Japan 1997-2000 Part Three: Activities in Little Stick

In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the third in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.

When I first arrived in Kogushi, I was a little overwhelmed. After graduating college, where I had kept busy with intramural sports and volunteer work, and living in the metropolitan city of Seoul, Korea where I had lived with and hung out with several American roommates and colleagues, here I was in a small fishing and farming village on the Japanese coast. What was I going to do in my free time?

I had heard of other JET teachers who had taken part in really cool activities. A friend of mine, my roommate when I taught English in Korea, had been a JET for three years. She had studied the Japanese tea ceremony. It sounded really intense; Japanese arts are not something one can generally learn and master in only a short time thus she had to seek some sort of special permission. Another JET I met had joined a Japanese drum group. I was hoping for some activity along these lines to keep me busy and learn more about Japanese culture.

I arrived at the very beginning of August and classes did not start until the 1st of September. I had a week of a forced summer English class at Hibiki High School, my base school, and a weekend English summer camp for middle schoolers and not much else. This left me with a lot of time just hanging out in my poorly air-conditioned (read: quite warm) apartment. Luckily, soon after school started I met Kiyoko, a Japanese teacher from another high school in the area. She spoke English really well and she invited me to join a chorus group that met at Hibiki once a week. I am not the best singer, but this seemed an opportunity to meet some people and learn Japanese.

Front and center at our grand choral finale

That is how I found myself once a week at chorus – singing songs in a language I barely understood, with a chorus instructor who did not speak English, and frantically trying to read the hiragana and katakana symbols in songbooks so I would at least know the pronunciation of the words coming out of my mouth, even if I did not know the meaning. Music is a language that crosses cultures, but the last time I had sung in a chorus had been in middle school and I also struggled with remembering musical symbols and notes. It was quite a challenge. But I showed up week after week. First, it was something to do that was not sitting in my house and teaching English. Second, I will be honest, I really enjoyed it.

In February, we had a concert at a local community center. Though I was probably one of, if not the tallest in the choral group, our conductor wanted me, the gaijin (foreigner), front and center. And there I stood, clutching my song book, hoping that all the practice had paid off, and I could read and sing the songs reasonably well.

After chorus ended I was in search of another activity. I heard about a judo group, but after one introductory lesson in which I saw burly young children being slammed repeatedly into mats, I realized that this might not be the pastime for me. However, I had heard about a karate group with lessons held a town or two over. I do not remember how I was introduced, but soon enough I was given an introduction, bought my gi, the white uniform, and been assigned a young English-speaking woman named Tamami as my translator and mentor.

At first I really enjoyed going to karate. I had taken some Taekwondo in the U.S. in college and also spent nearly a year studying it in South Korea, where I, in a large stadium hall, executed several forms and sparred another aspirant in front of a panel to be awarded my black belt. This felt like a natural extension of that and to learn the Japanese version of this martial art. Though I could not communicate with most of my classmates, I liked the physical and technical aspect of being part of the group; I even went on a trip with them to Osaka and the Ise Grand Shrine. But things got weird after a few months.

There were a lot of rules in the martial arts practice room or dojo. I am a rather silly person who can most certainly laugh at myself. There were times in karate where things did not go quite right and I laughed. Tamami told me, “There is no laughing in the dojo.” I laughed again, incredulous, but was told it was quite true and she pointed to the rules posted on the wall. A pointless exercise as I could not read Japanese, so I had to take her word for it. One time I executed a really good kick and received some praise from the shihan (master) and I did a little victory dance. “No dancing in the dojo,” came Tamami’s quick admonishment. Our workouts started at 7 in the morning. One time, really exhausted, I yawned. “There is no yawning in the dojo.” I brought water to our practices because they were two, two and a half hours long. Once when I took a swig in class I was told, “There is no drinking water in the dojo.” In retort, I said, “Sounds like there is no fun in the dojo.” That did not go over well.

When I politely declined some pumpkin, I was used as an example in class of someone who does not appropriately follow the master. When I kicked my bicycle after getting my foot stuck on the spokes as I prepared to ride home, I was told I was not considerate of my bicycle’s feelings. When I said I did not like fish, they tried to hide small ones in rice they gave me. When I said I meant to travel some of the summer, I was told to submit my schedule for the shihan‘s approval. The shihan ridiculed my punches in class to the amusement of others. And finally, the shihan wrote me a letter, which was delivered by Tamami to me at my apartment, informing me that my picky eating and failure to follow all his rules would mean I would continue to have allergies and harm any future children I might have. Apparently, this was supposed to put me on the straight and narrow. Instead, I quit.

So much for becoming a student of karate.

With my ikebana sensei

I had somehow met a young English-speaking woman named Kaori who invited me to join her in studying the Japanese art of flower arranging or ikebana. Ikebana is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with kodo for incense appreciation and chado for the tea ceremony. This then was something really Japanese to learn that I hoped would be a little more straightforward, a little less ceremonial than the tea ceremony. So, once a week for a little more than a year, Kaori picked me up to head to the home of her ikebana teacher for an hour-long class. We sat seiza style, with our knees folded under us and buttocks on our feet (for as long as I could stand it anyway though I did try to power through) on a tatami mat in front of a low table called a chabudai on which lay an array of carefully curated flowers, blossoms, branches, and other greenery and the all important pruning shears. We also had a kenzen, a weighted metal circle or square with pins to hold the stems of each item into place, and a container or vase. I bought my own.

The main elements of ikebana are mass, color, and line, so quite different from western flower bouquets which may use color but are often just bundled together. Like chorus and karate, my ikebana sensei teacher spoke no English; Kaori would do some translation for me, but basically, I just took my sensei’s lead. Ikebana is quite stylized, yet I did not have to have an exact reproduction of the sensei’s arrangement; I had some wiggle room. Though if I started getting too creative, I would get a certain look, maybe pursed lips, or a tut-tut to bring me back into line. We would build our arrangement and when we had the sensei’s approval, sketch them in our books. Then we would disassemble, wrap in tissue paper, and then recreate it using our sketches at home. I got a lot of enjoyment from ikebana: a sense of accomplishment when the teacher recommended fewer fixes and beautiful fresh flower designs in my home every week. But over time the satisfaction waned. Kaori had been studying ikebana for about three years and was still considered low intermediate! It was clear I would never progress very far in the eyes of a sensei of the craft. I had enjoyed it while it lasted, but saw little point in continuing.

Some of my Ikebana creations

At this point, I was 0 for 3 in my search for the right hobby for me. I heard about a teacher who taught Japanese dance in Kogushi, but the thought of yet another rigid, ceremonial pursuit did not have me all that excited. And then somehow, I do not remember now, I heard about a jazz dance class.

With my jazz dance teacher before a show

Like my other activities, the teacher and most of the students did not speak English. But in this case, I did not really need anyone to explain anything to me. I had taken ballet, tap, and hula as a child and though was not by any stretch of the imagination a dance prodigy, I had learned to follow steps pretty well. The teacher was very good, talented, and strict but also engaging, and we danced to popular American and British hits. One of our performances was to a popular song by Geri Halliwell in her post-Spice Girl phase.

I loved my dance class. We met twice a week at the Kogushi Community Center. It had a wonderful large high ceiled space with a well-worn wooden floor, excellent for dance, and a stage at one end. One of the best parts was that the work we put in amounted to something; we actually had performances! This was not one of the Japanese activities that one spends years and years and years on with little to show for it, such as Kaori spending three years studying Ikebana and Tamami doing karate for about five years yet was only second belt. With jazz dance, in a matter of six months, we had three shows, two in our Kogushi community center (one for a group of senior citizens on Respect for the Aged Day and another before Christmas) and one other on a bigger stage in another, inland, town. Our teacher somehow managed to book us as an opening act for some minor celebrity. I do not recall if she were a singer or a comedian or a little of both but she was fancy and had big hair and the crowd was pretty excited to see her. And they gave us a pretty nice welcome too. Pretty crazy that I was doing this dance thing in Japan in front of an audience of thousands.

Even after jazz dance finished – and unfortunately with the passage of over two decades I do not remember why it did not continue – I continued to take lessons with that teacher. She had a studio in Ayaragi, just five train stops from Kogushi or a 30-minute ride on my motor scooter. As my time grew shorter in Japan, I went less and less and about a month before departure I told my teacher farewell.

All the activities I took part in during my sojourn in Kogushi offered me glimpses into the complex Japanese culture and an “in” in the little corner I found myself. I made tenuous connections with people that ultimately did not last — due most likely to a combination of my poor language skills, limited attention span, and the relatively short time in the country. That anyone bothered to let me into their circles for even a little while is probably a minor miracle and even in the case of the strange karate cult, I am glad they did. In the end, it was the least Japanese of my activities that gave me the greatest satisfaction and connection.