The Shimanami Kaido is undoubtedly one of Ehime Prefecture’s primary attractions. Not just for cyclists, but for any tourist visiting the area. The series of bridges spanning across six islands in the Seto Inland Sea make for a stunning experience by car, but arguably even more so by bike. By cycling the route, you are taken off the expressway and down into the islands themselves. You experience firsthand the beauty of the tree covered mountains and bluffs, the winding local roads through the islands small towns and villages. Continue reading
In Gourds We Trust
At age 20, just beginning my final year of university and one of the most tumultuous periods of my life, my mother took me out for a day in London. As usual we visited one of our favorite museums, the Tate Modern, without much thought as to what we would see. At the time, a retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s work was being exhibited. Her obsessively repetitive and mesmerizing work had a resounding effect on me, immediately hypnotizing me with its back story of her 1970s ‘happenings’ and mental health difficulties. Her narrative and her pumpkins then proceeded to shape my developing interest in Japanese art and culture. Continue reading
Big Mistake, but a Lucky Break
Canyoning is difficult. Don’t let anyone fool you: you will not emerge unscathed. Now, that’s a rather dramatic way of saying you’ll probably get knocked around a bit amidst the climbing, jumping, and sliding that it requires, but I would be remiss to sell it short.
I had only been in Japan a few weeks when some friends and I decided to go canyoning, and, having just got here, I couldn’t afford to have anything take me out of commission. With that in mind, it seems only natural that I would completely tear my ACL . Accounts of how it happened vary depending on who you ask. One version holds that a horde of wild monkeys attacked our party, forcing me to valiantly fight them off, injuring my knee with a particularly fierce kick. Others say all I did was push off of a rock the wrong way toward the beginning of the course. Who can say which version is correct?
It was definitely the monkeys.
After an MRI, I was told by my doctor — a phenomenal woman who knew a decent amount of medical English — that I would need surgery if I didn’t want to have problems walking for the rest of my life. In addition to surgery, I would be kept in the hospital for a month while I recovered and went to physical therapy to train up my leg. Honestly, I was relieved upon hearing this diagnosis, because before that, I had been laboring under the impression that I would be recovering for nine months. Still, the idea of being laid up in the hospital for a month was a daunting one. As an American, I’m used to short hospital stays and high hospital bills. Luckily, with the aid of my friends, coworkers, and family, I was given a small horde of distractions, supplies, and snacks to keep me sane. The hospital required that I bring a few things like a set of chopsticks, and a toothbrush and toothpaste. However, I also ended up bringing plenty of things that the hospital could have provided for a small fee. I wore my own clothes out of a suitcase, used laundry detergent from home to wash my clothes in the hospital’s washing machine, and used my own shampoo and towels in the shower. In hindsight, this was entirely too much.
One of the biggest concerns, of course, was the language gap. I have a number of friends with good Japanese ability, but they couldn’t be around all the time. This, while a frequent source of frustration, turned out to not be the obstacle I had thought it would. My assault on the Japanese language proved to be better than nothing in many cases, though people stopped complimenting my language skills and started complimenting my chopstick skills rather quickly.
In the frequent cases where language failed on both sides, there was never a time where the hospital staff gave up on me. One, or both of us would pull up a translation app or they would start drawing pictures to help me understand. It helped that I was constantly doing research on my phone so I would know what to expect for things like my MRI or my operation, but the thing that meant the most to me was the fact that they always made sure I knew what was happening. I was a foreign woman who was hurt and alone, but never once did they leave me in exasperation or just shrug and hope I would figure it out.
You may be thinking “Well that’s their job, so I would hope they made sure you understood,” but I’m sure a majority of you reading this know just how frustrating it is when you can’t communicate. As foreigners, we all struggle with a variation of this every single day, and many times it’s within the realm of things we can manage. It’s those times that really test you, your patience, and your resolve that made me really appreciate the lengths the staff went to keep me in the loop.
The procedure itself was pretty straight forward. They created a bridge for a new ACL to grow and patched everything up. It was as I was coming off of anesthesia that I was most frustrated with the language gap. My language, once sweet, had turned foul and my tears ran constantly. The moment I remember most clearly was me angrily huffing “Nihongo wa muzukashii!” through an oxygen mask, and having a nurse respond in a soft, kind voice
“Iie. Eigo wa muzukashii.”
I now have a titanium bolt keeping things in place, but it was the slick new brace that I received that inspired the name “robo ashi.” (If I’m honest, I also refer to it this way because I don’t know how to say “injured leg” in Japanese.) Thankfully, I am on the mend, with my dependence on crutches ending rather soon. My friends, family, and coworkers have all continued to go above and beyond to make sure I can do my job and live my life. Despite the lingering issues that will plague me for a while more, my extended summer vacation didn’t disrupt my life as much as I feared it would.
For many reasons, I was lucky with how these events played out. I could have been further up the course when I was injured. I could have had no one around to help translate. I could have gotten injured during one of the busiest times at school. Still, accidents happen, and wild monkey hordes roam free. I couldn’t imagine going through this experience without the support that I received, so I wanted to pay it forward. Should you ever find yourself facing an extended stay in the hospital, here is some wisdom that may prove useful to you.
1. Seriously, you do not need to bring everything from home. Bring chopsticks/ fork and spoon, toothbrush/ toothpaste, face washing materials, and conditioner/ special hair products if you need them, but most everything can be cheaply provided for you.
2. You will most likely be in a room with three other roommates. Make peace with them, and do your best to find a gossip buddy. You will need the allies.
3. Don’t eat all of your snacks at once. Hospital food is like school lunch, but with more eggplant and cold wet spinach. Friends and coworkers will bring you snacks often enough, but you should still ration.
4. You will accumulate stuff. Everyone brings you something to do, and all of it needs a place among your possessions. Figure out where you want to put it all, and figure out how to pack it all up. There is always a chance that you will be moved to a new room.
5. Stay connected. Rent a pocket wifi if you want internet, but stay in contact with the outside world. It’s easy to get discouraged, or to feel alone and lonely when the world is out there, spinning without you. It is imperative that you remember that it’s just for a little while.
Of course, every case is different. By no means should anyone assume that my account is typical for everyone, but if we’re lucky, my losing battle with my own coordination may help someone down the road. In the meantime, I’ll continue to attempt to impress my kids with my new “robo ashi” and work hard to get back to 100 percent.
Mikans and Money: The Ehime AJET Scholarship
I feel I am very lucky to come from the UK. I have always taken for granted how close I am to other European countries and the ample opportunities to travel and work abroad (not so much anymore — I’m still pissed off about the whole Brexit thing). Since my first journey outside of the UK at the age of 6 months, various family holidays, school trips, and travels with friends have taken me to approximately 20 countries around the world, and I have had the opportunity to encounter festivals, events, languages, cuisines, and cultures that I certainly would not have if I’d stayed home in my quiet corner of the English countryside.
I never realized how much I took this for granted until I came to Ehime, where a surprising number of people have never traveled outside the country, let alone to another continent. Students especially, with summer holidays that seem to consist of going to school six times a week for club activities, miss out on invaluable opportunities to experience people and places outside of Japan. We, as ALTs and CIRs, benefit in so many ways from being immersed in a culture different from our own, and the AJET scholarship allows us to give our students that same chance to experience the world.
Started in 2015 by former Matsuno JET Eriko Stronach, the scholarship provides one high school student in the prefecture the chance to study abroad during the summer. Applicants research and select their own programs from a list provided by the committee. This flexibility allows students to become fully involved with their study abroad experience from the outset — they can choose the details such as how long they wish to stay away (usually between 1-3 weeks), which English-speaking country they want to visit (Canada is currently top of the polls), and even things like the classes they take and whether to stay in dorms or with a host family. The scholarship fund’s yearly goal is 200,000 yen, and the committee holds a variety of fundraising events throughout the year in collaboration with Ehime AJET. Fundraisers include activities as varied as a Matsuyama Scavenger Hunt, a Hawaiian Luau in Uwajima, Girl Scout cookies sales, and pub quizzes. AJET has also been invited to open stands at local international events, providing opportunities to raise money for the scholarship fund as well as awareness for the cause. Without the support of these local organizations, like ICIEA in Imabari and Uwajima`s Hawaiian Festival, the scholarship would not be as successful as it is now.
The scholarship has been awarded to two students since its establishment. Both Akihito (2015) and Narumi (2016) travelled to Toronto for their chosen programs, and while they studied at different institutions and stayed in different areas of the city with different host families, their written reflections share many commonalities. They both, for example, experienced some trepidation prior to their first long-haul flight. They both had misgivings about their English proficiency and how they would be able to communicate in an English-speaking country. And they both admirably overcame their concerns and fears, actively participating in their classes and communicating with their host families and new friends from all over the world. They both also expressed a noticeable improvement in their listening skills, even after just a week. One of the highlights for Narumi was being able to help a family of tourists who were lost in the station.
For the scholarship recipients, studying abroad is an opportunity to explore more than just language and culture. As an aspiring engineer, Akihito found that the city of Toronto opened his eyes to new, innovative designs he had never seen before in Japan (he specifically mentions traffic lights and handrails. It’s always the little things that make an impression, right?!) The experience was more than a study abroad program; it became, in his words, “fuel that will drive my future.”
365 Days in Japan
One of my last memories of England before coming to Japan was sitting quietly with my parents, eating poached eggs at an airport cafe and looking bemusedly at my suitcase. We’d just wrapped the suitcase in clingfilm at an overpriced machine to keep my worldly possessions safe inside. At this point, the centre of the suitcase finally buckled under the pressure of the plastic wrap and contorted into an hourglass shape. The suitcase was red, and I smiled at the thought that I would be lugging around something very Jessica Rabbit-esque to my first graduate job. Maybe I should have interpreted it as a portent of the time trials to come, and not just the Mario Kart variety.
The Japanese time-warping began with the wrangling of time zones over Skype. When it’s midday in your hometown and dusk in your Japanese apartment, you get a twisty perception of the present. One thing that comes hand in hand with the navigation of these geographical hours is a new world of possibility. Sometimes in Japan I feel like some sort of freckly, amateur David Tennant, able to see all of these threads of potential stretching out into the distance. It’s a nice feeling. It’s not to say that being in Japan is completely pain-free — I often think about how time would be passing at home — but having so much possibility for travel, career, and life at my fingertips is something I feel very grateful for.
As well as all of the time-hopping, Japan also seems to affect the passage of time in other ways. At work sometimes time drags its heels, but on the whole it skips along as merrily as an Ichinensei playing Onigoko. Outside of the classroom, there are sometimes distinct moments where time seems to stop.
Last month, surrounded by the pine mountains, I performed a traditional drumming dance at a firefly festival with the students from one of my rural schools. I ate yakiniku leaning on the bridge as the sun stretched down and I saw fireflies glow in the valley below for the very first time. After the show we crouched down to hear congratulations from our Principal, still in our yukata and head-dresses, when I was snapped out of the reverie by the explosions of the fireworks starting. Hours after the children’s excited squealing had died down and I was back at my apartment again, I still felt the happy glow of that moment and of a good day well spent.
A lot of people voice their opinions on how to foster your time here. Sometimes, people seem to suggest that your time in Japan is some sort of rare orchid: “Don’t let your time run wild. Cultivate it, nurture it, give it a taste of the world’s nutrients, and take it back home to display it proudly.” At other times, people suggest that your Japanese time is like some sort of bohemian puppy: “Let your time run about and discover things for itself; sniff at every opportunity and time will nudge you in the right direction.” Depending on the tone that people use, the phrase I hear regularly (“21? You’re so young!”) takes on characteristics from either the orchid or puppy schools of thought. There’s something to be said for a combination of both approaches, though. You have to find the right balance between a pragmatic and a free-spirited approach to being in Japan. Although I am very familiar with that perennially inquired and still unanswered question of “How long will you stay in Japan?” the best advice I have received is to just take that decision one year at a time.
When I came to Japan I struggled (and definitely still do) with all of the things I don’t know, but I’ve already learned a lot, and I’ve now got a better understanding that part of the challenge and joy of being here is being able to embrace the inexperience in our Japanese experience.
I don’t know what the future will hold yet. Like that voluptuous, plastic-wrapped suitcase, time here is sometimes difficult to maneuver and can take on some unexpected characteristics, but I do believe it’s packed with a lot of promise. Continue reading
Pirates, Monks, and Inakamono: Ehime in Contemporary Media
Tokyo is the center of Japan’s media industry, the place where a majority of production and marketing happens. The capital’s gravity is felt in everything from films to manga to advertising. Tokyo is modern Japan, and everywhere else assumes an outside position relative to the center.
There are extremes. Hokkaido is the frontier, making it a reasonable stand-in for southern Kansas in Lee Sang-il’s remake of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and for Norfolk in the Studio Ghibli reimagining of “When Marnie was There.” Okinawa represents both relaxation and danger in the Japanese consciousness. Characters may go to Okinawa to vacation, but often enough they go to buy guns or drugs, as in Takeshi Kitano’s “Boiling Point.” In the extreme case of the cult anime short film “Blood: The Last Vampire,” a young warrior poses as a schoolgirl to kill demons. Both films take place on or around the American military bases.
In between these two geographical outliers is the countryside, the signs of which are nearly universal and coded to create nostalgia even in people whose only experience of the pastoral is through media. Much Japanese media set outside of Tokyo emphasizes the divide between tokai and inaka. When city folk trek to the inaka, they may encounter mystery or horror rooted in local traditions (see the film “Shikoku”), find spiritual healing (“Departures”), or become wrapped up in a comedy of manners. Films and novels set in the inaka without this “visiting protagonist” may be about attempts to make the country more like the city through economic revitalization plans (“Hula Girls”) or material consumption (“Kamikaze Girls”).These rural settings have defining characteristics such as local landmarks and dialects, but they are reduced to places we want to go because they are different from the alienating crush of city life.
With all of this in mind, what images does Ehime conjure in the Japanese imagination? Using the Ehime film section at my local Tsutaya, Wikipedia, and a website cataloguing location shoots across Japan, I’ve compiled a list of media (mostly films) set in Ehime. One quality of Japanese media that frustrates this kind of research is the intentional ambiguity of settings outside of Tokyo. Many films and dramas with scenes shot in Ehime take place in anonymous seaside towns.
It goes without saying that the most famous work set in Ehime is Natsume Soseki’s “Botchan,” a gentle satire of country folk from the perspective of a city boy. The novel has been embraced by the targets of its humor, who have named everything from a stadium to clinics to parking lots after the novel. As a part of the literary canon, “Botchan” is an extraordinary example, but there are very few contemporary works explicitly set in Ehime. The ones I found fit the patterns discussed above. The settings have qualities specific to Ehime that make them curious to outsiders and familiar to locals, but thematically they serve mainly to create a contrast between the city and the country. The most common imagery in these works is of healthy, tanned seafarers and pilgrims in white, and Ehime is accordingly associated with summer. The following is a list of works that engage with the Ehime setting in different ways.
“Crying Out Love in the Center of the World” (2001)
(Also known as “Socrates in Love”)
By some measures one of the ten best-selling books of all time in Japan, this soapy teenage romance by Kyoichi Katayama is set in his hometown of Uwajima and features many of the city’s landmarks. The film version (2004), directed by Isao Yukisada (who also made “Go,” the smash hit about a Korean-Japanese teenager) was largely shot in Shikoku and features the Ehime Prefectural Office doubling as a hospital. An 11-episode TV drama aired from July 2–Sept. 10, 2004.
“The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates” (2013)
The winner of the 2014 Japan Booksellers’ Award was this work of historical fiction about Kyo, the wild daughter of the last great pirate lord of the Seto Inland Sea. She gets wrapped up in the conflict between Oda Nobunaga and Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple. In reality, nothing is known about Murakami Takeyoshi’s daughter except for her name, which author Ryo Wada took to create a selfish, insecure, but inevitably good-hearted protagonist who idolizes another legendary ocean princess: Tsuruhime. It was recently adapted into a manga, a medium more suitable for the story’s exaggerated characters and often contemporary themes. For anyone interested in these seafaring clans, I recommend the Murakami Suigun Museum on Oshima Island.
“I am a Monk.” (2015)
Based on a collection of autobiographical essays by Missei Shirakawa, the head priest of Eifuku-ji Temple in Imabari, this film was shot largely on location. Like many contemporary Japanese films, it is more episodic than narrative-driven. The protagonist is a monk who becomes head priest at age 26. While the film is cheesy and at times even amateurish, it captures the temple inside and out. “I am a Monk” also documents daily life at the temple, including scenes of visits from traveling salesmen, meetings with disgruntled parishioners, and monks getting blackout drunk.
“Tora-san Meets His Lordship” (1977)
Released twice a year for over 20 years and almost all directed by Yoji Yamada, the beloved Tora-san films (officially “It’s Tough Being a Man” in English) are a testament to the Japanese love of formula. Over the 46 films in the Tora-san series, the eponymous protagonist visited every prefecture in Japan except Kochi, Saitama, and Toyama. The 19th installment features a visit to Ozu and opens with the hero daydreaming while waiting for a train at Shimonada Station. Tora-san is a perpetual fish out of water, a traveling salesman with a rough Tokyo-Shitamachi accent and manner. He is kind and unlucky in love. This film’s core is a friendship between him and the wealthy descendant of Ozu’s domain lord. It features many scenes shot in Ozu and on Gogoshima.
“Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” (1995)
While not entirely set in Ehime, this installment of the long-running film series features a close call between the big lizard and the Ikata Nuclear Power Plant. This imagery is uncomfortable in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, though the scene is silly in spite of itself: a high-tech fighter jet applies a soothing lotion to the monster’s burning nuclear rash. I don’t have much experience with these movies, though I learned some from Youtube explanations and rankings while watching this highly acclaimed installment.
Other films set in Ehime available at Tsutaya:
“Samurai Pirates” (2013)
Like a G-rated version of “The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates.”
“Shodo Girls” (2010) A “big competition” film set in Shikokuchuo and based on a true story.
More than “Crying Out Love” and even “Botchan,” the specific settings of “I am a Monk.” or “The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates,” rooted in real life and history, can’t be swapped out with any other place in Japan. We can enjoy most works set or shot in Ehime because we live here and our connection to the setting is different than for films set in other inaka, but I wonder what impression they have on viewers from Tokyo. Do images of our prefecture convey specific qualities, or does it merely become part of the larger dialogue between inaka and tokai? I can’t say, but I hope to see more novels and films that engage with Ehime (and Shikoku) on a deep level.
Anime and Manga Update
I’m a big fan of anime and manga and, if you let me, I would never shut up about it. However, it’s sometimes better to be brief. Instead of talking excessively of how great anime and manga is, I’ll just get to the point.
Firstly, I have two recommendations for new anime that are currently airing.
1) “Mayoiga” (English: “The Lost Village.” 12 episodes)
This is an intriguing mystery anime with a lot of characters that you can’t wait to seedie… and they probably will. The screenwriter is the same one behind “AnoHana”, “Toradora” and other great works. Plus, there is almost no evidence of an absolute original source material (i.e. a manga/light novel), meaning that the trolls and spoilers will stay in their caves.
2) “Koutetsujou no Kabaneri” (English: “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.” 12 episodes)
Another anime original, this could be the love child of “Attack on Titan,” “High-school ofthe Dead,” “Princess Mononoke” and… “Rail Wars”…? The director is Tetsurou Araki, meaning it’s basically anime nobility. I admit it’s too similar to some of Araki’s more popular (and largely aforementioned) works to be called smashingly original, yet the show has wicked potential, and could be one of the best ones this year if they don’t screw it up.
In a similar vein, I’ll just recommend a few manga series that I enjoy(ed), and maybe expose people to something new.
My first recommendation is “Psyren” (2007; 16 volumes). “Psyren” is an underappreciated shounen, horror, supernatural, mystery, romance, adventure series with an engaging plot, characters you’ll like, and a main character who isn’t full of crap.
I also recommend “Mahou Tsukai No Yome” (English: “The Ancient Magus Bride.” 2014; 5 Japanese volumes; 3 English volumes), a supernatural/romance shoujo series (directed at girls/young women). The manga is stuck somewhere between old shoujo , where everybody messed with everybody else’s mind and occasionally tried to kill each other, and modern shoujo, where everything is so innocent and sweet you run the risk of becoming diabetic.
The series is getting a home video release in summer for those who prefer anime.
Finally, I recommend “Nana to Kaoru” (2008; 16 volumes). I admit I’ve only read some parts of this manga(*wink wink*) as I’m not really into… what Nana and Kaoru are into. However, I have had a largely enjoyable time with this manga (*grins). The title characters have doubts and problems that could belong to any one of us and are really endearing. I left out the genres because I’m entertained by the idea of you finding out for yourself.
Finally, some anime-related news. Easily the best thing I’ve seen so far (outside the Summer 2016 anime line-up, of course) is the fact that “Ghost In The Shell” is getting an actual live action release. AND that they’ve started filming. AND that the release date has been set, meaning… this is happening!
My hopes for the movie are that they stick to the original material but explore a different story arc than the original movies and the various series; that they tone it down enough that a wider audience can understand the plot but not so much so that you leave the theatre dumber than you entered; and that they keep the atmosphere mature and not make it family-friendly.
I have already seen controversy around Hollywood whitewashing the cast. However, I find that no different from Japan Asian-washing the “Attack on Titan” movie. I honestly don’t mind if they use big-name actors that will deliver a performance and rake in the bucks. What I would mind is if they change characters’ names and backstories to fit their new lighter complexions. For a series with such complicated characters as GITS, that would be disrespectful to the original story and ensure that the movie shares only the name with the original and nothing else beneath (if you’ll pardon the pun) the skin. Continue reading
Tell Me About the Rabbits
From fox villages to cat cafes, Japan has a reputation for animal tourism. And one of the most unique examples is Okunoshima — an island overrun with rabbits — located between Ehime and Hiroshima prefectures in the Seto Inland Sea. After hearing rave reviews, some friends and I decided to visit the island in mid-March.
For such a popular attraction, Okunoshima was surprisingly difficult to reach. We took a train to Imabari, where we caught a bus to Omishima, the largest of the islands along the Shimanami Kaido. From the bus stop at Inokuchi port on Omishima, it was about a 45-minute walk to the next port on the island, the only place we could catch the ferry to Okunoshima.
The clerk at the ferry port sold bunches of carrots for 100 yen each — a good indication of how many people visit for the sake of the rabbits. We’d come armed with our own carrots and lettuce, so we didn’t buy from him this time around.
The ferry runs once every couple of hours, and, after missing the 10 a.m. ferry, we opted to eat lunch on the dock while waiting for the noon ferry. We spent the short, 15-minute ride watching Okunoshima grow larger as the ferry grew nearer. From sea, the island has nothing distinct about it; it’s a mass of pine trees and boulders like the other islands in the Seto Inland Sea.
But as soon as we set foot on the island, we were greeted by a swarm of bunnies feasting on pellets that a couple of tourists tossed to them. It didn’t take me long to open my bag of lettuce. The rabbits, though definitely not underfed, were eager for a treat, and hopped right up to tourists who had anything in their hands. One of my friends shooed away curious bunnies as they sniffed at the orange case on her phone.
These rabbits are not the skittish animals found in neighborhoods back home. They put their paws on my knee as they stretched for food, nuzzling my hand even when I didn’t have anything to offer. I’m something of a sucker for animals, and I encouraged them, waving strips of lettuce in the face of whatever bunny wandered my direction. Coos and cries of “kawaii!” could be heard all around — especially from me, though I’d like to pretend I have more dignity than that.
Not all of the animals are cuddly, though; among the fat, fluffy bunnies were several rabbits missing eyes or with chunks of their ears torn off, more like scruffy bunny pirates than house pets. These battle scars likely came from squabbles over territory or food, since outside dogs and cats are banned from the island.
Aside from rabbits, Okunoshima is famous for its poison gas plant, which produced mustard gas and tear gas during World War II. Though the plant was abandoned after the war, modern tourists can learn about the island’s history at the Poison Gas Museum and other former manufacturing operations that dot the island’s perimeter. Now, these abandoned husks of buildings serve as more hiding places for the rabbits, who dig burrows near old foundations and sleep under decaying bridges.
Urban legend has it that Okunoshima’s rabbits are the descendants of test subjects that were released into the wild when the gas factory closed. Another popular theory holds that the current population is descended from eight classroom pets that were released into the wild. Whatever the case, the 2.5 km of Okunoshima are now dominated by more than 700 rabbits. It’s impossible to visit and not see a rabbit.
Regardless of the island’s past, it has a promising future in tourism. The island has its own resort and campground, complete with onsen and a gift shop where visitors can purchase any rabbit-themed souvenir imaginable — from tenugui to rabbit-shaped cookies. Connected to the gift shop is a cafe where customers can enjoy small meals or ice cream while watching rabbits frolic on the hotel’s lawn.
We finished our day on Okunoshima by walking along the boardwalk back to the ferry port. Even on the wooden planks of the boardwalk we found wayward rabbits hopeful for a carrot or two. As we sat on benches waiting for the return ferry, three rabbits joined us, lounging under a tree and looking tired, but content, just like us.
Compared to their house-pet cousins or the cats who inhabit cat cafes, I’d imagine the bunnies of Okunoshima have no reason to complain. With the exception of a few gates, they’re free to roam wherever they want, dig holes, and frolic with other rabbits. They’re not overcrowded or outcompeted, and they always have access to fresh water. And animal-loving tourists (like me) will always be around to offer them carrots in exchange for a photo.
Never Give Up: the Japanese community theatre experience
Musical theatre isn’t easy. You have to be able to sing, dance and act, as well as give the commitment that any performance requires. To do a musical, you need a “Never Give Up” kind of mindset. I had the chance to be in a musical about a man with that very mindset — Sogo Shinji, the founder of the shinkansen. “Full speed ahead! The Shinkansen Dream ~The Story of Kiku and Shinji,” centered on Shinji’s motto “Yuufazu” (有法子 “Never give up” in Chinese) and how he never gave up on Saijo, his wife, or the shinkansen.
Like Sogo Shinji, I had to follow the spirit of “Yuufazu” even from before my audition. The auditions required me singing a set song (to be given on the day) and a Japanese poem. I was dreading this because I probably wouldn’t understand the poem even if I could read it. Even if I did understand it, I knew very few Japanese songs so I didn’t think I’d know this one. I nearly dropped out because I just assumed it would be impossible, but in the end, I decided that at worst, the experience of auditioning for a musical in Japan would be worth it. I managed to read through a poem I still don’t understand, and I was given permission to sing any song I wanted. And so I did.
I got accepted.
We all got accepted in fact. And so began the first trial: reading a script dense with Japanese that was certainly not in line with my N4/N3 skills. My lines would come up, and I’d be in the wrong place of the script, and then scrambling to read the line that was actually mine. With no prep time I couldn’t find readings for kanji, and even if I did, some of it was in the local dialect or archaic. Ultimately I was given a small role that used a combination of English and Japanese, and I was able to focus on really making those lines work.
How do you sing a small tsu (っ)? Singing was more of a trial than I expected. I’d never read sheet music with Japanese before and the っused on notes was confusing. For the longest time I found the songs difficult to memorize. With words flowing so much into each other it was a puzzle to just know where the words broke, making finding the meaning for words I didn’t know difficult if not impossible when clustered together. As someone who usually has little trouble memorizing an English song, this was frustrating. The one thing I thought I’d have no trouble with ended up being a major difficulty! It took me several extra weeks of solid practice to nail the lyrics so that I could finally work on the dance.
Dancing was a surprising relief. If you were to look at me, dancing might not seem like my favored activity. But because learning the dances was a simple matter of watch and repeat, it was a nice break from using so much energy listening out for instructions.
Which leaves the biggest continuous challenge I had: following directions. We were a pure Japanese troupe aside from me, so naturally all the directions were given in Japanese. I certainly learned a lot from context, but long rehearsals (twice weekly, 3-6 hours) were exhausting. Not just because of the length, but because I wanted to not be the weakest link in the chain, and to not slow anything down, which meant always being ready to leap into action, and thus listening carefully to anything that might apply to me.
After about four months of rehearsals, it was almost time to perform the real thing. The two weeks leading up to the show consisted of 6-12 hours of rehearsals a day in the blazing summer. “Never give up” was said a lot by the producers of the show. By the time the show ran, we had been practicing for so long I think everyone had difficulty believing we were finally performing! The show sold out in both venues, and people to this day still tell me how wonderful it was. With strong performances particularly for the role of Sogo Shinji in his old age and his wife Kiku. But why don’t you see a bit for yourself?
Next time you think “I can’t do that!” imagine a rather tall, rounded Australian man performing a cheery song about never letting go of your dreams in Japanese. There are an awful lot of fascinating things to do in Japan, even in — in fact especially in — Ehime. Worry less about the ability to do, and more about making the effort to try. “Yuufazu” Never give up, never surrender to practicality. To musicals and beyond.
Re-sign or Resign: coming to terms with my recontracting decision
It would happen about five times a day. A niggling feeling at the back of my mind, reminding me that there’s something I needed to do, something I’d been putting off. I’d be working at my desk, my eyes would wander to that stack of papers, and I’d lose focus.
I’d been putting off signing my recontracting papers. I waited until the last possible moment to submit them.
“Wow, I can’t believe you waited so long to decide!” you might say, but that wasn’t the problem. I had decided a month prior that I wouldn’t be recontracting, that in August I’d be heading back to the motherland (Canada) to reunite with the love of my life (Twix bars). But as long as I put off physically signing the papers, I could entertain the idea of staying.
As much as I relished the thought of moving on to the next chapter in my life, of starting an exciting new career path, of digging my fork into a hot plate of poutine again, the thought of leaving was always accompanied by a feeling of melancholy.
It was even more unsettling to me than the decision to come here in the first place. I always knew the JET program would be temporary, that I would be returning eventually, and that things at home would remain more or less unchanged — life moves slowly when everything is frozen for half the year.
What worries me about leaving Japan is that I’ve made a home here, and I may never come back to it. And when I do come back, it won’t be the same. By the time I return, the majority of my friends (mostly JETS) will have moved on to new points in their lives: new countries, new jobs, new adventures. This place will never be the way it is right now, and I will likely never see these friends I’ve made all together again. It’s only been six months, and I’m already so attached to the town, the landscape, and the people here that I know leaving will be painful.
Suffice it to say that the decision was not easy. I have my reasons for going back, but sometimes I worry that they’re superficial, or that I’ll regret my choice when I’m gone, and it’s that worry that fueled my procrastination for so long.
I could complain that the papers come too soon, or that the contract is too much of a commitment, but I think that in the end, I would never be completely sure either way. If I had decided to stay, I’m sure I would be filled with just as much doubt and insecurity. I’d be missing just as many milestones back home ー so many weddings, so many family gatherings, so many caesars(!).
As much as I’ve struggled with this over the last month, I do believe that there is no right or wrong decision in this case, only two directions that will make the next year of my life very different. I have no way of knowing which would be “better,” only that for the last couple months, I’ve felt a pull towards home. I can’t know how the next chapter of my life will turn out, but my gut is telling me that it should begin in Canada. I know that things will work out for me either way, and I’m out of time for second-guessing.
And so, at the last possible moment, I signed and sent off the documents. Despite my hesitation, they still said that I do not wish to accept reappointment, leaving me to make the most of my remaining six months here and to prepare for the giant question mark that is my life after JET. Continue reading