Ohara Matsuri

•November 5, 2012 • 3 Comments

This past weekend was the Ohara Festival in Kagoshima City! Many different groups from around Kagoshima did the festival’s dance all around town. The whole city was filled with the music for the dance, and anywhere you went on the main street, you could see all the groups. There were also the mandatory food stalls that appear during festivals. Japanese festival food is truly one of the greatest things on earth. I didn’t eat any at Saké Matsuri, so it had been a while. I also had been trying to eat healthy the previous week due to a cold. So when the opportunity to stuff my face while watching a whole town dance came up, well, I couldn’t pass that up.

The festival lasts two days. The first day is really just an abbreviated version of the second day, though it happens at night, which makes it pretty cool. On Friday night I just wandered around, had fun, and ate food. The second day I’d been recruited to work at an information booth.

I wasn’t so happy to wake up at eight on a Saturday. When I got to the booth, it was fine for a while. It was a simple job. All I really had to do was hand people fliers. From the particular booth I was at, I could hear the taiko drum performance. People-watching was also entertaining. However, as the morning went on, my patience started to wear. The people who came to the information booth were largely of an older generation who don’t have much experience with foreigners. By the end of the day I was sick and tired of people starting a question, getting a look at my face, and then assuming out loud that I don’t know what they’re saying. They would be gone before I could respond. I was working with another ALT, and we were both fuming after one man said, “Oh look, how nice, the foreigners are helping.”

After working, as me and the other ALT started heading back through the crowd, one old guy tried to grab onto me. I think he mostly wanted to shake my hand, but my friend in Hiroshima had a similar experience. Once she shook his hand, he didn’t let go. I had a feeling this guy would do the same thing, so I shoved my way through the dense crowd.

I had half a mind to go back to my apartment and take a long nap. However, the CIR I had worked with as an interpreter had asked if I would join his dancing group. I didn’t know whether I’d join, but I figured I might as well go watch. The group wasn’t terribly hard to spot – they were wearing bright green happi, except for my friend, who was wearing sky blue traditional Korean clothes and was carrying a sign that said “Genki Gaikokujin and Friends.” When I got near the group I realized several of the others were friends and ALTs.

The dances would go on for a while, and then the dancers would have several minutes of break in between. During one of the breaks I went over to say hi to everyone. “You should join us!” one ALT said excitedly. “But I don’t have a happi,” I responded. This was okay – someone was there in a few seconds with an extra one.

And so I joined the dancing group.

I didn’t know any of the dances, but they weren’t terribly difficult to learn. I simply kept my eye on one of the better dancers and imitated them. After doing each dance a couple times I had it (mostly) down.

There were four dances. We did three of the traditional Ohara Matsuri dances. Then for the forth we had a freestyle dance that was a mix of the currently viral Gangnam Style and another dance turned Japanese-style. I’m quite a fan of Gangnam Style, so I had a lot of fun doing it. The group in front of us, made up almost entirely of handsome young Japanese guys, didn’t know what to make of this dance. At first they stared blankly, but then they started copying us and laughing with us during breaks.

During these breaks there were booths where dancers could get free 焼酎, shochu, the specialty liquor in Kagoshima. At one point we laughed when we realized our group was made up of alcoholics – we were the only group to entirely disappear from the line during the breaks.

I danced for about an hour. I think everyone else was dancing for two hours. While dancing, the groups don’t make much forward progress. Because of this, I thought it wouldn’t take much energy. This was definitely not the case – the dances use a lot of arm gestures, and those really tire you out after a while!

By the time we finished, my irritations from the morning were entirely gone. I’m not usually one to join that sort of activity, but I’m glad I did! I think I’d like to join the dancers again next year, too.


Two Days As An Interpreter: Tuesday

•October 30, 2012 • 3 Comments

Tuesday was my second and last day as an interpreter for the group from Bangladesh. On this day the group of people in charge shifted around. The CIR and I were still there, but the others were replaced with two Japanese girls. One had lived in England for a while and was thus serving as interpreter. The other was from City Hall.

We had been warned the night before that we had to tell the group to meet up a half hour earlier than the actual time we were supposed to meet. I’ve heard that cultures whose languages don’t express tense tend to run perpetually late – I have some friends, Indonesian and Hmong, who certainly seem to prove this correct. Though I don’t know anything about the language of Bangladesh, I am now wondering whether this holds true for them as well. We told them to assemble in the hotel lobby at 8:30. They were assembled at 9:30.

Our first destination that day was Sakurajima, the lovely volcano that plays the role of Kagoshima’s mascot. I can see it everywhere I go in the city, but until this day I hadn’t actually been there. I was quite excited – possibly more so than the group. The moment we got on the bus, they were asking if we could go shopping again later that day.

The bus was transported to the island by ferry. From there we drove to the visitor’s center. It was just a small place with an informational video and a tiny museum. It reminded me of so many visitor centers back home from when I used to go on family vacations.

In fact, most of the time while we were on the island, I kept thinking about how my parents would probably love to explore the island. It was definitely one of the more untouched places I’ve been in Japan. At least where I went. There are people living on the island, and there are schools there too. A few of the other ALTs actually get to go to work by ferry.

After our brief visit to the visitor’s center, we headed up a steep road to a scenic overlook. It was funny to see the sidewalk that went all the way up. The CIR and I laughed about this. “Can you imagine riding your bike down that?”

The view from the overlook was impressive in every way. Turn one way and you were looking up at one of the more interesting angles of the volcano. Turn the other way and you could see the entire city of Kagoshima laid out between windmill clad hills. Our timing turned out to be absolutely perfect. The morning had been rainy, but as soon as we got to the outlook, the sun started to come out.

That morning, my job wasn’t so much interpreting as it was taking pictures for the Bangladeshi people. It was a regular photo shoot up there near the volcano. Lucky for us, the ash was heading in the other direction.

When every possible angle had been captured, we headed back to the bus. The original plan was to go to a shrine (at least I believe that’s what they were saying) in Kirishima, an area maybe an hour or so out of Kagoshima. The group decided they would rather do more shopping than see the shrine. However, since we had booked a buffet at some place out in Kirishima, we still had to drive out there.

I really enjoyed the scenery along the way. Due to a past lava flow, Sakurajima actually connects to the land, though it takes much longer to go around that way than it does to go by ferry. The roads we went on were lined with unique rock formations created by the volcano. There were also points where the sea was littered with fisheries, which isn’t something I get to see very often. The bus ride lasted maybe an hour. I was the only one on the bus awake at one point – I can’t sleep on moving vehicles, for whatever reason.

The second half of the day consisted of shopping in a strip mall back in the city. The group was scattered all over, but when I did run into members of the group, they were fairing well on their own. One shop that was popular had one clerk who was pretty good at English. The most popular store was the 100 yen shop, which doesn’t really require much translation. We spent several hours here. I mostly just wandered around aimlessly.

For dinner, we had KFC. It’s hard for me to comprehend why a group from Bangladesh would come to Japan and want nothing more than to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. Maybe they don’t have them in Bangladesh. I really have no idea. I also had no idea you could book a floor of KFC for parties, but apparently you can. I suppose so far as fast food goes, KFC is higher up on the quality list. Japanese KFC only makes me disappointed, though. They don’t have mashed potatoes here.

At the end of dinner came the biggest culture shock for me. I said before that the people from Bangladesh like to barter. In the stores, it came off as a joke. When a man from the travel agency came to collect money, however, it wasn’t so charming. I heard one of the Bangladeshi men in charge of the group trying to talk the price down: “This is my offer. $800.” The Japanese interpreter didn’t even bother to convey the words. “Okay, I don’t have yen, but I can give you $900 U.S. dollars. That’s my final offer.” I had no idea what was going to happen. Bartering doesn’t work in Japan. Especially not with a travel agency.

What ended up happening was that the Bangladeshi man living in Kagoshima would trade them the proper amount of yen for the dollars. We had to go back to the hotel to meet him. The walk from the KFC back to the hotel was a bit tense. The Bangladeshi man was ranting to me about how the travel agency should just take the money. I tried to explain about currency exchange and Japanese business policy, but it fell on irritated ears.

It was a huge relief when the man came with the yen and everything was worked out. That short incident raised my stress level by quite a few points.

As parting gifts, we were given shirts with the name of the group on them. They were very warm in their goodbye. I was a bit surprised. In all honesty I didn’t converse with them all that much, but they gave me a farewell as if we’d become good friends. It was very nice.

That was how my two days as an interpreter went. Despite the difficult things here and there, it was overall a really fun job to do. Going to school the next day felt like a bit of a drag. I wanted to do more touring! Of course, now I’m back into the normal swing of things. But I suppose this experience has given me a taste of a possible future career. Who knows what I’m going to do after JET is over? I certainly don’t.

Two Days As An Interpreter: Monday

•October 29, 2012 • 1 Comment

Last week there was an Asian Festival in Kagoshima, in which groups of tourists from all over Asia came, did touring, and did performances on the weekend. All of us ALTs were asked to work as interpreters for these groups if we had the Japanese ability. In all honesty most of us were roped into it, but I think the general consensus is that after we did it, we were glad we had a few days away for this job.

The performances were on the same weekend as the Halloween party, so I didn’t have the energy to see the festival part of the Asian Festival. I suppose it would have been nice to see, but I can’t regret that now.

I started working on Monday and Tuesday. I was originally supposed to interpret for the China group, but they ended up not coming due to the current dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island. Instead I was with a group from Bangladesh. It was really an interesting experience for me – their culture is very different from both American and Japanese culture, and most of the other cultures I’ve come into contact with. They’re also very proud of it, and very happy to explain anything you might not understand.

On Monday there were five of us “in charge” so to speak: one Japanese man from City Hall, one Japanese-fluent Korean CIR (the job I’d originally applied to), one Bangladeshi man living in Kagoshima, one Japanese interpreter who had lived in the U.S. for fifteen years and was thus effectively bilingual, and of course, me. I feel I had the least to do, seeing as I knew the least Japanese of the group. I felt a bit guilty, as much of the time it was as if I were getting special leave to be a tourist myself.

The first place we went was a scenic overlook facing the volcano, from a mountain on the far end of the city. Here, my role seemed primarily to take photos for people. I think I appeared in a few of the photos, along with the CIR. I guess Japan isn’t the only place where we’re a rarity. After this we headed off to a far-away elementary school. The Bangladesh group was going to show the dance they’d done at the festival to the kids, and the kids were going to show them a traditional Japanese dance.

My first interpreting job of the day was at this school. One of the men in the Bangladesh group runs a TV station, and so he wanted to talk to the principal. They introduced themselves, and then the Bangladeshi man asked if he could do a small interview about the Japanese education system. For the actual interview, I let the bilingual interpreter do the job. I doubt I’d have been able to come up with words about the education system while a camera is pointed at me.

Meanwhile, the dance group did their performance in front of the students – all twenty or so of them. It was a really small school, and the tourists outnumbered the kids. I enjoyed watching the performance, but I think it was lost on the kids. I suppose when I was their age, it would have been lost on me, too. The kids performed after this, and then as a group we played musical chairs. That was my second interpretation of the day. I had to explain the rules, though it turned out to be unnecessary. It turns out “musical chairs” has the same name in Bangladesh.

After this was lunch. In Bangladesh, people eat milk over rice. In Japan, this elicits looks of horror from elementary school students. Neither group is able to comprehend the others’ reaction to this way of eating, and even if I knew every word in both their languages, I doubt I’d ever be able to make them understand.

Before leaving, the people from Bangladesh gave the kids (and me) bangles and Bangladeshi money. The kids gave the visitors Japanese calligraphy they’d made.

When we left the school we headed out shopping. This was strangely one of the most interesting parts of the job. The people from Bangladesh were much more interested in shopping than they were sightseeing, it seemed. Especially when we went to the electronics store. It turns out that electronics are much cheaper than they are in Bangladesh, so they all bought as much as they could when they had the chance. Of course, things such as iPads, video/digital cameras, iPods, etc. require a significant amount of interaction with the employees. At this point in the day the only effective interpreters were me and the bilingual guy. The CIR knew only a small amount of English, though the group at large didn’t appear to realize this. So that made two and a half of us. There were 20 or so people buying things and asking questions.

On top of this, I’m going to assume that in Bangladesh bartering is an everyday thing. Very much not-so in Japan. I don’t know how many times I had to go back and forth with everyone involved that things weren’t going to be any more marked down than they already were.

Even more than this, it took the employees a while to realize I was an interpreter despite my name tag saying so. If you have the face of a foreigner, they’re going to assume you don’t speak Japanese. After telling one employee in Japanese that the Bangladeshi man was interested in buying a camera, the employee responded in Japanese, “Okay. Let me call an interpreter.” Whatever smart-ass retort I ended up uttering, it didn’t affect the guy too much – by the end of our time in the store he was asking me various friendly questions.

We were in the electronics store for more than an hour. I know we ran over the time we were supposed to be there. When we said that the bus was going to leave soon, one person shouted, “But she’s going to buy a camera!”

I was thoroughly wiped out after this. That was okay, because the last part of the day proved to be rather lax. We went to the home of the Bangladeshi man living in Kagoshima, where his wife had made tons of delicious, homemade Bangladeshi food for everyone. All of the visitors piled into the small Japanese living room and watched television while chatting and eating. I sat at the kitchen table with the man from City Hall and the CIR. It was fun. I ended up bonding with the Korean guy over spicy food, the quiz show on TV, and it turns out he has a bunch of that expensive liquor I had at my friend’s bar during Sake Matsuri in his apartment. As we happen to live in the same building, sooner or later we’re planning on having a sake party of our own.

It was nine at night when we finally boarded the bus to go back to the hotel where everyone was staying. I was very tired by this point. The moment I got home, I took a shower, then crashed on my futon. Despite this, I was really enjoying the work as an interpreter. I was looking forward to the next day.

To be continued…

Trick or Treat

•October 21, 2012 • 3 Comments

There was a beautiful guy dressed up as Haruhi Suzumiya (a famous anime character) at the Halloween party I went to last night. At first I didn’t know it was a guy. I took a pic with him at some point, and then later in the night he sat down next to me, so we started talking.

“You’re prettier than me!”

“No, no. This is just for today. I promise, my heart is really that of a man.”

“Just for today?”

“Yes. It’s for Halloween, so I might as well go all-out!”

“Did you do your own makeup?”

“No. I actually thought I’d go to my girlfriend’s salon, but then I thought I wanted to surprise her. So I went to a different one. It was really expensive. I even had my leg hair removed!” At this point he gestured toward his thighs and re-crossed his legs.

“That’s dedication.”


“What will you do with that outfit after today? Wasn’t it expensive?”

“Well, I think I’ll just give it to a girl.”

It was a night of gender confusion – later on someone asked whether I was a boy or a girl while I was playing darts and wearing the hat belonging to a wandering (and un-findable) Waldo.

It turned out to be a rather strange night, but it was a good opportunity for me to go out and socialize with some new people. But today, I’m exhausted. Today I’m going to stay in and be unsocial.

The Triumphant Return to Saijo: Sake Matsuri 2012

•October 15, 2012 • 3 Comments

This blog comes a little over a week after the event, which was on the 6th-7th. What a glorious, blurry weekend it was.

“Sake Capital Saijo”

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may remember that I went to this festival during my study abroad. You may remember that I recommended it to everyone in Japan. True to my own word, I went back to the place where I spent a year of my life in order to drink tons of Japanese rice wine!

As soon as I got off work, I hopped on the new 新幹線 (shinkansen, bullet train) from Kagoshima to Hiroshima. The journey takes roughly three hours. Though it’s a bit expensive, I doubt there’s a faster or more convenient way to get between these two cities. I spent the whole ride texting old friends in Saijo whenever I had service.

This resulted in me getting a phone call the moment I got into the city. One of my oldest friends from Saijo, who had also studied abroad in Minnesota, was in Hiroshima City and wanted to grab a drink before I headed off into the rural college town. We ended up going to the bar where my former jazz bandleader works. It’s a place meant to allow Japanese people with interest in Korea talk to Korean bartenders, drink Korean liquor, and sing Korean karaoke if they so wish. The moment I walked in I found that my bandleader had already been drinking, and so he rushed up and hugged me. Then he handed me a glass of some rather expensive Korean liquor that turned out to be absolutely delicious. Somewhere in there we sang a few Korean songs. Somewhere in there we ordered another bottle.

It was a good welcome back. I don’t really remember much between the Korean bar and Saijo, but I do know I showed up at my friend’s apartment giggling. Even in this state I managed to thank her for letting me stay with her, and then hold a fairly long catch-up conversation. When we went to sleep, I was thoroughly pumped for what the rest of the weekend would bring.

The first order of business on Saturday was to get Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. I don’t know if I’ve talked much about this food on my blog, but let me tell you, it is one of the best foods on the planet. Anyone who says otherwise is either from Kansai or has no taste buds. After this my friend and I went to a few of the old hangouts – mainly the supermarket YouMe Town so that I could buy a sweater (Hiroshima is a bit chillier than Kagoshima), and the game center where I won a Gloomy Bear plushie for only 200 yen!

After this it was off to the festival. Immediately I entered the Sake Hiroba (酒広場), or the closed-off park where you can drink all the samples you want. Here I met with a former HUSA who is also doing JET, and the current Minnesota HUSA. Mostly we drank and talked to strangers from all over the place. If there were foreigners, there was a 90% chance they were JET. We also bumped into a few old friends from our study abroad days, which was really surprising and fun. We had intended to count cups of sake when we went in, but we’d forgotten that somewhere along the way.

Despite the fair amount of imbibed alcohol, I just had to visit my two favorite bar hangouts in Saijo that night. First was the bar where S works, if any of you recall that post. Much to my surprise, he was working that night, too. (If you do remember my other post about him, well, he still has my button!) Until he got off work, the group of us drank there. When he finished everyone was tired and went home, except me – together we went to my other favorite bar for a few games of darts. I lost miserably. It was around four in the morning when he finally walked me back to my friend’s place.

Meaning, on Sunday I hadn’t had very much sleep. This wasn’t going to stop me. I knew a lot of people who were going to the festival that day, so I had to suck it up and go again if I wanted to meet them. Luckily for me, no one actually went into the all-you-can-drink area. I spent the earlier part of the day wandering about with the friend I have nicknamed Pink. I then met up with the friend who I’d met up with in Hiroshima City, and then we bumped into my former bandleader. From there we kept expanding our group until we had enough to go out to an izakaya and karaoke that night. We spent the entire time laughing and reminiscing.

Which made it difficult for me to leave Saijo. I was something of a wreck on the train back to the city, much to the chagrin of the luggage-burdened passenger next to me. I got back to Kagoshima and didn’t feel like doing anything. I just wanted to sit around and pout about how I wasn’t an exchange student anymore.

Still, I went to work. I wasn’t at all in the mood, but interacting with the students made me feel a lot better. No matter where you are in life, there’s always something to look forward to, I suppose.

I’m fine again now, but I think I’m going to Hiroshima again next month. Both of my schools have tests, leaving me with not much to do. I was at one point planning on going to Tokyo in order to see a few of my favorite bands, but meeting friends seems more appealing now. There’s also a visual kei concert in Hiroshima City, which is probably the real selling point.

It seems that even now my heart belongs to Saijo. However, I’m hoping soon enough it’ll be sharing with Kagoshima!

And quote of the night goes to…

•October 3, 2012 • 1 Comment

City Hall is very near where me, and most of the other JETs in the city, live. Right now there’s a giant banner across it saying something about the “61th” Ohara Festival.

One of the other JETs pointed out the error.

Another JET responded: “I’m pretty sure they employ 21 ALTs and a CIR for a reason. I’m not sure they understand what those reasons are though.”

Yup. On days where teachers forgets to make my schedule (here’s looking at you, T Junior High), and on days when I’m used as nothing more than a human tape recorder, I wonder if the schools even know the reason.

I think they should create a job in which someone fluent in English goes around the country correcting embarrassing English. It would be a full-time gig, for sure. It’s one thing when a kid is learning it and writes something odd on a test. It’s another thing when you have something published and displayed proudly for all to see.

Rattling Windows

•September 25, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Lately I’ve been reading Hmong ghost stories. Back in Minnesota, I had many Hmong friends, and I was always interested in hearing about their culture, and, by extension, their ghost stories. Recently a facebook page made just for the purpose of sharing these ghost stories opened up. When I have idle time, I’ll browse through them.

The other morning I woke up at some bizarre hour and couldn’t get back to sleep. I started browsing through the stories. The things submitted to the page are very hit or miss. I skim through lots that are not very well written, and many others that would only be interesting if you were superstitious.

On this morning, however, there were several good ones in a row. I was plenty entertained at that early hour. There was one in particular I was reading that took place in Laos, in which a young girl runs off to find a pig that has escaped, and a mysterious voice starts to follow her. The narrator does a good job of describing the squeaky, unnatural sound of the voice that copies whatever the girl says. The girl tells her uncles about the voice, and they start following it to its source. All the while it spits fragments of their conversations back at them through the jungle. As the girl’s uncles start to cut away at some vines barring their path, they see…

At this point my apartment shook rather violently. The windows rattled as if they’d been hit by some strong wind. It wasn’t a typhoon, and it wasn’t an earthquake. I jumped rather noticeably. “What was that?” I asked. I didn’t get any answer.

I ended up laughing at myself for having physically jumped. I then put it out of mind and continued reading ghost stories.

It wouldn’t be until later that day that I would find out the culprit. I got a nice clear photo of him and everything. Here it is:

Whenever people here talked about the volcano erupting, I’d always just thought they meant it spewed more ash. Apparently it gives a nice shake, too.

Kagoshima’s lovely volcano, Sakurajima, seems to have a sense of humor, along with impeccable timing.