Friday, January 23, 2009

As the World Changes....

I stay put!

In case nobody noticed, the world is in economic crisis. Aha, big crisis! (that was not sarcasm!!!)

The NZ Dollar was back below 50 yen yesterday with the company I use to send money home. Oh my goodness, if it goes down to 45 yen I will send the money I've been saving home all and once and pay off my credit card completely. But, I can't send my money straight home just yet...

My parents and sister are coming to Japan in March to not only see me but to see Japan. They came to Japan in 1983, when I wasn't even thought of quite yet. Big sis doesn't remember it though, so she wants to go to Kyoto and Osaka and other places that she has, in fact, already been to in a blue push chair with white blonde hair and got stared at around every turn. She also wants to see the snow monkeys in Niigata or Nagano. Mum and Dad, on the other hand, having done the touristy stuff want to go to rural areas and skiing. I am dragging their butts to Kyoto because I told my host mother in Nara that I will find a way to get them to her. They want to go to Obama, Fukui; Tottori and other out of the way places because they have the train pass and want to make proper use of it.

It's fair that Mum and Dad want to use their train passes to maximum effect and I think it's great that they want to go rural because it's cheaper and since I am saving up my money to pay them back when they get here. I owe them my first month in Japan and my electronic dictionary. It's only fair that I buy the dinners, lunches, breakfasts and pay for the hotels really isn't it?

I'm really excited that my family is meeting at my house this time. For the first time in my life I am the halfway point for us all. That's one of the reasons that I signed the recontracting papers, I like being halfway. 11 hours to Mum and Dad, 12 hours to big sis. One big plane between me and the rest of the family.

I watched with interest as President Obama gave his first speech of his time in office with a back drop of a city that I temporarily called 'home' (or almost, home was actually across a coupla bridges away) in the early '90s and realised that this is the pattern for my life, move somewhere, stay a while watch my actual home change before my eyes, not recognise it when I return but also realise that psyche hasn't changed.

On the other side of the coin, I find myself wondering whether this financial crisis that seems to be hitting NZ bad, will change the psyche of NZers from the spenders that we have become back to the savers and family people we once were. NZ needs to change its focus. Here I shall stay until July 2010 at least to see if it has any effect.

Who knows right? The world will change around me, I will find out in snippets from the internet and the odd announcement regarding changes to my job description from the Board of Education, and I will stay put for now.

My family is so blessed that we're all employed and are able to meet in March. Roll on March, I can't wait to see them, woohoo! (Haven't seen the parents in over a year!)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

伝統的なお正月(でんとうてきなおしょうがつ) A Traditional New Year Experience

Sooo, I’m planning on heading off the West in the summer and wanted to save my Nenkyuu whilst still making the most of the winter vacation.

In view of the fact that this was my plan, I made a phone call to a girl who was an exchange student for 6 weeks at my high school way back in 2001 (and don’t think I am using her I have in fact caught up with her several times in the last 7 years) back in September. I was supposed to stay with this girl for Oshoogatsu (お正月) 2001/2002 in fact but my teacher decided to send someone else, who was a complete surprise to my host family, but anyway time to bury that hatchet, I had a better time sailing along the Antarctic Peninsula anyway. I called my friend and said ‘I wanna come and see you in October, I gotta get outta Toyama for a spell.’ She said she was busy at work at the time but to definitely come for New Year and that in fact her mother had been expecting me since she heard I was going to be an ALT, so since May 2008. ‘I am at your family’s disposal miss, I shall arrive on the 30th at lunchtime!’

I spent the week before at school getting bored as a wooden plank, wishing I was overseas with those of you that went away early. But the wait was worth it!

I arrived at the train station in the Nara-ken inaka to be greeted by my host family. Papa, Mama, Kento and my friend, Lisa, took me to Obaachan and Ojiichan’s house where Lisa and I would live while I was there and we chatted away in a mixture of English and Japanese, which Obaachan understood every word of even if she can’t talk back in English.

I had what can only be described as an incredibly traditional new year. Oshogatsu at my host family’s house is really really important to them. They are a tea ceremony family and Mama uses gold leaf in every cup of tea she makes on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. They take this thing seriously.

On New Year’s Eve we drove into central Osaka for lunch and bought the New Year presents for the president of Papa’s company, as well as the Kyoto sensei of Kento’s school and various other important and influential people. “Yes, this is how things work around here,” explained Mama. So I gave her the 2 boxes of omiyage I’d brought with me as soon as we got home, she smacked me over the head and told me not to do that again because apparently I am family.

At 1145pm on New Year’s Eve we headed to the village temple where I was welcomed like a local by the priest, we each rang the bell once, twice, three times. Small village = hard to make it to 108 times if people only ring it once. The temple is only opened once a year (New Year) and the priest’s family had laid out sake, non-alcky drinks, cup noodles and snacks for everyone in the village, all were welcome to eat and drink for free.

Next stop the shrine, which is manned by local men who take turns each year (Papa thinks he’s on next year and is hoping it’s not cold!) to sit and distribute more sake, tea and mikan, as well as kombu, surume (squid) and ya (矢arrow). We lit a candle each, then prayed then drank our choice of beverage while chatting around the bon-fire. I asked about the arrow and one of the old guys manning the shrine who was a little drunk said to me ‘Happy Ya!’, I got the joke the next day when I realised that ‘ya’ and ‘year’ sound the same.

The Ya is lucky. If you hit your target with your arrow you have good aim and good luck. So, the locals consider it good luck and hope that it will bring them and their business good luck in the coming year. The kombu is for longevity. Everything eaten on New Year has a meaning related to luck, good fortune or long life. As Mama explained things to me, I began to realise the strength of feeling that Japanese have about New Year (or at least my very traditional host family). “This is bigger than Christmas back home,” I thought.

On New Year’s Day, we got up late and ate ozoni、お雑煮、 (soup made with white miso containing mochi which is slightly different in every prefecture) as well as a traditional osechi (御節利用理 of kombu, preserved meat, sashimi freshly prepared by the 81 year old Obaachan in the morning and various other salty things that used to be eaten for 3 days running. But even in my super traditional family they don’t do that now. As I was eating, Otoshidamaお年玉 (new year’s money in a pretty envelope) was pushed into my hand, I told them off about it. My host family told me off for telling them off and that it was just a little bit to experience being a real Japanese kid at new year. We stayed home drinking tea and relaxing the rest of the day until Ojichan (uncle), Obachan and Lisa’s cousins came when we ate some more and watched a show about differences between prefectures at New Year in Japan.
In Toyama, there’s a special picture of the god of scholars, Tenjinsama (天神様, てんじんさま) who’s name is Sugawara no michizane (菅原道真, すがわらのみちざね) that gets put in the Tokonoma(床の間) of every family in which the first born has been a son and if Grandfather, Father and son are all the first born 3 go up and wouldn’t you know it in 2007 Toyama did the best in Japanese Tests of any other prefecture and a student from Shikino Junior High in Takaoka placed 3rd in the National Kuni-go (Japanese) speech contest in 2008. There must be something in the tokonoma.

On the second we drove to Kyoto-fu to see Mama’s mother. Rather uneventful, more family time. But really special! She was in her 80’s, too. Japanese people live for a long time!!!!

Now here comes the rant! On the third, because I love Lush and we don’t have Lush in Toyama, we went to the biggest mall in Kansai, Aeon Aruru. Aruru is 3 storeys high, and twice the length (approximately) of Takaoka’s Aeon. It was packed with people spending their Otoshidama, which of course I was doing too but it bugged me. As the floor vibrated below my feet on the third floor I wondered if these people even knew that there’s a financial crisis going on. I was just at that mall for the one shop, and unintentionally others, but these people were there for the big sales and they had come from all over Kansai, from Wakayama even, I couldn’t believe it. Finding a parking spot was hard even at 11:00am.
Lisa told me that this is the sad side of Japan, people stop visiting their extended family and just spend spend spend. They want the shops open longer and don’t even spend New Year’s Day with the grandparents. They don’t care about the tradition and are only out for themselves. I couldn’t believe that I was in one building containing almost a whole city worth of shopping. Mama said she’s annoyed because people in the outside world are beginning to think that Japanese culture is a consumer culture and that’s not what they’re about at all. She said even Japanese are forgetting what Japan is about. It was important for me to see the scale of it at Aruru to understand what she had been talking about in the previous 3 days.

If you’re in Japan for New Year 2009/2010, try to experience Oshoogatsu traditional style. It’s really special and is the ‘real’ Japan in my view. Maybe I am lucky to have stumbled into a traditional family, but I’m sure you can find it here in Toyama. You don’t need to go to the ancient capital of Japan to find the history and the culture, it’s right here on our doorstep, the kombu I ate at my host family’s house was from Himi and I was eating it in Nara!

Oshogatsu is a really special time to the Japanese and I really appreciate what I experienced and what I learned while on vacation. Afterall, that’s what I came here for, to share a bit of me and to learn a LOT about Japan.