Christmas in Japan

”Vacations are for students, not for teachers”

On the last day of the school term, I found a timetable of the winter vacation on my desk. I didn’t think much of it as I’d previously asked my vice principle whether I’d have to work during the vacations and he’d said no. Yet, reality hit me when I gave a Christmas card to my supervisor and she said, ”Even though it’s a working day!”. I quickly explained to her that I’d already had the ‘OK’ from the vice principle that I wasn’t needed, but apparently that was incorrect and I was expected to come into school.  ”What for?” I thought, there were no lessons during the holidays! It turns out I was wrong again, as there are lessons for the third graders, and lessons meant marking and marking comes straight to my desk. I also was needed to give interview practice to students who are applying for international courses at top high schools.

Once I got over the initial frustration of the miscommunication between my colleagues and myself, I found out I was only needed at school for just three hours on the 25th and the 26th. The ALT contract states that we have 12 days of nenkyu (bookable days off). This doesn’t sound like a lot, but we also get the generous 15 national holidays of Japan. Like the JET Programme says, ”Every situation is different” and it is up to the school whether they give an ALT time-off during the vacation. I didn’t complain too much as I knew other ALTs who had to spend all day at work during the vacation, so I counted myself lucky. 

Christmas Eve

It is a coincidence that one of those public holidays, The Emperor’s Birthday, is on December 23rd, which being a Sunday this year, meant Japan had a national holiday on the Monday 24th. Therefore I had the pleasure of spending this day with my host family. The children were full of excitement to see me, especially as I’d come laden with gifts! I’d also brought the Wii game console, that my predecessor left me, so the kids could play with it at Christmas. In just 30 minutes they’d set it up and were playing Wii Sport’s Resort, they were loving it!

In the meantime, the oldest daughter and I made gingerbread cookies. For dinner we had takoyaki (pancake-like dumplings with octopus inside), pizza and a fantastic cake with strawberries on it (a customary fruit at Christmas). After much talking, present giving and cooking it was time for me to leave. There was no way I could take the Wii back, seeming as I haven’t used it once since I arrived in Japan, and these children were having such a great time with it. But, I pretended I was going to take it back and the children’s faces dropped. They pleaded with me, ”Just a little more time, please” but I shook my head and said ”Gomen ne. Tanoshikatta desu ka?” (Sorry. But it was fun, right?). I can be so mean when I want to be!

Just before I left, I told them the good news, that they can keep the Wii! The children nearly burst with excitement and nearly went as far as to give me a hug, but their smiles said it all. The parents were happy too, as all day the three children had played amicable together. I went home feeling so lucky I could re-gift the Wii to a good home.

Christmas Day

A white ChristmasIn my own tradition I’d opened presents from my family on Christmas Eve, so I didn’t have the usual stocking-opening excitement on Christmas morning. I received boxes of chocolates, Christmas puddings and biscuits, all making me nostalgic for the Christmas I usually celebrate. It also made me realise the copious amounts of calories consumed during a Western Christmas! I was glad I wouldn’t have too many pounds to burn in January.

Instead of present-giving and a cold Christmas Day walk, I was to be going into work like the rest of Japan. I thought I’d dress Christmassy for the students and wore a red, pleated skirt and a santa’s hat. I was welcomed with ‘‘Meccha kawai!” (So cute!) from students who were tirelessly practising for a band concert the next day. The teachers were much more relaxed than usual and were chatting amongst themselves in the staff room. It wasn’t a special day for them but still they wished me ”Merry Christmas” as I left after my work was done.

In Japan, Christmas is celebrated in the commercial sense but there is nothing at all about Christianity. There are Christmas lights, Christmas decorations and cheesy Christmas songs, but all of this build up is for nothing! Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are popular times for couples to go on dates or for friends to get together but it can easily go unnoticed as it is not a national holiday. The most peculiar thing I found, was how quickly Christmas decorations were taken down; even on the 25th I saw people taking down their decorations! This is probably because the build up for the biggest Japanese festival, celebrations of the New Year, must begin.

I celebrated Christmas by throwing a potluck party with the remaining ALTs left in the Echizen area. Everyone bought something to share and we managed to create quite a spread of food; rotisserie chicken and sausage from the Brazilian meat shop, pumpkin mash, veg and of course, some deep fried chicken.

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!