Re-capping on the last month or so`s events, there`s been a fair bit I haven`t mentioned. In early December we visited Himeji again, with our Japanese sensei Maeda-san, for some Christmas shopping.
Himeji isn`t quite the shining beacon that Osaka and Kobe have become over the last month, but there were some nice illuminations nonetheless. Icy coloured lights decorated the trees lining Miyukidori (a main shopping walk) and nearly every shop front was plastered with various Christmas decorations. Considering Japan isn`t as big on this holiday in the traditonal, Biblical sense, it more than makes up for it with the dancing Santas and miles or giftwrapping paper. It felt a little more like home seeing all the Christmas touches (even inside Shiso you can`t seem to turn around without being assaulted by a red and green combo), but still unmistakingly Japanese because of the meticulous attention to detail and the care assigned to making the holiday memorable.
While on the topic and, skipping forward to last Sunday (19th), I went to Kobe in the evening with Michiko-san (the lady who takes us to Tea ceremony every Wednesday) and her family to see the Luminarie – a colossal light-fest in memory of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. We walked in admist a river of people down the main roads lined occasionally with wardens to stop people skipping the line. It took about half an hour just to reach the sight, but it has to be the biggest illumination I have in my memory to date. I did try to look, but could not see any popped bulbs along the way either ^_^;; – but there must have been considering how many lights there lining the roof of a great corridor of shops we walked under.
In the morning of last Sunday I went to a small village offset from Ichinomiya-cho (near Shiso Home) to help make (and eat) soba nodles ^^. This was very interesting and, as I noted in one of my earlier diary entries, I was amazed yet again at the community atmosphere prevalent out here. This tiny village (mura) which Yokomakura-san (one of the program staff) lives in, has something in the region of 60 people who all come together to make soba noodles once a year, amongst, (I`m supposing), other events. We first made the mixture for the noodles and then had to knead (koneru) it for 20 minutes to bind the dull-grey dough together. Afterwards we rolled it out and simply cut it into noodle-like strips before cooking. I had a fair bit of time to talk to Yokomakura-san and some of the other people there; which also included an American and a couple of other English speakers from China and Korea who work in Kobe as translators. They came out here just for the experience, which has to have a say in the `city verses country` debate, surely. Despite not being incredibly close to a city, I`ve still found plenty of things to do when I don`t travel out to them.
Dropping back to the 12th December, we had Pauline Hook`s Christmas party that Heather and Dave have written about on their journals. It was good to meet up again after such a long time apart and, looking back now, I did appreciate the traditional Christmas food more than I realised. The Carol service in the evening was lots of fun as well. I remember having a pronounced feeling of unease at the party though. Being around so many English-speaking people once more made me somewhat defensive and confused about where I really lie. I suppose that`s part of the reason I try not to dwell on my missed family and friends back home, and why, now approaching the last quarter of the working placement at Shiso, I feel uncomfortable when I have to think about leaving and the possibility of travelling afterwards. I had a similar thing happen just before coming out, about leaving everything back home. Everyone around me, that is to say, fellow GAP volunteers, seem to have a ideas of where they want to go after their placements have ended and what they want to do. Whereas I am considering staying longer by continuing to work at Shiso and improve my Japanese further…
On Saturday 18th December we had the Shiso Christmas lunch. Just like the Birthday party, we were all situated upstiars in the now cleared-out large hall. A lot of the residents had their family members there, which was largely the first time I`ve seen most of them. The tables were laid out with champagne and cute little card holders that Ooi-san (a program staff member) had been carefully painting the month before hand. There were a few speeches and then everyone ate. Not having a resident to help feed on this day, I took the opportunity to get some video footage of the event and more photos of the residents. My camera has been unusually dormant this last month around the home…
On Tuesday 21st I went to Kyoto with one of the staff from Shiso, Kondou-san. I was staying at Hanshin with Dave the nights either side of Tuesday, so we had a chance to see each other again and talk. I met up with Kondou-san at Juusou station (a main connecting point for Kyoto, among several other routes) about 11.30 and we headed out the the West of Kyoto to Arashiyama, visiting Suzumushi-dera (Bell Cricket Temple). She told me about an omammori (good luck charm) you can buy there and wish on to the Koufuku Jizou (Guardian Deity of Happiness). You give your name and place of living to the sandal-wearing statue before asking of its help – your wish. The Jizou is the only one of its kind to wear straw sandals on its feet, because it walks all the way to the houses of those who have told their wishes to it (it has a long way to go for me then ^_^). If and when your wish is granted, you return to the temple, returning the omamori and thank the Jizou for it`s grace. So I now have to return to Japan someday if my wish is granted ^_^ hehe. Definitely one of the more interesting temples I`ve visited – and I didn`t even mention yet that it has its name because you can hear the sound of crickets all year round, not just the usual time of year – Autumn.
We travelled to East Kyoto afterwards to visit another temple before stopping in a sweet shop. Only this was really a restaurant where you order a dish of Japanese sweets such as zenzai and rango. It was really strange (and very, very sweet) but overall really good – something I`ve never heard or read about before in guidebooks, but very Japanese. Thinking about it, you`d probably need to speak very good Japanese or go, as I did, with someone who can to appreciate it. The day was pretty good overall, but the conversation barrier really tested me, and, I`m guessing, her most of the time. I`ve started to appreciate just how useful and, in some ways, important it is to be able to relate comfortably with someone. I just can`t achieve that with my current level of Japanese because nearly all jokes have to be dumbed down and explained and a simple line of conversation about nearly any topic can`t be had. I`m still at the `so have you been there?` and `so do you like it?` Any `whys` and things get sticky…
On Christmas Eve I worked a late shift until 9.00pm and stayed late the following Christmas Day to give out the presents of sweets that Jess`s family had brought from England. We made Christmas-Day cake with the residents in the afternoon and then had a candle service dinner in the evening, followed, of course, by cake-eating and the sweet-giving ^_^. It was very different to my usual Christmas, but I`m glad I spent it here rather than go travelling or take holiday leave. I hope the New Year`s mochitsuki (rice cake pounding) is just as good.
I`ll get around to sending letters in January to everyone I haven`t yet and replies also. Mum – I recieved the parcel from home today (only a day late then ^_^). If you`re awaiting an email reply from me, please give me another nudge. I replied to whomever I thought I was overdue to today, but I may have missed some people – please don`t be offended, it`s difficult to keep track in Hotmail`s inbox and I don`t have the time to organise it.
Have a great New Year all, especially to the Japanese group back home who are meeting up. I wish I could join you ^_^.