My Mother is a Tractor - Chapter 7

A Life in Rural Japan

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The Ghosts of Dead Fish…Off to inaka

Try anything once, except incest and country dancing – Stephen Fry

Wake-up came far too early the next morning. I finished my packing and struggled down to the restaurant for a breakfast that contained some indiscernible ingredients, or maybe it was just the hangover. Jill, the Niigata prefectural contact person made sure we arrived early. We were meant to arrive in the lobby at 8am but didn’t leave till after 9am. Hence the majority of us stood around too bleary eyed and hungover to be excited about leaving. At this time all conversations generally consisted of mostly “Hey” and “ugh”.

I sat in the car park outside in the sun drinking coffee trying to soak up some Vitamin E with Anne, who was posted to Niigata as well, while we waited. Later on Anne was to go on to teach playwriting in Ohio before finally landing a job as a scriptwriter on the smash hit TV series ‘24’. They even named a character after her. To our dismay, rather than organise a bus to Tokyo station the bright and chipper Jill, who obviously didn’t go out carousing the night before, made us walk to Shinjuku station and connect on the subway to Tokyo station. After hanging on grimly to the overhead straps on the commuter ‘Yamanoate Line’ for half an hour we finally transferred at Tokyo, were bundled onto the Joetsu shinkansen (bullet train) and were away. The train didn’t look that modern and I was quite sure it wasn’t moving at bullet speed - but I think given my condition it was maybe just my perception.

As we moved out of Tokyo it was good to see blue sky and the countryside was very pretty. Fellow new teachers were getting off at various stations on the way to Niigata City. My stop was Nagaoka along with several others. Just before the train arrived, James - the British guy next to me, and I started to go into what most esteemed psychiatrists would instantly diagnose as ‘denial’. We began to laugh and joke loudly, and construe Monty Python type scenarios on what would happen when we got off the train, or even indeed if we didn’t! I decided I would mug the conductor, who was wearing what we considered a tasteful white captains uniform, change clothes and spend the rest of the year stalking the aisles of the bullet train. We figured we expended enough nervous energy to keep an average Japanese town lit for several days.

We were not the only ones. Most of our companions were nervous and when the train pulled into Nagaoka we could not delay the inevitable. At least I had the biggest welcome sign, complete with an intricately painted picture perfect right down to my baby blue eyes. It seems strange but in fact most gaijin teachers have blue eyes. No wonder that they like you to send pictures with your resume. It seems the right ‘look’ is often much more important than the substance.

Three gentlemen from the Board of Education in Omi met me, and bowed deeply whilst offering their business cards. Only one of them spoke passable ‘Ingurish’. Gripped by fear, I could not remember my greeting, that I had only just bothered to try and learn on the train, but it seemed to matter little to the happy threesome. We climbed into a waiting car but stopped on the outskirts of town for lunch at a place called Casa. I tried to impress them with my foreign language skills, and they seemed appreciative to know that it meant ‘house’ in Spanish. I later found out it means a close approximation of ‘umbrella’ in Japanese - one of the thirteen or so words I actually learnt in two years. With all the rain in Niigata I guess it was a pretty key word. I was not hungry and only ate some horrible aniseed jelly that I ordered thinking it was chocolate, and an ice cream soda that had a flavour I could not describe.

From Nagaoka the journey took about two and a half-hours, but seemed much longer at the time, and conversation was difficult. Later I was told that they had never heard an Australian accent before, which didn’t help at all. Along the way they informed me that that evening they would be having a welcome dinner for me.
“Do you mean an enkai?” I asked.
A murmur went round the car.
“You know about enkai?” one replied, quite astounded.
I had made my first good impression.

Enkai in Japan are a cultural institution - basically dinner along with a lot of drinking. And I mean a lot. Enkai represent a place and time in Japan where normally unacceptable behaviour such as fawning, groveling, speaking honestly, alcoholism, sexual harassment, vomiting, blowing your nose, and speaking in English, becomes quite okay. This is probably due in part to the large amount of alcohol imbibed by the participants. But because one is drunk you are not held accountable for your actions. I presume it would be perfectly okay to, in the space of one evening, abuse your superiors, grope the waitress and pee in the corner, and the next day everything would be hunky-dory. I never did stretch the envelope quite that far. For many Japanese, particularly salarymen, enkai seem to occur on a daily basis.

If you were to put an entry for drinking in a Japanese-English dictionary I think it would probably resemble something like:
Drinking (du-ri-n-ki-n-gu) see: Enkai, Beer, Whisky, Sake, Vomit, Salarymen, Vending machines, Sexual harassment, or Karaoke

Finally we crossed the Hime River into Omi. The town had a huge sign saying, “Welcome to Omi-machi. Abandon all hope all ye who enter in.” Well, maybe not. But sometimes I was to feel that it could have been appropriate. My first impression was almost like a town in the developing world. Steamy weather socked into my pores. Jungle type growth cascaded down the mountainsides. Narrow streets meandered past small houses, dirty apartment blocks, and tiny shop fronts filled with expensive things.

niigata mapFor those at this stage grasping for maps or thirsting after details geographic Omi is about two hundred and fifty kilometres north-west of Tokyo (see map). It’s located on the Japan Sea coast on the southern border of Niigata Prefecture tightly squeezed in on its opposite flanks by the North Alps. The area also includes two small village areas, Oyashirazu and Ichiburi, located around six and thirteen kilometres respectively further down the coast from Omi. Formerly a municipal town in it’s own right, it was squeezed into a merger with its neighbours, Itoigawa City and Nou-town, in March 2005.

Omi is a classic case of rural decline that is now rapidly affecting Japan like so many other nations. In the last thirty years the population has decreased from around 17,000 to a level of just over 10,000. After graduating from high school most young people are forced to move to major population centres for university study or in search of work. This is reflected in the population, with the majority of residents aged over 35. Concurrently the number of students attending Omi chugakko (where I would be based) has fallen from 568 to 344 in the last fifteen or so years.

As the situation continues to worsen so has local business. There are only a few small local shops, supermarkets and restaurants surviving, and no entertainment facilities (movie theatre, bowling alley, amusement arcade, etc.) - especially those that would appeal to younger people. With the declining population many such facilities, such as the movie theatre and baseball stadium, have been closed and demolished in recent years. The main employer in Omi is Denka Ltd., with two large factories producing cement and chemicals. The other major provider of jobs is the town and governmental agencies with one civil servant for every 76 people.

Our first stop was the Town Hall where the Board of Education is, and where I was to be based until school starts. I was shown my desk, albeit a temporary one until I was packed off to the school, then expected to give a small speech to my fellow workers, which is the normal cultural practice. All I could blurt out in English was that I was happy to be in Omi and looking forward to working with them, plus, “I don’t know what else to say!” Perhaps I should have learnt some more Japanese - or in fact ANY Japanese.

From my introduction at the office I was taken back to my apartment to drop off my things. As we rounded the corner of Route 8 I saw two blocks. All I could think was “Please God, don’t let it be the one on the right” - but it was! It appeared as a big slab of concrete, and very dingy on the outside. It was on the third floor and contained basically very little. But no time to sort out, I was taken back to the office and sat at my desk with nothing to do. I fiddled with a Japanese word processor for awhile without understanding a thing before they felt sorry for me and asked a girl from another department to come talk to me. I don’t know which department she came from but she spoke quite good English. After she left I never saw her again.

Another girl, whose name was Tomoe, also spoke to me for awhile in the hall just before I left. I guess she made an immediate impression because she did not possess the normal stereotypical build of a Japanese woman. We did see each other reasonable regularly before she got married and moved out of town shortly before I also left. The Board of Education office was not air conditioned at that time and made me glad I’d packed lots of deodorant. Unfortunately I also needed lighter shirts. They couldn’t believe how much I sweated. Neither could I...

After work I was taken to a local restaurant for a welcoming enkai. I was told that Mr. Kinokawa, the head of the Board of Education (hence, my boss), was sick in hospital. I was to visit him soon and pay my respects. I was not told what he was suffering from, but when I eventually did meet him I presumed it was probably due to him consuming the profits of the part-time liquor outlet that he ran from the front of his house. He was so pale I thought he was either already deceased and returned as a ghost, or that he was using the same potion as Michael Jackson. More on Kinokawa–san later. Anyway, I was promised there would be another party as soon as he recovered.

To start the evening I was presented with a bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila, because on the long car trip down I had said I didn’t drink beer, plus a huge bouquet of flowers. Apparently they had sent one of the OL’s out scouring for several hours trying to find the tequila. I thought it an excellent welcoming gift, except when it seemed they thought I should drink the whole bottle that night.

Right at the start of the night I made my first cultural faux pas - one of many I guess. After all the drinks are poured the Japanese have a toast of ‘kanpai!’ and then drink together
“Nic-san, what do you say for a toast?” I was asked.
I pondered a moment.
“Well, usually ‘cheers’, or ‘bottoms up’, or maybe even ‘chin chin’”, I replied.
The room went silent for a clearly definable moment. Some time later I found out the Japanese slang for ‘chin-chin’ and realised I had proposed a toast by saying ‘penis’...

The meal that night was huge, mostly Japanese of a style that I had not encountered before, apart from some chicken and potato wedges. I considered that it would be culturally respectful to at least sample as much as possible, and as I kept on having strange substances put in front of me I, for better or worse, kept on consuming them - while trying to keep a straight face. After everyone had drunk too much, which is the usual thing as you quickly find out I was mostly just laughing and smiling as everyone spoke Japanese. I did keep hearing my predecessor’s name a lot and I’m sure there were a lot of comparisons going on.

I tried to do everything right and seemed to make a favourable impression - especially with my use of chopsticks. The disposable variety of chopsticks (hashi) are commonly used at restaurants in Japan, and also as I later found out, China. Their enthusiasm for these is only slightly more than the Australian obsession for barbeques, plastic cutlery and paper plates from which everything either dribbles or falls off the side. So how many rainforests die for hashi each year? Without thoroughly researching anything I would take a stab most of Sarawak and Borneo plus parts of the Amazon Basin and New Guinea Highlands. To their credit most of the people I worked with or taught in Japan would bring their own chopsticks for lunch in a small case (hashi bako) and I soon found myself doing the same.

After the dinner I was taken back and abandoned outside my depressing concrete digs. I staggered up the stairs, unpacked (see: strewn around), and after some deep concentration finally rolled out my futon in anticipation of a good nights sleep. Unfortunately the saké and tequila, along with the ghosts of dead fish, came back to haunt me till early in the morning. I narrowly avoided an out of stomach experience and spent a restless night in my new home. Later I was posed the question “Do tequila and sushi mix?” Now with some experience I could answer truthfully “No. Except when they come out.”

Bleary eyed and feeling like death warmed up I arose in the morning to the realisation I had forgotten to iron my last clean shirt. I gave up, wore my dirty one, and arrived two minutes late for work. They didn’t seem to hold it against me - but seeing I did the same the following day maybe they did. It was really part of an effort to get them used to my idea of punctuality.


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A "life in Japan" on the "JET Program" book

Tags: JET Program, JET Japan, Teaching English, Travel, Japanese Schools, Enkai, Niigata, Itoigawa, Omi, inaka, enkai

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