Monday, 29 August 2011

Three weeks

I've been back in Sheffield three weeks now. Things that seemed novel and new when I first came back have now become normal, but I'm enjoying it all. I'm working every day at Pizza Hut, usually from around lunchtime til 6 or 7, and that leaves me some time in the evening.

Last night it was my aunty's 50th birthday party at her place and most of my dad's side of the family were there. The food and drink was great. My uncle had stocked up his alcohol fridge full of many British beers which are rarities in Japan. My aunty had also cooked a big joint of roast pork and stuffing - another luxury I haven't eaten for the last year.

I've been out for a few nights in Sheffield, and not much has changed there, apart from the fake tan has got darker and bleached blonde hair brighter. I've been enjoying watching and listening to the footy, and I went to an away game at Bury with my brother a couple of weeks ago.

Last Tuesday I went to a gig with my sister in Nottingham. A band called Teenage Bottlerocket played, and I've been listening to them a lot lately, especially during my last few months in Japan. They sound a lot like Ramones, but they're proper catchy and great for singing along to. The gig was at Rock City - where I saw MxPx a few years ago - and it was a great night of pogoing and fist-pumping.

As usual, the British summer weather has been a letdown, but I'm enjoying being back.

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Friday, 12 August 2011

Back in Sheffield and my last week in Japan

I arrived back in Sheffield on Monday night, and it's really good to be back. I've been enjoying British food and TV and meeting mates and family I haven't seen in a year. Everyone's been talking about the riots, but they seem to be dying down now and they didn't reach Sheffield, which is a testament to the common sense of the people who live here.

My last week in Japan was great as well. Work ended on the 1st, and the next day I moved out of my apartment and into my mate's place. As the Nebuta Festival was taking place all the JETs went drinking every night at Passage Hiroba, a beer garden famous among the gaijin. Old JETs left and new JETs came and everyone had a great time. However, I had to take one day out to go down to Tokyo to get an emergency passport.

I had assumed my passport was in my desk at the city hall, as the last time I had used it was when I interpreted for a foreign cruise ship that came to Aomori. We'd used our passports to board the ship, and I had taken mine back to the city hall after the ship left port. It had been in a paper envelope, and it must have been thrown out with the waste paper by me or someone else in my office, as when I was tidying my desk I couldn't locate it. When it didn't show up I called the British embassy and inquired about getting a new one. The things I needed were:
  • e-ticket for my plane home
  • 2 passport photos
  • form of ID
  • Fee of 12,350 yen
  • Police report (遺失物届受理証明書)
You also have to go to the embassy in Tokyo to present all this. I was going to Tokyo to fly home on the 8th, but unfortunately the 6th and 7th fell on a weekend, so the embassy wouldn't be open and I wouldn't have time to get the passport done before my flight. That meant I'd have to go down on either the 4th or 5th.

Transport options in and out of Aomori were limited because of all the people travelling to see Nebuta, but I left on a night bus on the night of the 3rd and arrived at Tokyo Station on the morning of the 4th. I caught a train to Hanzōmon where the embassy is, and ate breakfast at a coffee shop nearby. I got chatting to an old man there who had visited the UK and was pretty decent at English. It turned out his hobby was yachting and he had a yacht in Sendai which he invited me to visit.

British Embassy

My white and gold passport

After breakfast I went to the embassy and received my new emergency passport within a couple of hours. I then travelled back to Tokyo Station and got a Shinkansen ticket back to Aomori. I was back in Aomori by 6pm and we all went out again to Passage. After drinking all night and an hour of sleep I had to go into work on Friday to show my successor around the city hall and answer any questions he might have. By coincidence my successor was in the year below me at Sheffield Uni, so I knew him beforehand. He seems to be decent at Japanese and I think he'll do well at the job.

That night all the JETs had planned to dance in the Nebuta Festival, so on Friday afternoon we put our costumes on then went to Passage for a pre-festival drink. There were about 30 of us gaijin, and the parade runs from around 7 till 9 every night, so we all danced for a couple of hours, then went back to Passage for more drinking. I bumped into quite a lot of people I knew during the parade, and also saw some カラス (karasu, gangs who go to Nebuta to cause trouble). According to the people of Aomori, these gangs were much more common in the past, and the Nebuta Festival was much more lively and boisterous in general. A lot of people think it's a shame that the festival has become more family-friendly, and I tend to agree. Still, it's the one week of the year when the people of Aomori truly let themselves go. I noticed the love hotels in Aomori were all full when I walked past, and there's also such a thing as 'Nebuta babies' in Aomori - there are a lot of kids born in May.

Saturday the 6th was my last night in Aomori, and me and some friends wanted to go see the Tachi Neputa, another festival in a nearby city called Goshogawara. While Aomori City's festival has huge wide floats, Tachi Neputa's unique selling point is that the floats are really tall. It was also different in that not just anybody could join in dancing, so there was a much more organised, coordinated feel. After watching the parade we drove back to Aomori City to enjoy one final night of drinking at Passage.

We stayed up till the early morning and I said my good byes to everyone, arriving back at my mate's house at 5pm. I had an hour to pack up my stuff and take a drunken shower before leaving Aomori, but I managed it with the help of some friends, and I then got a lift from another friend to the Shinkansen station. People were there from work to see me off, and the Shinkansen left at 6:45, getting me to Tokyo Station for just before lunch time.

After arriving I found a hotel nearby and booked a room and dropped off my luggage. I went for lunch at a nearby curry restaurant - there are hundreds in Tokyo - then in the evening I met up with a friend from my Japanese class at Sheffield Uni. He's living in Tokyo at the moment, and he'd just got married the day before. Me, him and his new wife ate a Thai restaurant and had a good chat about the past and our plans for the future. Then I got a few hours sleep before catching a train to Narita Airport the next morning. I checked in early with my emergency passport and boarded the plane around 11am.

The flight was with British Airways and as I'd checked in early I got a seat with loads of legroom near the emergency exit. I listened to some music, ate some airline food, watched Thor (3.5/5), Just Go With It (3/5) and Source Code (4/5), and came across this article in the free paper we'd been given. It talked about the visit of the Bremen cruise ship to Aomori Port, and I'd interpreted at that event, so one of my lines turned up in the article.

Pretty soon we'd arrived in Heathrow, where it was early afternoon. I had one more flight, which was delayed due to a worn tyre on the plane, but we eventually boarded, and 30 minutes later we'd touched down in Manchester. My mum, sister and brother were waiting and we drove back to my mum's place, arriving home around midnight.

My last week in Aomori was a lot of fun, and it was a great way to say good bye to the city and all my mates. But right now I'm really enjoying being back in the UK. This year I'll be spending much of my time studying for a masters in Broadcast Journalism at Sheffield University, and classes begin on September 26th. Until then I'll be hanging out with friends and starting working at Pizza Hut again - my induction is on the 20th of this month. I managed to save quite a bit of money when I was in Japan, but it's not enough to cover the cost of the masters, so I'll be making the cost up with work at Pizza Hut.

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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

End of work and Nebuta

These past few weeks have been busy at work with lots of presentations and English classes. There's also been loads of farewell parties (送別会), and I've been busy with preparing to leave Japan and fly back to the UK. I also went to Japan Blues Festival, which was in Aomori a couple of weeks ago, and bumped into WWE wrestler, MVP at a bar - he had been doing a show in Aomori that day.

Work ended two days ago, and I moved out of my apartment yesterday, so now I'm staying at another JET's house until I leave Aomori on the 7th, then I'll stay over one night in Tokyo before catching my plane from Narita on morning of the 8th. But I'm gonna be ending my last week here with a bang, so it's convenient that we've just entered Nebuta Festival week.

It's purely a coincidence that Nebuta Festival is taking place when the new JETs arrive and the old JETs leave. It's a great introduction to the city for the new guys and a great sending off for those who've been here a long time. The whole city waits for this week every year, and it's the one time when everyone is out partying, dancing and drinking till late at night. When you add all the other visitors who come from all over the world, you get a lively, vibrant carnival atmosphere – the complete opposite of Aomori during the rest of the year. And it's not just Aomori City. There are Nebuta – or Neputa – festivals all around the prefecture, and I want to get to a couple of these before I leave as well.

On Sunday night there was a warm-up event here in Aomori City, and all the 20 or so floats that will take part in this year's parade were lined up on the streets. Then in between each float was a band and dancers, and normally the parade would move around the city like this, but on Sunday it was stationary so that people could enjoy looking at all the floats close up. Each set of a float, a band and dancers is sponsored and put together by a local company or office. The city hall takes part, and last night I played taiko in the city hall band.

Being a drummer and a fan of Taiko no Tatsujin, I'd wanted to try playing the taiko since dancing in the festival last year. I went to a few practices with the city hall band and learnt the basic taiko rhythm. It's a fairly simple rhythm, and the only complex thing is the many different strengths of hit, but I picked it all up pretty quickly. We talked about me playing in the festival, but it turned out I was too busy to attend all of the practices. However, when I met the mayor last Friday for my leaving ceremony we talked about Nebuta and taiko and he invited me to play with him at the warm-up festival.

(L to R) With the 部長, mayor, a friend and vice-mayor

So last night I went down with my supervisor and 部長 (buchō, department boss) and got dressed into the 半纏 (hanten, Japanese-style gown/coat). I then joined in with the city hall band and the mayor came along for a bit as well. It was a lot of fun. The tunes and rhythms that the bands play are very simple and repetitive, but that's the Japanese style, and it's quite powerful and really gets the crowds going when you hear it over and over again. I think everyone enjoyed seeing a gaijin play the taiko, and I got given the バチ (bachi, taiko drum sticks) and 半纏 (coat). Sweet.


So no more taiko playing, but lots of drinking and dancing in the festival until I leave. We went out to see the first night last night, and the city is now bustling with tourists. Much of my job at the city hall has involved the Nebuta festival in one way or another, so this year I know a lot more about its origins and how important it is to the people of Aomori – I think it's gonna be an even better one than last year.

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