A caterpillar in my tights, and other unfortunate events.

Living as an semi-illiterate foreigner in Japan is an illuminating experience. Sometimes I imagine this is what being a child is like in an adult’s world. You have to order food from a picture menu, play charades with the waitress and make assumptions based on past knowledge and experiences. Most of the time it is possible to survive in this environment and, how we say ‘playing the gaijin (foreigner) card’ will excuse even the worst faux pax.

Having lived in Japan for nearly two years, I wish I was not still in the survival-phase, but my Japanese ability sadly lets me down. What I’ve come to realise is that I can’t rely on two years of immersion in Japan not to make mistakes. So, here are a series of unfortunate events and outright life fails that I’m determined to learn from.

1. NEVER HANG WASHING OUTSIDE

Two weeks ago whilst I was teaching a class of very genki first years, I felt an itch on my thigh. I didn’t do anything about it until I got home and took off my tights to find five blotches of red spots that were causing me an intense searing pain. I totally flipped out and told my friend I had shingles and she would probably need to drive me to the hospital that night. But, I had no other symptoms apart from the red spots and from that information, the Internet told me it couldn’t be shingles, or meningitis. I went to bed, wondering in what state I’d wake up in the next day.

The spots had become even more inflamed and painful during the night, so I rushed to school to show the school nurse, but in my panicked state I forgot to get a translator to explain her diagnosis. She took one look at the blotchy bite-like spots and typed something into Google Translate, that came up as ‘hairy woolly bear caterpillar’. Eugh! She was telling me that a baby caterpillar had somehow got into my tights, either it was born there, or had crawled in when I had left them out to dry. The thing had spent the day rolling around in my tights, getting it’s spikes stuck in my leg. I was, and still am, completely grossed out. But at least it wasn’t shingles.

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On her advice, I went to a pharmacy to get some steroid cream to ease the pain. The cream the pharmacist recommend me had some cute cartoons on the box. I really didn’t recognise the potentially lethal mukade centipede (second from the left) on the packaging! This is a prime example of how Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture is everywhere.

I don’t know for sure what it was that got in my tights, but one thing’s for sure, I won’t hang my washing outside again, in case another caterpillar gets in them. I was also warned not to leave any of my clothes on my tatami matting, in fear of mites will crawl into any other of my undergarments.

2. DO NOT PARK ON BACK ROADS IN JAPAN

Festivals in Japan make everyone just a bit crazy. Every man, woman and their dogs goes to the same place at the same time, causing chaotic parking situations. It’s amazing how Japanese people can forget all manners when they are fighting over a car parking spot, like the woman who stood in the only spot free, talking on her phone and shaking her hand at me as I tried to pull into the spot. Not the politest nation after all then.

On this occasion I was in Fukui City for a hanami party, only to find a ‘full’ sign for the car park. I didn’t know another car park nearby, so I decided to join many other cars parked around a small neighbourhood park. I left my car between two other cars, neither of which had paid for a parking ticket.

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My worst fear hit me when I returned to my car. There was a huge yellow parking ticket on it. The first thing I did was rip it off, wishing it was never there. If only parking tickets worked like that.

I drove home angry at why I got a parking ticket and the cars around me didn’t. Well a parking ticket can’t be that much, can they?

Unfortunately, in Japan they can. When the police officer told me how much I’d have to pay, I couldn’t believe my ears. It was ¥18,000 (£105, $177). And the reason why? Because I was parked within 5 meters of a junction, even though it was a small side road meeting an even smaller road. Why aren’t there lines on roads where you can’t park? Or a clear no-parking sign? This makes no sense to me.

So the next day my supervisor and I went to pay the bill at the intimidating-looking police station. It’s a block concrete building that is so dark inside it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. I was led to a cornered off area, where the walls were covered with wanted convict posters, and a police officer filled in the paperwork for my own crime; ignorance. And because I didn’t have my hanko (signature stamp on me), I had to give my fingerprint. I felt like a criminal who had been wrongly accused of a crime. I just didn’t know the parking rules! I paid a high price for that lesson.

3. ALWAYS CARRY EXTRA CASH

For some reason, cash and credit cards are only accepted in large department stores in Japan, so you have to pay for cash for most things. This is an outright pain, especially as ATMs ‘close’ after 8pm at night! The only semi-plausible theory I’ve heard for this, is that it’s to prevent salary men spending more money than their wife allows them. Anyway, I have been caught out on this many of time, the worst time being when I’d just reached the register with a trolley full of food, only to find I had no money in my purse (probably because I’d just paid the parking ticket). So I had to drive two kilometres to the nearest ATM to get money out. Thankfully, it was open at that time of day.

4. DOUBLE CHECK THE MEANING BEFORE FREAKING OUT

A gynaecologist visit in my books is always a terrifying event, but this fear is tripled if you think that the doctor you will see a non-English speaking man.

II was keeping myself pretty calm that day; I had parked in the proper car park, I had money in my purse and I knew where to go in the hospital. All was swell until I checked in at the reception and the lady said the female English-speaking doctor wasn’t there, ‘inai’. I obviously didn’t listen hard enough to the rest of what she said, but assumed she’d told me that I would see another doctor. I went in the waiting room to find that the only other gynaecologist there was a middle-aged male doctor, and I assumed he didn’t speak English.

At that point I freaked out. My phone was nearly dead so I had no way to translate key words for the doctor. I was literally shaking in my shoes at the thought of the awkward moments that were to come. For someone who has swum with whale sharks, jumped off waterfalls and spoken in front of assemblies full of students, I think I am a reasonably courageous person. Yet for those thirty minutes in the waiting room dissolved me to a jittery mess.

When I was finally called into the  doctor’s room, I walked there slowly, still considering to make a run for it. But who was sitting there but the friendly, English-speaking female doctor I had an appointment with! I let out a deep sigh. The receptionist must have meant, ‘She isn’t here now, but she’ll be coming later’. I wished I had saved myself the panic-attack by double-checking what she said. Another hard lesson to learn.

5. DO NOT TRAVEL IN GOLDEN WEEK

As it’s my last few months in Japan, I wanted to travel to the Japanese Alps to see the famous snow monkeys and the beautiful castle in Matsumoto. I had spent many hours planning a three-day trip, as you can tell by the hand drawn map below. Yet, on the day before we were about to leave, my friends talked to our Japanese friends about the traffic in Golden Week. Everyone we spoke to said we shouldn’t go because we could get stuck in horrendous traffic jams. Golden Week is practically the only time of year that Japanese people have time to travel, and considering that there are 126 million Japanese people, a top tourist destination such as Nagano, is almost certainly going to be crowded. So we called off the trip at the last-minute. It doesn’t look like I’ll see the snow monkeys after all, but at least I don’t have traffic-jam nightmares to retell.

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The plan we didn’t do, in fear of Golden Week traffic.

6. DO NOT ADMIT TO BEING NON-AMERICAN

It was at my first taiko drumming concert that this dreadful moment came to be. We were at an old people’s home and were entertaining them for an hour with our newly-found drumming skills, and on request of our teacher, a couple of songs. After struggling through Country Roads and Hello Goodbye, the five Americans were asked to sing their national anthem, and I stepped back and enjoyed their singing. Then, out-of-the-blue, our taiko sensei asked for the British national anthem! He knew I was the only Brit there, but this didn’t seem to stop him putting me on the spot. I tried to refuse, but knew there was no way out of it. So, I stepped forward and belted out the first verse of ‘God save the Queen’ by myself, unaccompanied. I didn’t know I knew all the words, but what I learnt through the Girl Guides had not been forgotten. I did surprise myself with this, but it is something I don’t want to repeat, ever.

The taiko group I play in.

The Iwada-cho Taiko group including; 4 Americans, 2 Japanese, 1 South African and 1 British player.

7. ALWAYS READ THE PACKET

Sometimes I’m a bit happy-go-lucky in the supermarket and put things in my trolley without reading the label. I have mistaken a yogurt drink for milk, and accidentally tried making icing sugar with corn flour. My latest blunder was mistaking garlic slices for sliced almonds. Naturally, it was only when I had sprinkled them on my ice-cream sundae and taken a bite, that I realised my mistake. There is a reason garlic ice-cream has not been invented!

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Enjoying the Azaleas in Nishiyama Park as part of my B-plan for Golden Week.

It seems that I have grown older in Japan, but not wiser. It doesn’t help that Japan is a minefield for making stupid mistakes out of ignorant or spontaneous decisions, as well as being more or less illiterate. I just hope that when I return to the UK,reverse culture shock doesn’t make me a foreigner in my own country. Will I be slurping noodles in Wagamama’s and bowing to my future boss? Perhaps so.

Kodo: the heartbeat of the drum

Have you ever visited somewhere which totally enchants you? You know when a place has captivated you when you are leaving and you look back at the island, city or countryside and say to yourself “I will come back someday”. Yet at the same time, knowing that you may never get the opportunity again, and the memories you’ve made there will be forever romanticised in your mind.

Last summer, some friends and I visited Sado Shima, a small island in Niigata Prefecture, off the western coast of Northern Honshu. We were going for the Earth Festival to see the internationally renown taiko group Kodo play on their home island. It was by word of mouth that we heard about this festival, and it didn’t disappoint.

Taiko in Japanese refers to any kind of drum, but it is the performance of an ensemble of drummers playing for performances that taiko is now become known as. These drums had previously been used to motivate troops in warfare, to accompany Shinto dances and as a key component of Noh and kubuki theatre. In the 1950s a master taiko drummer named Daihachi Oguchi helped transform taiko from its traditional roots in shrines and a festivals to kumi-daiko, playing for the sake of performance. This energetic style of taiko took off in popularity and soon groups sprung up all over Japan. Nowadays children learn it in elementary school although the arcade game Taiko no Tatsujin is more popular than playing the real thing!

If you have heard of taiko before, you may be familiar with the group Kodo. They have toured the world, shaking stages and impressing audiences wherever they have played. They are a group who don’t do anything by halves.slide06

Only the best taiko drummers in Japan have a chance of becoming part of Kodo. Apprentices have to endure two years of rigorous training and practising to even audition to become a performer. The daily routine for members is gruelling, starting with a 10 km run, then the rest of the day spent drumming until they are too tired, or they have two many blisters-on-blisters to drum any more. It is not just their bodies that the forty men and the seven women of Kodo that are in training. Being part of Kodo is also a training of the mind to forgo selfish desires and to make decisions as part of a collective. Watch this video to find out more of the hardships apprentices go through to become part of Kodo.

Although playing taiko is no longer associated with religion, it does still possess a deeper meaning than just a musical performance. “Kodo” has two meanings, the first being “heartbeat” referring to how the taiko resembles a mother’s heartbeat as felt in the womb. The second reading is “children of the drum” that reflects Kodo’s desire to play the drums simply, with the heart of a child. Yet it is certainly not children you think of when you watch Kodo play.

The men of Kodo are the gladiators of drumming. Wearing just a fundoshi, a white loin-cloth, it is not just the rhythm of the drum that will impress you. The strength and stamina of these men is exhibited in various musical pieces, and they play the drum in various positions. In one piece, three men sit reclined on the stage with an odaiko drum between their legs and their toes curled around it. They play in this half-sat-up position for over ten minutes, their stomach muscles tightened, their buttocks clenched and their quads in tension, whilst their arms swing back and forth as they beat the drum. From the shouts of passion and pain that they make, you can be mistaken for thinking you are watching a primal ritual, not a drumming performance in the twenty-first century.Kodo-5-Epworth

Yet that piece was just a warm up. The real jaw-dropper was when two men stood on opposite sides of a two metre high and three metre long odaiko and played it like they were at war. With their backs arched, their legs apart and their arms above their heads, this type of drumming is so athletic it could become an Olympic sport.Kodo12_main1

As a member of the audience you can feel the deep rumble of the odaiko reverberate through your chest, and the beat is infectious. My friends and I found ourselves dancing with a crowd of energized fans, all wanting to be part of the performance, not just the audience.

After two nights of watching Kodo, my friends and I were enchanted by them. All we talked about was who our favourite player was, the man we met who was an ex-taiko player and sightings of their van going through the town. So we visited Kodo Village, where the group live and train for the months they are not on tour, to find out more about them. We learnt about the strict rules of being part of the ensemble; no television, radio, alcohol, cigarettes, or sex. Members also have to plant rice, cook and clean together. Their sole purpose it to give their whole selves to the community and the philosophy of Kodo; spreading the spirit of the drum.IMG_1405

It was when we were leaving on the ferry back to the mainland that we were treated to an unexpected performance from the Kodo performers. They had come to see some of their members off, who were leaving on the same ferry as us. They set up a few drums on the port, and as the ferry engines revved up, they began to play. This time, they were not in their traditional outfits but were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Nor were they performing for money, they were doing it for the love of playing. Band members from apprentices to directors took part in the impromptu farewell party. As they boat was making its way out of the port, I could still see the group playing and waving goodbye. And the Kodo members on the boat were still waving their shirts in the air, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some tears in their eyes. From this farewell, it was clear that the group were very close to each other. Undoubtedly their monastic lifestyles and the long hours of practising their performances created deep friendships.DSCF1110IMG_1427

It was a privilege to see this group, and one I’d recommend to anyone. If you can visit the Earth Celebration Festival in August on Sado Shima you should visit other places on the island; beautiful beaches, century-old cedar forests and mountainous roads with vast ocean views. It’s definitely on the unspoilt, and underrated list of places to go in Japan, but one that has a lot of potential for becoming popular. Even if you just visit to watch Kodo, you may become enchanted with it. I did.DSCF1103

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A wild sea

In the distance over Sado

The Milky Way

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