Tue Aug 15 23:30:25 2000
To: patrick
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: More Life in Japan

Dear Patrick,

      Yoko's brother Hisaaki told her the heat and humidity in Japan right now "are like cracking head" (I like that phrase). It's been cooler the last few days--low to mid thirties during the day, but before that we had a heat wave that made me start carrying a towel instead of a handkerchief to mop the sweat off my face (all the men around here wear dishtowels they got for free from car dealerships, plumbers, etc.--mine came for free with my car). I went to school for one morning last week (practice school day) and, with absolutely nothing to do but sit at my desk studying and getting in smiling contests with the other teachers, who are still a bit nervous around me (it's mutual, though they seem very nice), I went to listen to a speech contest (in Japanese, of course--I just showed up for moral support, to act like part of the faculty) in the gym, which, of course, is not air conditioned (only the teacher's room and the band room are), and quite a few of the students in the audience got sick and had to have the nurse or their homeroom teachers rush them to the bathroom to be sick into the squatters (which I think must require better aim than western toilets). The classrooms aren't any cooler. I really hope it cools down quickly in September.

      All is well here. I'm adjusting well, have all the necessities figured out, and am practicing my squatting so that I'll be able to use the toilets at work without my knees giving out (I mentioned meeting the woman who thought one was supposed to kneel in my big email?). I'm even getting into local life a little bit--I'm going to be in a festival in September. Sunday night, I went to see a festival downtown; my JET friends (just about all women in Takefu) were dancing in some civic group's all-woman troupe. When they were done, the chief of the group invited me to march in the next one and explained the particulars. For men it costs ¥5000 ($50 US), for which sum I get the pleasure of carrying one corner of a portable shrine with some local temple or shrine's chief treasure--sort or taking the local god out for an airing. I also get all the beer I can drink, and some sort of costume. I think I get to keep the costume, but it may well say something like "Fukui Bank" or "Takashi's Motorcycle Repair" on it, but unless the business has a name in English (a lot of them do), I can tell people it's some sort of Shinto fertility slogan. The details were laid out to me in Japanese, so I'm a little unclear on the particulars (that the shrine carries some local god I've picked from other sources). Apparently, the local TV stations invariably run the part of the parade showing the gaijin (foreigners) marching, so I'll have to set my VCR to tape the news that night, if I can figure it out. In tonight's festival (colorfully named "Takefu Summer Festival"--in English, yet), businesses and civic groups sponsor troupes of dancers, who dance, troupe after troupe, in a circuit around downtown, passing the judges' table. Most aren't terribly serious about it, and practice for only a short time an hour before the festival. The step seems to be pretty simple--they just had to keep it up for two hours! A lot of the groups, especially the mostly male groups, had as their last marchers a pair of guys pushing a cart of beer coolers, so there were a lot of drunk marchers by the end. I also got a bit of attention, but not very much, not like stories I've heard from people in much smaller towns: just a few stares, including, though, one guy right in front of me who turned around suddenly, not expecting to see me, and bugged out his eyes, and a group of teenage girls looking at me on the sly and giggling (I was trying to guess what they might be saying: "ooh, look how he drinks his beer and fans himself just like a regular person," or maybe just, "gee, that big guy sure sweats a lot"). I also saw something out of the corner of my eye behind me at one point and did a quick double take, thinking, wow, there's a tall guy, and look how wide he is across the shoulders, only to realize I had been standing in front of a mirror. Dancing and food (avoid the octopus balls) aside, the most culturally interesting thing to look at at the festival was the shoes the young women were wearing. A three inch platform and five or six inch heel is common; one girl, maybe 17 or 18, had five inch platforms and nine inch heels--she was actually about my height as she wobbled past (none of these women is actually capable of walking steadily in the shoes they wear), although I'd guess she wasn't any taller than Ruth (155 cm). We laughed and laughed (being a very culturally sensitive bunch). Another amusement is smiling at all the really small children who stare at us--when I look at them, they run to their parents, and if I actually wave or make a face, they start to scream. I've come halfway around the world to frighten small children.

      Life in exciting Takefu goes on well. I went out to dinner with friends Saturday night (decent Italian food--it's really nice to eat with a fork once in a while [ordering was a real challenge, though--mostly illiterate, I ended up asking the waitress what was good, and after she read off three or four things from the menu, I stopped her and said, "I'll have that"]), and then packed a camera and hiked down to a local Shinto shrine tucked into the base of my mountain and took a bunch of night shots. Sunday, I picked up three of the other JETs and we drove along the Sea of Japan coast--very rugged and beautiful. The mountains really do come right down to the sea, to the extent that there isn't room for a road between the two in many places, so the road has been put through the mountains--and the mountains here are solid rock. The tunnels are often more than a kilometer long. They string together a bunch of fishing villages that previously must have had very little access to the outside world until the last three our four decades, when these tunnels were blasted through. It's really beautiful country to drive around in. There's still more in Fukui I want to see--we have one of the most famous shrines (Eiheiji) and the castle with the oldest dungeon or keep (Maruoka-jo; 16th c.) in Japan, as well as more beautiful natural places, and, of course, a never-ending wheel of festivals. There's also a school (now a museum) designed by M. C. Escher. Takefu is apparently the place to buy Japanese knives, and there's a big knife festival coming up in mid-September, which is supposed to be the only time of the year it's reasonable (no one has defined "reasonable" yet, though) to buy the local high-quality handmade knives--they use the same technique used to make the best samurai swords. I don't usually go for these craftsy things, but this should be interesting to see.




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