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.

Echizen coast, Ono and meeting my host family

Summer is on the cusp of autumn. Rice is being harvested and dried, big ripe apples have come into season and Halloween decorations are in all the stores.

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On a top of a hill over looking a city surrounded by mountains. This is a restoration of the original castle, which was destroyed during the Meiji era in the 18th century.

More importantly, the weather has finally changed. I now don’t have to have the air-con on in my apartment, but a fan still helps to keep the humidity at bay and I still average three showers a day! The heat feels worst on days when it is overcast and a tropical storm is on its way. The thunder storms here are like nothing I’ve seen before. Sometimes lightening can be seen far away, even though you can hear no thunder. Other times it can strike what seems like metres away from you and the thunder rumbles through the ground! But one guarantee is that it will quickly pass and an hour or so later the sky will be clear, like nothing ever happened!Image

Freedom has come in the form of a blue banged-up Suzuki Alto. It’s automatic, has four seats and chugs up the hills like an old pony. The rules of the road have not been a problem, mainly as they drive on the left. The main roads here are based on American suburbs, with wide lanes and big superstores, restaurants and pachinko parlors on either side. Traffic lights every 100 metres means traffic is slow and you can’t go far wrong. A result of this is that there’s a noticeable number of people who jump the lights!

One thing I still have not mastered is the art of bowing, especially bowing in the car. It is not uncommon for other drivers to give you a polite head bow if you let them out but one truck driver gave a full on bow to me. Not something I am going to try! After having my new buggy filled up with gasoline at a local service station, I get a full 90’ bow from the service workers. That’s pretty special! In the office I’ve also seen my vice-principle bowing whilst speaking to someone on the phone. I had to try hard to suppress my laughter!

My little car has already made trips through the mountains to my visiting school as well as to the coast. After a single-track road which carved down the mountains the road took us through a line of houses which backed on to the sea. I didn’t see anyone under sixty in that seaside village! It’s easy to have a skewed view of the population balance in Japan when you work in a school, but from that experience I can understand what they mean by Japan having an ageing population!

Another Suzuki adventure I’ve had, is to Ono, a famous castle city and onwards to an infamous camping spot in the mountains. Named by an ALT many moons ago, ‘The Watering Hole’, most probably based on the tradition of going there on the last weekend before school starts and enjoying the last taste of the summer with a trunk full of beers. So after a long and treacherous drive to the hidden spot, I was ready for a swim in the river to wash away the stickiness of the humid air. My friend and I tepidly got in the water with no idea what could be under the surface. It was turquoise and clear so we trusted old ALTs which assured us there was nothing to be worried of. Thankfully, they were right. I’m not sure if it’s a safe option to be in a river whilst there is a thunderstorm but it certainly was atmospheric! Other ALTs joined us and we had a great evening with a campfire and sharing food people had brought. Teari, the most ‘Amercian’-American I’ve ever met, and also the friendliest, brought a kilogram of tortilla chips and homemade salsa. A welcome change from rice and noodles!

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I was too busy swimming to get a good photo. Just imagine the 500 m gorge this is at the bottom of!

I’ve also met my host family for the first time. This was set up though a volunteer organisation promoting internationalisation in Fukui. Families sign up to meet someone different and perhaps to practice their English on us ‘hosties’, as we’re called here! I have been extremely lucky in being welcomed in to a Japanese family who live just a five minute drive from my apartment. ‘Ko’, a cheeky seven year old, doesn’t get that I can’t understand his Japanese but chats away at length to me!  ‘Azu’ is 10 years old and her older sister ‘Chi’ is 13 years. Their mother ‘Mayumi’ is an afterschool English teacher and their father ‘Manubu’ works in a local micro-chip factory.

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Yes I ate one of those disgusting looking sea snails! You can imagine it wasn’t the best!

Last Sunday I was invited there for a family BBQ and had no trouble finding their house. Ma-chan, as Mayumi said I could call her, loves the story of Anne of Green Gables. So much so, that her and her husband designed their house based on the house in the novel! It has a green roof, red brick and a veranda out of the front. It feels like stepping into an American home more than a Japanese one with rose petal wall paper and vintage ornaments. The one Japanese they have is filled with English materials as it’s where Mayumi has her classes. So it is home from home.

After only going there a couple of times Mayumi has made me feel like part of the family. I have already made Crispy Cakes with the girls and Mayumi has taught me how to make gyozas, or Japanese dumplings. I know look forward to seeing the family every Sunday evening and playing games with the children. I hope I can be a suitable big sister for the girls but I’m sure they’ll teach me more than I can teach them.

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Mayumi, Azu, Chi and Ko putting soy sauce on the sea snails (whilst they are alive) before they go on the BBQ