichi rinsha). Since 1989 unicycling has been part of the elementary PE curriculum, so many Japanese people under-30s can unicycle! Teachers encourage the students to practice from the start of elementary school, aged 5 or 6, and many children quickly master the balancing act. So every Tuesday I have been observing and encouraging the children who are learning to ride. It’s a humbling experience to see the perseverance of these children, especially for one little boy. Here’s his story.

Mid November – Week 1

I’ve seen a remarkable improvement as three of the girls could ride the length of the gym by holding hands and cycling together. But, there is one boy who hasn’t taken to unicycle riding so naturally and is repeatedly face-planting the gym floor! He gets about one meter from the wall and then falls horrifically to the floor! Yet his determination to ride the unicycle overcomes his pain and any ensuing embarrassment. Respect to him!

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Week 2

Now there are just two girls unicycling at break time, the other one got bored and has moved on to playing badminton with the ni nen seis. The two girls peddle wildly across the gym with massive grins on their faces; both veering for my attention. Smiling at them and shouting ‘Jouzu!‘, I went to towards the boy who is still face-flooring it and decide to be his supportive arm for the break. I say the few encouragements I know in Japanese and try to get him to pedal the two metres between the wall and me. He always lands with a crash. The girls circle around us and say a few ‘Ganbatte’s to the boy before making another loop of the gym.

I desperately want the boy to improve because I know how much he wants to unicycle with his friends. If I was in his shoes I’d have given up by now and taken up a less dangerous activity. Skipping was my forte when I was his age, an activity that is a lot less hazardous!

I told him to look up and to keep his back straight, but this is easier said than done. What amazes me is that he doesn’t seem a tiny bit bothered by falling over, even though his knees must be black-and-blue by the end of the week.

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Hurrah! The boy could now make three metres without falling off. His determination is inspiring. He had obviously practised everyday. I left him to continue practising while the two girls on the unicycles play chase with me around the gym. They went so quickly they could nearly catch me, even when I was running!

Week 4

While playing chase with the girls again I noticed that there were no other unicyclists in the busy gym. After the girls showed off their new circus skill to me, cycling around in tight circles, I went to find the little boy.

I found him sat by the gymnast poles with a sling around his arm. I asked him how he did it and he gestured to me that he fell down after jumping in PE class. It’s such a pity because he was just getting the hang of the unicycle! This day he sat glumly on the PE mats and watched all the other kids play around him. I turned the mats into a throne and made sure no other kids got to sit on the throne but him. Boy, he deserved to be cheered up!

Mid December – Week 5

Instead of unicycling, the whole school took part in Christmas activities. Everyone from the bewildered-looking kindergarten kids to the cool junior high students met in the gym to play games, sing songs and light a candle. I thought we might have been going outside as everyone had come dressed in their coats, but no it was just because it was freezing inside. I was glad to have a little more warmth from my Santa apron and hat! After a few games, we made a big circle and everyone was given a candle. The Japanese version of Jingle bells was played, which ironically no one knew the words to, so me and a few JHS students sang along to in English. After that we got to blow out the candle and make a wish. I looked at the little boy, and you can guess my wish…

Thankfully he has full use of his arm so will be practising again next year.

The best way to soba up!

Ironically the night a friend threw a toga party, it snowed. My friends and I gleefully watched as it surreptitiously covered our cars in a foot of the white, fluffy stuff while we partied in our badly-tied bed sheets. At 1am I traipsed back to my apartment in my bed sheet and welly boots and had forgotten about the next morning’s event; soba making in Ikeda-cho. Soba is a popular type of Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour and is famous in this area. Ikeda-cho is in the middle of nowhere. Snuggled in my bed I secretly hoped that the event would be postponed so I could sleep off the effects of the party. But, it wasn’t. So we drove into the snowy wilderness to make soba.

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The small town of Ikeda is nestled in a low mountain range, east of Echizen and usually takes about an hour drive to get there from Fukui city, but on this day it took two. I’d been there before but it looked completely unrecognisable with a blanket of heavy snow. We drove past many elderly men and women who were shovelling buckets of snow from their driveways and gardens. Their wise, wrinkly faces looked liked they’d seen a lot worst weather than this. They seemed amused to see a convoy of wide-eyed foreigners driving through their little town.

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Beautiful scenery but horrendous driving conditions.

This was an ALT event planned by someone whose JTE was also a Soba Master. This man was kind enough to show us the way to the soba-making centre, as the roads were indistinguishable from the rice fields! He had only been learning how to make soba for two years but he looked like he’d been doing it for much longer.

The ten of us who had signed up to the workshop were mostly first-years in Japan and hadn’t seen this amount of snow before nor had driven in it. Unlike in England where the snow settles for a few days and is thought of as a novelty, in Fukui the snow settles for two or three months! Here the novelty of the snow is lost on most people except for young children and ALTs who are still excited by the prospect of snowball fights, snowmen making and sledging!

When we finally arrived at the soba-making centre, we got to work straight away. The three Soba Masters who had part-time jobs or were volunteer staff at the centre, helped us all turn flour and water into tasty noodles. Here is the general process but not an exact recipe!

Step 1. Take a beautiful old bowl, a sieve and about a kilogram of buckwheat flour (3 parts buckwheat, 1 part plain flour),

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Step 2. Pour in about 300ml of water and mix it in with your fingers. Add about 150ml more water and continue to mix until it has a breadcrumb-like texture. IMG_0313Step 3. Draw the mixture into a ball and knead it, like you would clay. (My partner Laura had expert skills in this part.) Once thoroughly kneaded turn the ends of the dough inwards so it looks something like a flower.

IMG_0316Step 4. Take a metre long rolling pin and start thinning your dough out. Place your hands in the middle of the rolling pin and gently push them outwards as you roll over the rough. Keep turning the dough until you get a circle shape.

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Step 5. Then for the tricky bit, wrap the dough around the rolling pin and roll it in one direction three times. Unwrap and see your dough is turning square shaped! Repeat until your dough is as square shaped as it can be.

IMG_0323Step 6. Fold your dough in four and flour each side before you overlay it.

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Step 7. Then rest a cutting board on top of the folded layers and find a big knife! Tilt the knife slightly to push the board away and make a sharp precision with the knife. Repeat until you’re left with a board full of noodles!

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Eat and enjoy! This dish is called oroshi soba and very popular in Japan. The soba are boiled for two minutes and then blanched in cold water. It is served with a thin dashi-stock and toped with daikon (grated radish), fish flakes and spring onion.

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So did I like it? The subtly sweet taste of the stock, the sharp taste of the daikon and the strange texture of the fish flakes is a strange concoction. Next time, I’d pass on the daikon but everything else was delicious. It’s not my favourite dish but is definitely the most fun to make!

Here a few photos from the back seat of Tom’s car on our journey home.

The view from our table, a frozen pond and a watermill.

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Thanks to Tom and Crystal for organising this super event and for getting us there and back safely!