Today was the last day of term at school, which meant farewell speeches, prize givings and the closing ceremony. It also brought with it one final encore from the rainy season.

I got off to a bad start this morning; with my alarm set for 6.30am to give me enough time to get up shower and make myself presentable and have a leisurely stroll to school in time for a rehearsal at 8.00, I successfully woke up at 7.30 … after a frantic panic and the speediest shower I have ever had, I made it out of the door at 7.55 and raced to school. I was only a few minutes late for the rehearsal but it was a sticky start to a very sweaty day.

My first speech of the day was to the staffroom, I’d been told the day before that I would need a short speech but it got sidelined by other things going on and I’d more or less forgotten about it. I was also going to give a really long speech for the closing ceremony so I didn’t want to repeat myself. I said a few lines about how quickly the year had passed and how much I had appreciated their support and kindness.

Japanese schools, and in fact most organisations, offices, etc. love ceremonies. There are opening and closing ceremonies every term and they are all fairly full of pomp. They are usually incredibly dull but I have begun to like them as they give a sense of new beginnings and closure each term; looking forward to what is to come throughout the school year and celebrating the students’ successes.

This morning’s closing ceremony began with an introduction from the school Principal about what I had done over the last year, I was then invited on stage to receive a certificate from the Board of Education thanking me for my contributions to international relations. Then it came to my farewell speech. It was long; it was always going to be long. After a year of not really being able to express myself fully due to language, I have all of a sudden become incredibly verbose. I want to try so hard to express to the people in my daily life that they mean so much to me, they are the fabric that makes up my experience. We may only have small interactions but without them it would not be complete. Anyway, it was a long speech and it was made even longer with the translation. Madoka, the student who translated for me, had worked so hard. It was complicated English, full of idioms and subtleties that I felt I couldn’t lose or I’d lose my voice. She said she had enjoyed it thought because it had improved with her English. With a little help from Naomi, my go between, it was pretty close. It felt like the longest speech ever … probably around 10-12 minutes in total, but I was glad I had been indulged. I then received a small gift and a thank you speech from the school council, in ENGLISH! I had held it together up until that point, my voice only cracking once or twice; after having cried with Madoka in a rehearsal and then balling my eyes out to my English teachers at my sayounara party, I had been determined to get through it. The students sang the school song to me as I stood on the stage and my eyes welled up. But I recovered myself and managed to smile and laugh with students as they formed a corridor through the hall for me to leave. I was greeted by smiling teachers and students as I left.

Whenever I think about leaving, I have to take deep breaths. There are so many people here that I will miss; friends, colleagues and students. Oh, for all the days that I’ve struggled and felt home sick and cried down the phone to my parents, nothing compares with the sheer joy of a handful of smiling students or the mexican wave of ‘Konnichiwa!!” and bowing that greets you if you happen across the baseball boys in the corridor. They are so full of energy and life. I adore all of them, even the ones who avoid eye contact with me in the corridors for fear of me speaking to them. I’ll miss them all.

I’ve tried to relate this to how I felt when I left Scotland, but it’s so much sharper because I know I won’t be able to come back to this. I am in a perfect crystalline period in time and once I leave it fractures. The memories will begin to fade in the minds of others and eventually I will just be another English teacher from high school. I suppose I’ve known this would be the case all along but it’s easy to kid yourself otherwise when you’re in the moment. It’s going to be hard coming back and I’m reluctant to admit that to people at home for fear that it will be interpreted as rejection; it’s not. I love my life here and I’m just not sure I’m ready to give it up.

So last weekend, along with six friends, I scaled Fuji-san (or as it’s known in English, Mount Fuji). We’d been talking about it for the last few months and had had it pencilled in for a while. The months dashed past and we started planning, but even as I sat on a hilltop opposite the peak I still found it hard to believe we would be scaling it the following day.

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I was climbing with Tom, Chris, Flo, Joel and his two friends Gille and Brad, who were visiting from Australia. The original plan had been to climb from the very base of the mountain at the traditional starting point, the Sengen Shrine. Unfortunately, as both Brad and Gilles had been suffering from colds, they decided to climb from the 5th station (which is accessed by bus).

Tom and I, after a little bit of dramatic racing around, managed to take a bus to Umagaeshi, about 2.5hr below the 5th station and started the climb. It was hard going to begin with, as we’d climbed to quite an altitude by bus, it was definitely a strange feeling to be out of breath at the beginning of a hike. The humidity and rain didn’t help much but it was wonderful to walk through the ancient forest that blankets the lower slopes of the mountain. We happened to be climbing at the same time as a group of students from Yoshida Junior High School (written across their sports kits). As much as it was a hinderance to get caught up in hordes of teenagers, it was one of the things that helped me keep going. The high-fives, konnichiwas and the wonderfully cheery ‘harrrrrro!” that we got as we passed them at different stages were great energy boosts. There were the usual “kirei”, which I always get for my blue eyes and there was definitely at least one ‘kirin’ (giraffe) in response to Tom’s height (6’something or other). We climbed up through the 5 different stations and eventually met up with the others at the 6th station, where most people begin the ascent.

It’s a lunar landscape from the 6th station onwards, weirdly shapen volcanic rocks, rubble and gravel that’s somewhat like walking on Nesquik cereal. I was beginning to feel the exertion from the climbing before but we carried on and began to progress our way up. The way we were climbing meant we were aiming to reach the summit to watch the sunrise. So our next stop was the 7th station, I had imagined that the stations would be singular, but in reality they are stretched over a series of ascents and climbing from one part of a station to another could take up to an hour. After about 2.5hrs clambering we arrived at Toyokan, our stop for dinner and a couple of hours rest. We ate dinner around 5pm and then clambered into our bunk. All seven of us piled in and tried to get some sleep while the elderly folk in the bunk below us decided to chat noisely in thick Kansai-ben (my local dialect).

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After a couple of hours sleep and the boys generally giggling away to themselves at filthy jokes, we woke up at midnight and hauled ourselves out of the warm, dark dorm and into the gloriously clear night. Head torches primed and refreshed from a hearty dinner we ascended again, this time over rockier terrain. The ascent to the summit in the darkness is probably one of the toughest parts as it begins to get colder and the air gets thinner with only the beam of your headtorch to keep you right.

Finally, we reached the summit, with about an hour to spare before sunrise. It was so cold. We huddled together like penguins as the sky grew lighter and the occasional bursts of singing would rise up from below as a group of Buddhist monks and nuns climbed up. As they reached the top and the sun peeked out over the horizon there was a wonderful burst of conches and ululating. It was a fantastic moment.

(excuse the glove in the top right, it was too cold to take them off)

So after watching the sunrise, we began the descent. In theory it should have taken about 3-4hrs and we had some stunning views as the clouds that had been shrouding the lower parts of the mountain began to clear.

Unfortunately for me, it took over 8. One of my friends in a moment of wisdom decided they would do the climb barefoot. Now, I know this person has done some barefoot stuff before and mostly wears Vibrams (the shoes with toes) but the terrain wasn’t exactly forgiving. As a result of this serious misjudgement, they cut their foot on the way down. By this point also their feet were beginning to swell from the hours of microtears that they’d been subjecting their feet to. The pain had been stemmed by the freezing temperatures at the top but as the blood began to return to his feet, it put him in agony. The whole thing was ridiculous and I was incredibly upset by it, as it in effect ruined what had been a perfect trip for me. So, eventually we got down off the mountain and after several hours of travel I arrived back home exhausted and somewhat worse for wear. Said friend is currently on the ‘less than impressed’ list.

But despite that, it was an amazing trip and it was a tremendous sense of achievement to finally reach the top!

Okay, so suddenly I find myself at the beginning of July and I haven’t written anything since the end of May … oops! Sorry, I kind of got distracted by life.

So, here’s a brief recap of what I’ve been up to;

June … what did I do in June *wracks brain* no, actually, I didn’t do much in June. Everything was pretty quiet. We tried to go to a sculpture park further north for my birthday but failed when my friend suddenly became really unwell half way there. No idea as to the cause but it meant we had to turn round and head for home.

Apart from that, I’ve mostly been making preparations to leave Japan and come home. Tedious things like sorting out tax and pensions etc.

July, despite only being two weeks into it, has been really busy and mostly the reason I’ve been so slack with this blog. I finished teaching all of my classes, although one of which was cancelled due to a weather warning *rolls eyes*. Fortunately, that one has been rescheduled to this week, once the students have finished their school exams.

Last week, I spent a couple of days in Tokyo exploring and doing various things I’d meant to but hadn’t found the time in previous trips; visiting the Miraikan Museum of Emerging Science (home of ASIMO, the famous Honda robot), the Kaminarimon and Senso-ji temple and seeing the Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman, in Roppongi. It was all a bit hectic and tiring but I caught up with my friend Flo and a couple of her Japanese friends. After the chaos of Tokyo, I was relieved to take the bus to Kawaguchiko, a town at the base of Mt. Fuji. A group of seven of us climbed up on Sunday morning and watched the sunrise from its summit on Monday. I won’t go into too much detail as I plan to write a separate post about it, once I’ve recovered – incredibly sleep deprived due to reasons beyond my control and aching like an obaa-chan.

(N.B. will add photos when more compus mentus)

Today, in spite of my aching bones, I played volleyball and badminton with some of my teachers. It was a great relief from the tedium of exams and it also gave me a great opportunity to strengthen my relationships with my colleagues – it’s not easy when you don’t speak the same language. It was a great afternoon but it makes me a little sad as my time here draws to an end as I won’t get to do that again.

Today, I also cried at one of my students, which is actually less embarrassing than it sounds. Madoka is one of the students who has the best conversational grasp of English (and she’s a bit of a whizz with Chinese too). She’s been great and I’ve had a lot of fun working with her on ESS projects and also just chatting. So, Madoka is translating my farewell speech that I will give on the final day of school. This morning we sat and talked through what I would say and what I meant. I had made it all the way through and we got to the final part, which expresses how I feel about leaving and I just cracked and then she cracked and we sat for a few minutes trying to compose ourselves. Fortunately, the corridor was quiet so no-one saw us blubbing. I had initially hoped that another student would help me with the translation because I know I will get teary when I read, and I know Mado will too.

I’ve got three weeks left at school and every time I think of it I have this overwhelming pang of sadness and anxiety. As much as I’m excited about what going back to Edinburgh holds for me, it’s really hard to leave behind the life I’ve struggled to build here and all the potential I can now see. So, if I seem a little subdued at the prospect of coming home it’s because I’m finding it so hard to leave my new home. I adore my students, I love teaching them and they are what I will miss most. I have a massive feeling of pride  in them when I think of the things they have accomplished in the short time I have known them and what they will do in the future. Back in February, I watched some of my students graduate and I couldn’t understand their tears, but now I do.

I’ve been meaning to write an update for the last week or so and hadn’t found the time until now.

Not a great deal has been happening at school recently; it’s been a quiet start to the term and with school exams last week I spent the time twiddling my thumbs (read as studying Japanese and TEFL, which gets tedious after 5 days straight). That said I’ve now started with my 1st grade Oral Communications classes and they have been good so far – they’re a little shy to begin with but they’re warming up, I think. These classes have been good fun and it’s reminded me how much I actually enjoy being in class (exam week is a mood killer as I literally have nothing to do and it gets a little demoralising).

My weekends have been busy and are only getting fuller by the minute as myself and various other friends prepare to leave JET and Japan.

The start of the month brought Chris and Joel’s birthdays and a trip to Osaka to the fable El Pancho; an authentic Mexican (probably nearer Tex-Mex) restaurant. It was delicious food and I was painfully full afterwards. I also discovered the phrase for taking food home, “mochikaeri” – very useful and completely normal in Japan (I think it’s sort of frowned upon in the UK).Image

I also took a weekend trip down to a small island called Naoshima, off the coast of Okayama. It’s a tiny little island that has been made home to several very impressive museums and art projects. The museums themselves were fantastic; each designed and built to reflect its location on the island as well as in collaboration with the permanent works. Ando Tadao designed a number of them and they are truly spectacular spaces. That said, my favourite experience was one of the Art House Project houses; a series of traditional houses that have been developed and made into permanent pieces of art and installations. The house in question was inobtrusive and the beauty of the works weren’t immediate. The traditional laid out house had a series of ‘fusuma’ (silk paneled sliding doors which separate rooms) that were delicately painted with shades of black and grey. After a few minutes of looking at the fusuma, which appear just to be covered in random shading and lines; it slowly resolves into delicate landscapes  with mountains, trees and waterfalls. It was so subtle and yet beautiful. The second part of the house was a darkened room, the floor partly covered in tatami and the other half a deep dark blue-black lacquer. The walls were covered in floor to ceiling painting of water falling from what one would assume is a waterfall. Dark, dark background with falling water and spray in blues and white. My description is doing it no justice whatsoever, but it was so unexpected and breathtaking. I was literally stopped in my tracks as I stood in awe of this amazing work. I was lucky enough to have the house to myself apart from the invigilators so I could stand and gaze in complete silence, jaw on the floor. My photos are pretty limited because of the huge restrictions that were in place at the various museums etc.ImageOne of Kusama Yayoi’s pumpkins on Naoshima.

This weekend I travelled down to Shodoshima, another island on the Inland Sea, for a 5k race as part of the Shodoshima Olive Marathon. Ulu, Tom and I decided it would be great to cycle around the island the day before and then home after the race (about 60km). In theory this was a cheap and great way to see the island; in reality there were a lot of really long, steep hills that were not a great deal of fun to ride/push a one speed mama chari (step-through, old lady bicycle) up. The downhill stretches were worth it though, although often they weren’t long enough. Sore, exhausted and a little pink from the sun, we arrived at Liz’s (another ALT that kindly let us sleep on her floor). I’m sure we weren’t particularly entertaining house guests that evening. The next day we ran our various races in the stupidly hot sunshine but we were all pretty pleased with ourselves. Post-race Dutch pancakes were devoured and we began our cycle back to the ferry port and then onward home. I can honestly say I have never done so much exercise in a single weekend and I was exhausted but it certainly felt like an accomplishment. I have utter respect for my friend Tom now, who cycled 20+km to the ferry port, round the island about 60km, ran a half marathon and then cycled home again, totting up about 100km over the weekend.

Well, we’re rapidly approaching June and the summer rainy season is beginning to kick in; with some impressive thunderstorms. We had a couple of lightning strikes near school this afternoon, which definitely made me jump and made the girls scream. It’s also beginning to warm up, with it being a bout 25 degrees most days and then dropping to about 15-18 degrees at night. It’s pretty comfortable, although some days the humidity makes it a bit sticky.

June is shaping up to be a lot of farewell parties and such things. July is going to be a jaunt up to Tokyo and Mount Fuji and then packing and coming home. It’s crazy how quickly things have flown by; better start cramming as much into life here as possible.

So at the end of March Thomas and Alex came to visit and we went adventuring.

After a couple of days of trying to kill Alex’s jetlag, we flew down to Kumamoto on Kyushu (look it up on a map), the southern large island. The landscape on Kyushu is so different to Honshu; large flat agricultural areas, full-size tractors (the ones near me are small, rice paddy sized), different shaped mountains/ volcanoes and a general mediterranean feel – it was like being holiday!

We then headed further down the island to Kagoshima by Shinkansen. The shinkansen link to Kagoshima opened at the beginning of 2011 and it’s still super shiny and new.

It’s an expensive way to travel but it’s glorious, there is so much space, it’s comfortable and it’s peaceful (well, that’s a given on any Japanese train usually). We spent the night at a really nice little guest house in Kagoshima (Green Guest House) and took the ferry to Yakushima the next day. The ferry takes about four hours to reach Yakushima but the weather was glorious and it was a good crossing.

Yakushima is reputed to have been Miyazaki Hayao’s inspiration for much of the scenery from the anime classic ‘Mononoke-hime’ (Princess Mononoke) and it’s very easy to see why. It’s beautiful. The island is relatively small and circular with breath-taking peaks rising steeply in the middle. The interior of the island is for the most part only accessible on foot and there a lots of hiking trails. We didn’t get the chance to really go hiking as I’d had a stomach bug a couple of days before and wasn’t up to it; but what we did see was amazing. The primeval forests are cool, quiet and enchanting. The cedar trees on Yakushima are called ‘yakusugi‘ as many are more than 1000 years old. In the forest you definitely feel in the presence of the ancients. The coast is a mixture of sharp volcanic looking rocks and golden sandy beaches, where sea turtles lay their eggs. We also had the pleasure of going swimming in the sea, which was quickly aborted once Thomas had spotted a sea snake swimming by (flashbacks to David Attenborough programmes reminding me that they’re all venomous and rather deadly). I would love to write a great big long description of the island but I lack the skill to do it any justice. Needless to say, I am so glad we made the decision to go – it was a bit of an epic jaunt for only a couple of days but it was more wonderful than I could have imagined. So instead of butchering some English I’ll let you have some photos …

After Yakushima, we headed back to Kagoshima by ferry … only to discover that Alex had left his wallet in a shop on the island. The ferry company were incredibly helpful and they arranged for it be brought across the following evening on the next ferry. I’m still always blown away by how helpful people and companies are here – okay, so they didn’t have to massively go out of their way to get the wallet but they made all the arrangements with no fuss.

We hopped across the bay at Kagoshima to the little island of Sakurajima, which is one of the most active volcanoes in Japan. In comparison to Yakushima it was a little bit of a anti-climax but the volcano itself was impressive and we watched it belching out gas and dust quiet happily in awe.

We stayed at the Sakurajima Youth Hostel, which was interesting … and very much resembled an institution. I’m pretty sure the sheets on my bed weren’t fresh and it was almost completely deserted. On the upside we had found a great little okonomiyaki restaurant hidden away behind a convenience store – the lady who ran it was wonderfully patient with my inability to read kanji and helped to explain what everything was.

After our short jaunt, I had to head home and get myself ready for the new school term. In Japan, the end of the fiscal year (April- March) staff are often shuffled and teachers are moved to different schools. It was really sad to lose some of my favourite teachers; along with the vice principal, Maeda-sensei who was an enormous help to me when I first arrived and helped me with my PGDE application letter. The new term also meant it was time to rearrange the staff room, which involved literally moving 50 heavy desks around (none of which have been emptied). I’m pretty sure there has to be an more efficient way to do this but they’re pretty practiced at this ridiculous dance.

The usual pomp and ceremony were brought out for the new first grade students, in an almost mirror image of the graduation ceremony for the third graders I’d seen at the end of February. I don’t think I will ever fully understand Japanese ceremonies but they do seem to be central to everything – beginnings, endings and successes. The teachers always ask me what I think of the ceremonies; I usually have to explain that at home everything is a little less formal and often more celebratory, but that I like the Japanese ceremonies (… well, I don’t dislike them).

In the last fortnight, I’ve been back into the classroom (thank goodness!) and it seems to be going well with my third grade students. I enjoy these classes more because, although they involve more background work, they are more creative and focus much less on getting the students to be perfect. I also helped the English Speaking Society (ESS = English club) with their activity for the school ‘bunkasai’ (cultural festival). They worked really hard and made some great posters about the UK; highlights included the famous Cheese Rolling Festival and one of my students deciding that British food was NOT delicious … *shrug*

The sakura (cherry) blossoms have been and gone. They were beautiful and quite different from the ones we see at home (much less fluffy than the great big multi-petalled things). This also brought about the annual ‘Hanami parties’, which involve picnicking under the cherry trees and enjoying the returning warmth and sunshine.

In other news, I’m still training for a 5k run at the end of May. I’m beginning to win the psychological battle that I have with running, although I’ve yet to find a way of not looking like a beetroot.

I’ve got posts to write about travels but that needs more time and less coughing …

I miss people. I miss my friends and my family. I miss being able to just do things together. I miss going for coffees with people, going for beers with others, eating cakes with some. I feel the changes. I feel the changes in me. I hear about the changes at home, changes I’m not part of. It’s hard feeling like I’m on the outside of things. I know it’s hard to keep up but when I hear news it’s only because someone’s had to remember to tell me.

In the same breath, though, I’m scared of coming home. I’m scared that it won’t fit, that I won’t fit anymore. This year has allowed me time to grow a little and broaden my sights. There are still things from before that I want but this time away has changed how things are and I don’t know if those things are realistic anymore. Relationships have changed, people have moved forward and on to better things. If you’re reading this, please don’t be offended; I value my friends (and family) more than I could ever express, it’s just a little daunting to come back to a life that to me has sort of been on pause (which of course, it hasn’t).

Over the last couple of years, I feel like I’ve had anchors released from various places. Things that I felt were pretty central to my being. It’s a strange feeling of being cut adrift. It’s not been a conscious one and not necessarily one that’s been forced upon me; it’s just how things have worked out.

There are two set things that I know for sure right now; the end of my contract here and the start of my university course. The in-between and the after are complete unknowns. I don’t know how I’ll get there or how I will move on from these two things but I know I have to.

I thought I’d written a post for February … clearly I forgot.

The beginning of February took me to the most northern island of Japan, Hokkaido; famed for it’s agriculture (melons and maize are the most popular), dairy farming and the world famous Yuki Matsuri (snow festival). By gum, it was cold!!! With daytime temperatures struggling to get above -8 C on most days it was pretty grueling but it was worth it to see the snow, experience indoor heating again and drink some pretty nice beers.


Thankfully, it has warmed up since and it’s definitely beginning to feel like Spring is on its way. The end of February saw my san nensei (3rd Grade students) finish school and graduate. Graduation is a strange right of passage here. The ceremony is very sombre and results in tears from both students and teachers. It had a very final, funerary element to it; which was a little strange. For me, the end of school was relief, joy and excitement, not tears. I got to say ‘goodbye’ to many of my students and there were lots of photos.

Kosuke and I
(I don’t have favourites but if I did …)

The beginning of March took me Tokyo again for a conference. There were lots of speakers who have previously been JETs and have gone on to other various careers. It was interesting and it was great to be back in Tokyo. We also took a wee trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum – oh my god, it was good! So much that just made you fall in love with the films even more. Favourites have to be the human sized Cat Bus (!!) and the food stall from Chihiro No Sen (Spirited Away) that you can actually sit at.

School has been ridiculously quiet because there have been Entrance Exams and such like. The students are on Spring vacation from next week so I have taken some holiday and will be heading off to Kyushu with Thomas and Alex who will be over visiting. I’ll update again with those adventures at the end of the month but for now here’s some ume blossoms from Ayabe Yama.

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