It’s summer vacation and to escape the sweltering Osaka heat I went to Hokkaido for a few days with a couple of friends. Sapporo was a really cool town, both literally and figuratively. We enjoyed the annual beer festival in 大通公園 (おおどおりこうえん/Odori Park) and ate lots of good food like ジンギスカン (Genghis Khan). Traveling outside of Sapporo was somewhat difficult as trains and buses run far less frequently than they do in the city and much of our itinerary was dictated by the public transportation schedule. Were I to go to Hokkaido again I think I’d probably sign up for a tour package if going with a friend who can rent and drive a car were not an option.
Back here in Osaka, I’ve been indulging in one of the best things about Japanese summers: 花火大会 (はなびたいかい/fireworks festivals). First up, at the end of July were the fireworks marking the end of the month-long 天神祭 (てんじんまつり/Tenjin Matsuri). Then, a week later were the PL fireworks. PL stands for “Perfect Liberty” and is the name of the Buddhist sect that hosts the display. The largest in the world, 120,000 fireworks are launched in one hour. The next day, I went to the fireworks at メリケンパーク (Meriken Park) in Kobe. Then, this weekend I went to the display along the Yodogawa River, just north of Umeda. There were also fireworks in Kyoto and Wakayama the day after, but I decided four festivals were plenty. My favorite by far was festival in Kobe. There is a lot of flat, open area to sit with an unobstructed view of the sky. And because the fireworks are launched from two sides of the water along the harbor, the display is a bit more interesting than those launched from a single site. Also, in addition to the wide variety in fireworks (including shapes like hearts and stars!) a large speaker plays relaxing music. This all stands in sharp contrast to my experience at the PL fireworks. After walking up and down the street to find a good place, we had to sit on the street because the proper seating area was full. The entire time we watched the fireworks, police officers with bullhorns shouted instructions at those going home, even though the display had just begun. Despite the fact that spectators spilled out onto the right lane of the road, the cops continually reminded the crowds to walk on the left lane, and to do so slowly. Another recorded female voice broadcast from light poles saying essentially the same thing. It made relaxing and enjoying the fireworks all but impossible to do. Aside from the fireworks themselves (which are far more amazing than anything I’ve ever seen in the States), my favorite part of going to festivals is the food. Dozens of food stalls line the streets all selling freshly grilled specialties. I always get the 焼きそば (yakisoba). While the festivals are a lot of fun, the trade-off is dealing with the large crowds. Arriving, it’s usually not so bad, but when the finale has concluded and everyone starts heading to the train station, you can be in for a long wait. As you approach the station, the dense queue of people slows to a crawl and when you do finally make it onto the train, there’s barely enough room to breathe. Still, living in Japan requires you to adapt to such things and once you accept the reality of it all, it’s not so bad.
I’ve also been busy lately helping the three new Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) who just moved into my building get settled in. This year has proven to be a bit problematic for new foreigners in Japan. First of all, it seems that the Japanese Diet passed a law that requires all foreigners to have lived in Japan for six months before they can open a bank account. Bank accounts are pretty vital to living here, especially since your paycheck is nearly always direct-deposited into your account. And since we as ALTs come to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government, it seems contradictory to deny us something so basic. Also, SoftBank, the mobile phone carrier most patronized by foreigners in Japan, has started requiring credit cards in order to purchase a phone. Apparently last year some 15,000 foreigners left Japan without paying their final cell phone bill, so it’s understandable that the company wishes to ensure that they won’t lose money, but it still smacks of discrimination. Luckily, with the help of local board of education officials our new people have their phones and bank accounts now, but it definitely was not the warmest of welcomes.
August is a significant month for those studying Japanese. From August 1st, you can submit your application to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which is held worldwide on the first Sunday in December. There are actually four tests, one for each level, with four being the easiest and one the most advanced. I took level two two years ago and while I barely passed due to my less-than-adequate reading skills at the time, in the intervening time I feel I’ve improved significantly and though I’m not sure I’m quite at level one proficiency I’m going to give it my best shot this year. Also, starting next year, the test for levels one and two will be given twice a year, in both July and December. So, should I fail this year, I won’t have to wait as long to re-take it. Now, I should really get back to studying 😉