I'm back from the last of the orientations and trainings. Anything I need to know that I don't know right now I'm just going to have to learn at school, which is a terrifying five days away. Saijo "Language and Culture Training" was mostly unremarkable, mornings of Japanese lessons, afternoons of workshops and activities designed to accustom us to the ins and outs of Japanese culture. The best part of the Saijo program was seeing all my first year JET friends for one last time. I spent time with people I already knew, met new people, and had one particularly crazy night which I will discuss soon. I learned two alphabets in four days, got thrown out of a department store, tried sea urchin sushi (don't make that mistake - take it from me), taught some Hiroshima University students how to play pool, and stole a totally awesome Japanese bathrobe from the hotel. A productive week, all told.
Of all the things I didn't expect about the JET program, the biggest one is the diversity of the participants. The group of friends I hung out with in Saijo were a good example. There were six of us, representing five countries - The States, New Zealand, England, Canada, and Argentina. The Argentinean, to be fair, wasn't a JET, but still, we were hanging out and it was an adventure. The days were pretty uneventful and the nights involved a lot of partying. The hotel had a beer vending machine, Saijo had a number of fine drinking establishments (and a number of hostess bars that we accidentally went into, looking for fine drinking establishments).
The Hotel/Training Center was up on a little mountain outside of the city, and there was a free shuttle bus that ran every hour or so. On the ride down one day I happened to be looking out the window and I saw an old stone stairway leading up into the forest, and I knew I had to go investigate. On Thursday afternoon I borrowed a bike from the front desk and set off to find out where the stairway went. A short but very steep uphill bike ride later, I got to the bottom of the steps. There was no sign, no parking, no nothing really, so I put my bike in a ditch by the road and set off to check it out.
I walked up the steps, which turned out to be both steeper and more uneven than they had looked from the road. As I got further and further from the road, the sound of insects got louder and louder. As I reached the top, they had drowned out everything else. I had no idea what I would find on top but I knew that these stairs were old, hundreds of years, and I found myself walking up, thinking about who had walked up these stairs before me. It was just a set of stones set into a hill, but alone on a hot afternoon in Japan, I conjured up a whole world that had been there before.
Near the top the path split, a narrow dirt path through a bamboo forest to the right, and a small clearing at the top with what seemed to be a shrine and some memorials. I stopped to take pictures and found myself swarmed by mosquitoes. Whenever I stopped long enough to put my camera to my eye and take a picture, I got two or three mosquito bites.
After I took my photos I walked down the path, dark and narrow, almost a tunnel through bamboo stalks. I came out and saw a wooden stairway leading down to the road and another, leading up. There was a sign with an arrow, but I had no idea what it said.
The stairs seemed to go on forever. By the time I reached the top, I was gasping for breath and drenched in sweat. I found a sign that had an English translation and discovered that I had made the hike to the remains of Kagamiyama Castle. It had been the seat of the Shogun of the region, and when his power was contested in 1523, man battles had been fought around it. There was nothing left but some stones and the remains of five wells, but that was enough for me. I made that walk up the mountain, and so did armies of Samurai.
A well - there were five, apparently showing that many people lived here. Also, they were at the top of a mountain, so they must have been hell to dig.
The view from the main fort of the castle. Take a few of the buildings out and I bet it hasn't changed much.
Beware of tigers? I don't know what this sign says.
As I walked back down, I noticed a tiny rough path heading off into the forest. I figured I would see where it went and started walking. After a couple minutes, I started getting covered in spider webs. I pushed through a few more, and then came up to a giant spider web that covered the entire path. In the middle of the web was a black and yellow spider, maybe three inches long. I stopped and looked around. I realized that I was completely surrounded by these spiders, all of them large and seemingly watching me. Rather than continue on, I took some pictures and made a retreat.
Off I go, away from spiders and down the treacherous steps.
That night was our last night in Saijo, and so we all went out, planning to have fun, but not really having any idea what to do. I found myself with my group of friends at a Japanese restaurant, one table over from a party of about seven or eight Japanese businessmen (and one woman). They were loud and getting louder, every toast they made involved cheers, claps, and lots of shouting. Seeing as we were already a few beers and a couple of bottles of Sake into the evening, we decided that the best course of action would be simply to be louder than our neighbors. When they cheered, we cheered louder. When they shouted, we shouted. Louder.
After a few toasts, our tactics were successful, and a guy came over to our table. His name was Jun, and he spoke good English and perfect Italian. He was the boss of the party and told us that he didn't like Japanese people. He told us that he didn't like the strict status relationships that everyone has to maintain, the forced politeness of all Japanese people, and Japanese faces (the features are too small, says he). His friend came over and joined us, while a young guy back at the table he had come from started shouting and staggering around. The girls we were with decided to switch tables and go over to the Japanese table, then Jun and his buddy went back to their table, and finally the rest of us went over to the Japanese business table. We were making introductions, getting enthusiastic handshakes and pats on the back from one of the guys, when the young loud guy got up, walked over to our ex table and threw up. Much commotion, the puke was cleaned, the guy was escorted from the restaurant, and we decided to go do Karaoke with the businessmen.
When we got outside the guy was lying under a pile of bicycles, with his friend trying to get him on his feet. Jun led us away from this scene, apologizing and telling us what an idiot that guy was, and then had us wait, half a block away, while he dealt with the situation. After about ten minutes he came back, a big smile on his face, and said "Karaoke?"
Karaoke it was. We walked to Mr. Karaoke, a 24-hour Karaoke center and waited while one of our new Japanese friends made arrangements. They told us that we'd have to split into two rooms, but this was clearly not OK, so we had a seat as intense negotiations went on.
After about five minutes, they basically carried Mr. Drunk into the place.
That's Jun on the left, by the way.
Negotiations were finally made, and we were set in a giant room, kind of half kids playroom, half cafeteria, retooled for karaoke. Drinks were free all night, and so it began.
This is Julie, Emily, and Tomoki. Today I received a text message from Tomoki:
HELLO!!BEN!This is Tomoki.Yesterday was a verry happy day!Because I met good friends.
I wish to be able to meet you again!
See you later!
Emily and Jun singing their hearts out. Not the greatest picture ever taken, but it captures something about the night.
Another picture of the dynamic duo. I want to draw your attention the fairy tale cabin/shed in the background, because for the entire three and a half hours of Karaoke...
...this guy was passed out on the floor. Not the best night for him.
That was about it. We sang until we couldn't anymore, then we played ping pong, then someone broke a table, and at about 2:30 in the morning, someone remembered that the training center hotel had an 11pm curfew. We took cabs home, snuck around the back, and got the security guard to let us in. The next day was unremarkable in every way except that it was far too bright.
I took the bus home at 1:00, and I just wanted to post a picture of a standard Japanese bus. They almost always have wood floors and old ladies.