This past weekend I went on a trip through my prefecture’s AJET (Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching) group and had one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in Japan. But before I get into that, here are some highlights from school:
- A few weeks ago, as I was playing with a third grader after school, I taught her the chicken dance. Last week, she ran up to me in the front of the school as all the other students were leaving and started dancing the chicken dance. So I did it with her. Then three other third graders came over. They demanded we do it again because it looked weird. Eventually, there were about 10 of us all doing the chicken dance in front of the school.
- I’ve been helping a ninth grader prepare for her high school entrance exam (which is on Thursday) and it has been a super rewarding experience. It seems that whenever a student asks for my help, they unfortunately come to me with shattered self-confidence and the weight of their imminent failure heavy on their shoulders. It is clear in their attitude and the way they hold themselves. It is so amazing to watch them gradually open up and laugh with me, both about their mistakes and funny things they work into their compositions. Like this gem:
“‘I like to listen to music when I’m stressed. For example, …..’ Jayeeeelonnnnnn, what should I put here?”
“Well, what kind of music do you like?”
“Hmmm…. enka (old Japanese ballads)!”
“…You like enka music?” (I know for a fact she likes heavy metal, so I was skeptical)
“No, I hate it. I’m going to put down opera too!”
- Yesterday in sixth grade, the JTE and I were explaining how the number ‘0’ can sometimes be pronounced like the letter ‘O’ when reading time (9:05 for example), or when someone is reading their phone number out loud. Suddenly, during a natural lull in the talking, a boy in the back of the class proclaimed, “Zero my god!!” Needless to say, I busted out laughing.
- Also yesterday, I was walking back from the school gym when I was beset upon by a horde of second graders who all wanted to touch some part of me as I walked down the hall. I think I had two clinging to each arm, plus another two around my waist, and the rest walked backwards in front so they could talk to me. There was many a shout of “KAWAIIIIII” from everyone else in the hall as we passed by them. Second grade is my favorite grade ❤
Alright, that’s it for the highlights! On to the story!
As I’m writing this, I suddenly became aware of the amount of Japanese words I’m using that I haven’t explained before… In order to help this story flow more coherently, I’ve decided to put a list of ‘vocab words’ before the story with definitions. If you know what these things are, skip to the story! If you don’t, read on!
- Ryokan — a traditional Japanese inn. Rooms are Japanese style, with tatami mats and futons, the food is traditional Japanese cuisine, and they usually have an onsen.
- Onsen— a hot spring bath. The water is VERY hot and contains lots of minerals that are good for your skin; the bad thing is that some of them smell like sulfur. Many onsen also have an outdoor bath which is landscaped and beautiful. The vast majority are separated by gender, and which gender has which bath is sometimes switched at least once a day so that everyone may enjoy the different onsen a ryokan has to offer.
- Yukata— a light, cotton kimono that you wear at ryokan and to summer festivals. Real kimono come with tons of layers, are super hot, and require help to put on. This is a nice alternative to all that, just one layer with a sash around the middle, and usually a coat to go with it.
- Shamisen— a three stringed Japanese instrument. If you’ve seen Kubo and the Two Strings, it is the instrument Kubo uses throughout his journey.
I awoke on Saturday to the warmest, brightest, most wonderful day in weeks, if not longer than that. My mood immediately soared higher than it has in a long time; it’s amazing what a little bit of sunlight can do to your attitude! I even thoroughly cleaned my living room, which I haven’t done since it got cold.
Already positive I was going to have a great day, I met some friends in Nagano city in early afternoon, then took the train with them down to Togura Station before walking to our destination: Kamesei Ryokan. Upon our arrival, my friend and I went up to our room, put our stuff down, then immediately changed into our yukata and went to the onsen. This ryokan had two onsen, one large and one small. When we went, the women had the small bath; at nine PM it switched so the men had the small bath.
After the onsen, it was finally time for dinner! We went up to the banquet room and found that spots had already been set up for us. It wasn’t long before the main event appeared outside the door — two beautifully dressed geisha. They came in, introduced themselves and bowed, then flitted around, refilling our sake glasses and making conversation. As they approached my friend and I, I got nervous; “what do I say? My Japanese isn’t that good! I’m forgetting everything! I want to have a conversation!” While my Japanese was flying out of my head at light speed, I also forgot that one of the many arts that geisha are trained in is conversation. No sooner had she started refilling my sake glass, that she commented on how “of course you guys can drink Japanese sake. You drink all kinds of stuff in America right?” so the people around me and I talked about American alcohol. She spoke at a nice, even speed, not too fast, not too slow, and was quick to explain something in a different way if we didn’t understand. As she continued around the table, I felt the smile on my face get wider; I had just participated in a conversation with a geisha, and I understood most of it!! やった!!
Next, they performed a dance for us, telling the story of a great battle that was fought here hundreds of years ago. While in pairs of geisha there is usually one dancer and one shamisen player, the shamisen player was out with the flu so the music was played off a cassette and the two geisha danced together (the owner of a ryokan actually had to go to a couple different places in the neighborhood to find one haha). It was amazing. I always think of very fluid, gentle dancing when I think of geisha. This dance, while fluid, also conveyed a feeling of strength, power. There were moments when they held their fans as if they were holding a sword or a spear, and others where they stomped the ground and crouched in a wide stance as if preparing to fight a challenger. I’ve never seen anything like it and it was an amazing experience!
After that came the fun — they taught us some Japanese drinking games! In the first one, you sat across from your opponent and were separated by a pillow with a small bowl on it. You had to take turns tapping the top of the bowl with your fingers in time with a song sung by the geisha. You could also pick up the bowl, in which case your opponent would tap the pillow with a closed fist. You could only hold onto the bowl for a max of three times before you had to put it back down. The loser, of course, had to drink. Eventually, I challenged my friend and lost — I accidentally tapped the pillow with an open hand! As soon as I did, I yelled with a shocked expression that clearly said, “NO!!! I didn’t mean to do that!” The geisha laughed and said I had a good reaction.
My friend ended up being the champion out of all of the guests, so one of the geisha challenged her to an ultimate showdown. The geisha judging said that at the next Olympics in 2020, this event should take place which made us all laugh. The song started and they began to play. The song became fast very quickly, and in one, careless mistake, my friend won! The geisha had held onto the bowl for four turns instead of three! There was much laughter, and the geisha herself said that she didn’t know why she had kept holding onto the bowl. So, my friend poured her some beer, and she drank it while we chanted!
I am aware that the dimensions of the videos are much too large when viewing on a laptop or desktop. I’m trying to figure out how to fix it, but until then… just hit the full screen button and it’ll shrink to a manageable size!
The next game was essentially rock, paper, scissors. A divider was brought into the room and one person would stand on either side. In time to the song, they would move out from behind the divider, acting as one of three different characters, and once they could see each other the match was decided. The three characters were:
- The hunter
- Action — hands up like you’re holding a spear
- Kills the tiger
- The tiger
- Action — hands on the ground like you’re walking on four legs
- Eats the old woman
- The old woman
- Action — hand out like you’re using a cane
- Scolds the hunter
This game was just as fun as the first, especially because we got super into our characters. Hunters would kill the tigers and the tigers would fall over, the old women would scold the hunters and the hunters would walk off with their heads down. It was fantastic! The geisha had lots of fun laughing at our actions too.
Soon, our time with the geisha was over. They bowed again, told us how much fun they had with us, then took a group picture with us before leaving. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of that night! I got to spend time in the company of geisha, I played drinking games that were actually fun, the onsen was fantastic, and the weather was superb. The next morning was spent exploring around the area with my friend before we headed back to Nagano station and from there, home.
Until next time!