終了

The year is drawing to a close and things are winding down here in Osaka. Final exams at my school are finished and the students only come in for half-days until the second semester officially ends about a week from now. It’s been an unusually warm winter thus far and though it doesn’t feel too much like Christmas is upon us, the stores are awash in lights and other decorations. I’m afraid I’ll have to miss the traditional Japanese Christmas dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken and strawberry cake this year as I’m spending my winter vacation out of the country.

I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), level 1, last week. I don’t think I passed, but fortunately from next year levels 1 and 2 will be offered twice a year, so I might try again in June. I bought the book with last year’s test in it and worked through that for practice the day before and scored a 256. To pass, you need a 280. I thought the reading section on the actual test was a little less difficult, but I’m not sure that I got a better grade on it. My biggest weakness is still kanji and vocabulary. I got a great vocabulary flashcard program for my iPhone called Japanese Flip that shows you words that you miss more often so that eventually you remember them. The program breaks the words down by JLPT level and for level 1, it has 6,000 words. Of course I already know a lot of the words, so I’ve been going through about 1,000 words a month, but I only got the program two months before the test so I still have about 4,000 to go.

Well, this will be my final entry here. I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading a little about my life in Osaka. Thanks to Paul and Hitomi for letting me post on Japancast. Sayonara!

祭り放題!

皆さん、久しぶりですね!The first half of the second semester is over and mid-term exams start today. I’ve mostly been just teaching classes and studying for the JLPT but the early fall is not a time without its fun and interesting events.

Before the second semester begins in earnest my school has its annual culture festival, usually on the first Friday and Saturday of September. The first few days of school are only morning classes so that in the afternoon the students can continue the preparation they started over summer break (and I use the word “break” here very loosely). Each homeroom class decides at the end of the first semester what it will do for the festival and then spends most of the summer working on it. Events come in two varieties: plays and dances. Plays are performed in the gym and are usually based on a Japanese television drama or movie or a Disney cartoon. Dances are performed outside, either on the sports field or on the 円形ステージ (えんけい/round stage) and usually feature some sort of storyline and a patchwork of pieces of J-pop songs or American hip-hop tracks and tends to remind me of music played at pep rallies when I was in high school. The schedule is set up so that when the play in the gym ends, you go outside to watch a dance, and when that’s over you go back in the gym for another play, and so forth and so on. In addition to the main events, you can check out the students’ work in the 書道室 (しょどうしつ/calligraphy room) and the impromptu art gallery and for a small fee you can drink tea with the 茶道部 (さどうぶ/tea ceremony club). On Saturday, parents and friends can come and watch and the day ends with a performance by the 吹奏部 (すいそうぶ/brass band club).  After the guests are rather forcefully asked to leave, the students engage in a massive clean-up operation. Then a sort of after-festival called 後夜祭 (こうやさい) begins. There, individual students or students in groups of their own choosing perform music, skits or their own brand of Osaka-style 漫才 (まんざい/manzai) comedy.

Around the middle of September is the 岸和田檀尻祭 (きしわだだんじりまつり/Kishiwada danjiri festival). Kishiwada is a city in Osaka Prefecture close to Kansai Airport and its danjiri festival is probably the most famous in all of Japan. Danjiri are wooden floats that look like small shrines. They are constructed from wood and, maintaining a traditional lack of modern innovations such as steering, etc., the floats depend on dozens and dozens of people pulling ropes to guide them through the streets and around corners, where they literally just jerk it around by turning suddenly at a 90° angle. Though I’ve never seen it happen myself, I’ve heard that someone dies every year, either by getting run over or getting run into by the floats.  Still, despite the potential danger, it’s quite a spectacle with all the pullers and runners adorned in their colorful はっぴ (happi coats) and the guys dancing and jumping up and down on top of the swiftly moving floats.  There are 34 floats that run in the morning, afternoon and again in the evening when they are adorned with rows and rows of lanterns.

The same weekend is when my city’s citizen’s festival is held every year. In addition to food stalls and the usual fair fare, the main attraction at this festival is a big stage with loud speakers. There are lots of acts throughout the day, the overwhelming majority of which are little kids dancing. It sounds cute enough but when you take a closer look it’s actually a little disturbing to my Western eyes. Recently, a hip-hop dance school has opened up in my area and most of the performers are students from this school. The age range is elementary to junior high and the music, for the most part, is very sexually explicit rap and hip-hop, as are many of the dance maneuvers.  Every time I ask a Japanese person if they think what they’re watching is in appropriate, the act surprised by my question and tell me that it’s really cute. I’m not sure they’d think it was so cute and innocent if they understood the lyrics or where some of the dance routines came from. I don’t consider myself all that conservative, but if it were my daughter, she wouldn’t be out there dancing like that in those close at that young of an age. Oddly enough, there are few to no high school age girls, for whom the whole thing would be a great deal more appropriate.  This year marked the first time 外人 (がいじん/foreigners) performed at the festival. A couple of my friends signed up and played a short, 3 song acoustic set of songs from America, Britain and New Zealand. Just like in our English classes though, they failed to get much audience participation in the sing-along finale to “Hey Jude.” But for me, it was the highlight of the event.

The same weekend (it was a very eventful weekend!) we also went to the annual フィエスタ・メヒカナ (Mexican festival) at the Umeda Sky Building.  There, Osaka’s Mexican community gathers to play music, dance and cook Mexican food in the outdoor space between the two towers that make up the sides of the Sky Building. It’s always a lot of fun and usually by the end of the night nearly everyone on stage and off is dancing to traditional Mexican music.

This Monday was 体育の日(たいいくのひ/Sports Day). Until this year, this 3-day weekend was when the インターナショナル・ビール・サミット (International Beer Summit) was held at the Sky Building. Usually, like the Mexican festival, there would be a stage with music and dancing, a bunch of food venders, and of course lots of different kinds of beer from all over the world. This year, however, they moved it to Kobe, put it inside a building with a mere 150-person capacity and started charging ¥2,000 for admission. And because space was so limited, you had to sign up in advance to go. Needless to say, we didn’t attend though I’m hoping this year was a fluke and that next year, they’ll bring it back to Osaka and do it right again.

夏休み

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 😉