Voluntary Cleaning Activities

Every so often, by means of a small noticeboard that passes around the houses in our neighbourhood, we are informed that we must get up at an unseemly hour on a Sunday morning and go and clean a local park. It is a voluntary activity; the kind of voluntary activity that sees you becoming the subject of unkind neighbourly gossip if you don’t attend. Thus it was that at 7:55 this morning I found myself in possession of a mild hangover and a large broom. I wandered across the road to do a bit of sweeping.

It wasn’t hard work. Not really. The park was perfectly clean already and our only duty, indeed the only thing we could actually find to do at all was to sweep up the fallen leaves, bag them and stick them over at the rubbish collection point. This took about fifteen minutes. But then the Japanese guilt kicked in and nobody wanted to be the first to say, ‘Right, that’s me done. I’m off back to bed.’ This year’s head of the community was still pointlessly pushing a broom over a leafless gravelly surface and it seemed everybody thought they would look a bit lazy if they left so soon. I was amongst them. I recognised the futility of continuing to sweep. I saw no benefit in moving small stones and dust in one direction and then back again, but I also felt I might be labelled the lazy foreigner if I was the first to leave. So we carried on for fifteen minutes more. We swept and shared glances, wondering who would be the first to crack. Finally, the head of the community gave one last mighty sweep, mopped his brow and said, ‘OK. That seems to be it.’

We thanked each other for our efforts and trundled home. I walked with old Mr. Yamamoto and Mrs. Ikeda. ‘Mr. Suzuki must be very hardworking,’ said Mr. Yamamoto. ‘Yes,’ agreed Mrs. Ikeda. ’He always seems too busy to come to cleaning events.’

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The Illusion of Learning

A couple of weeks ago, a local primary school held an event of sorts. The children worked in groups and took their places in various classrooms throughout the school building. There, they gave small presentations, demonstrated how to make things, or administered lighthearted quizzes. Other students, parents and guests moved between the rooms and visited each of the groups. It was well run and reasonably enjoyable.

At the end of the event, people gathered in the school gymnasium where the principal delivered a closing address. He then invited a few students to the stage to speak about the day’s programme. Two students who attend my English school were chosen as speakers and both gave short speeches, relaying their thoughts about the day and which activities they personally had enjoyed the most. They spoke  articulately and with confidence and I told them so when they came to my class a few days later.

Of course, the speeches were too well crafted to have been written immediately after the event and I assumed therefore that they had prepared a draft beforehand and had just inserted the relevant details about the activities they enjoyed in the appropriate places.

‘When did you write the speech?’ I asked the students individually.

‘I didn’t,’ each replied. ‘The teacher wrote it and I just had to read it.’

‘But, did you tell the teacher what you wanted to say?’ I asked.

‘No,’ they both replied.

This saddened me. It saddened me because I wondered what the point of such an exercise was and the only conclusion I could come up with was that it was for show. It was designed to make the students and the school look good. It also made me wonder just how many of the activities in each room had been similarly crafted by teachers. I suppose giving students an opportunity to read aloud in front of an audience has its merits, but I can see no reason why the students shouldn’t have been allowed to express their own thoughts.

It reminded me of the English speech contests where speeches are often written almost entirely by a teacher and simply recited by a student, and of the time I worked part-time at a kindergarten where the kids put on an end-of-year show and large sections of the show were pre-recorded with the audio being piped out rather than having the kids speak on stage. The reason given was that the kids might forget their lines.

All of this saddens me because education is no place for illusions. Let kids express their thoughts, let them forget or, more likely, remember their lines, and have faith in their abilities. If they make some small mistakes, so what? Isn’t that part of growing up, part of education? No decent parent is going to think badly of a school because a child makes an error on a public stage, and no decent school should care that any parents may harbour such thoughts. Schools of all places should be concerned with what kids can actually do rather than what it looks as though they can do. The illusion of learning benefits few.

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Autumn In Nikko


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Thatta – Tweet Honey

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A Mystery Tour With The Aged.

Rather excitingly, I went on a mystery tour this weekend. A local travel agency had advertised a couple of days away and as my wife and I wanted to go away but couldn’t be arsed deciding where, we signed up. It was just a one-night, two-day affair and the only things we knew were that it would include an onsen and tabehoudai dinner. Well, what more convincing would you need than that?

When we got on the coach, however, my spirits fell somewhat. I almost turned round and got straight off, thinking I had accidentally boarded the care in the community annual outing bus. For sitting there, gazing into space with various degrees of disconnect, were most of the people responsible for bringing Japan’s well-known life expectancy up to such a high level. If mothballs, hair oil and drooling is your thing, you were in for a treat!

My wife and I took our seats near the back of the bus, behind two fellows who were well into their one-cup sakes already. It was not yet 9:00 a.m. The larger of the two, the one without the hunchback and dyed hair, proceeded to hack up so much phlegm that I feared he was attempting to cough up a lung. Then he spat into a tissue and examined it. He did this several times before producing a plastic bag and, after his best hack yet, spitting forcefully into it. Maybe that was a special one he wanted to take home and show the wife.

Anyway, we travelled along, elderly people sharing unpleasant noises as we went, and ended up in Matsumoto. I’d been here before, but not on such a pleasantly warm afternoon, and not when there was a craft beer festival happening in the grounds of the castle. Matsumoto Castle is famously black and one of Japan’s finest. A rather lovely vermilion bridge stretches across the wide moat. Swans swim on the water, fat carp under it and, today, all along the banks people were getting slowly pissed in the sunshine. My wife and I joined them for a while, enjoying the scenery next to a young man who had turned up with a pet owl. I know, it seems weird, but just a few weeks ago I had happened upon a chap with a pet toucan in the streets of Tokyo, and, frankly, odd avian pets in Japan were losing their surprise factor.


We left the castle and walked up the road a little, discovering a wonderfully ramshackle bookshop, all brittle pages and dust, tilting piles and forgotten bundles. There were also some ukiyo-e prints haphazardly jettisoned, which the owner eagerly showed us. He was as a ramshackle bookshop owner should be – unruly white hair, longer than usual on an elderly man, glasses, and the dress sense of the most tweedy and old-fashioned of university lecturers. We bought two prints and then spent a good fifteen minutes trying to leave the shop as this delightful owner’s enthusiasm for his products bubbled and frothed and he insisted showing us some of his personal favourites.


The hacking and coughing on the bus was replaced by snores as we carried on with our mystery adventure. I suspect the crimson pallor of some of my fellow passengers meant that they too had discovered the beer festival. We stopped at a shrine where the hunchbacked chap enjoyed stroking a big cock, and then reached our hotel in the mountains of Nagano just in time for a soak in the onsen and the keenly anticipated dinner.


As the bus pulled into the hotel car park, though, the fellow in front of us pulled out his plastic bag again and vomited into it. I’m sure he had by now created the world’s most disgusting cocktail, but the tabehoudai dinner had lost its appeal somewhat. My appetite was diminished further still when I found myself next to a man who could slurp tempura and chew soup.

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Matsumoto Castle

As if Matsumoto Castle isn’t nice enough as it is, they were having a craft beer festival in its grounds yesterday.


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In Search Of Gold

Last week, I took a short trip to Sado Island. I had a lovely time. I saw some nearly extinct birds, I went out on the sea in a big wooden tub and I bought some senbei from a man who deserted the US Army, went to North Korea and married a Japanese woman who was kidnapped from Japan by North Korean agents – the usual holiday stuff. I also visited an old gold mine and tried my hand at panning for gold.

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Now, perhaps I watched too much Champion the Wonder Horse on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, but I thought panning for gold meant I would be sitting by a river, perhaps wearing a neckerchief and a cowboy hat, and swilling gravel around a big metal pan until I found golden nuggets the size of the breakast cereal ones I used to eat in front of the telly way back then. It wasn’t to be. Instead, my wife and I took our places in one of many lines of people standing next to very long and shallow troughs of water in a building containing nothing but such troughs. It wasn’t even outside. We didn’t sit on rocks by a river. Our pans were no more than small plastic bowls. And, to be honest, I think a few people were sniggering at my leather chaps and holster.

Anyway, a Japanese fellow demonstrated how to scoop up some gravel from the bottom of the trough, swirl it about a bit in a repetitively dull manner, and eventually find some tiny, tiny flakes of gold which had obviously been put there just for this purpose. We did it for an hour and at the end of the experience I had managed to collect two minuscule flaky pieces of gold which may actually just have been shiny sand. Nobody was thinking about selling up and moving here full time. The man opposite me had more gold in his teeth than the entire room could hope to find in a year. Oh well, It was just a bit of fun. Apparently.


As we left the hall a small, tubby woman in her late sixties or early seventies caught up with my wife. ‘I took a photo of your husband and you in there,’ she said. ‘I’ll send you the picture. May I have your address?’

‘Email?’ asked my wife.

‘No, I want to send a picture,’ said the woman and I guessed she wasn’t the most technogically minded person in Japan.

My wife wrote our name and address down for the woman and she thanked us. We thanked her for the offer, too. ‘Bit weird,’ I said as we walked away. ‘Asking to send photos to complete strangers.’

Well, today the photo arrived. It wasn’t the best. It was a bit blurred and showed me at an unflattering angle which managed both to accentuate my baldness and multiply my chins. It’s not a wall-hanger, that’s for sure. But with the photograph was a letter. It was immaculately handwritten on beautiful paper and told us a little about the woman’s life. The fact she was a calligraphy teacher explained the wonderful script, but there was no explanation about why she had written the letter other than the simple fact that she thought we might like the photo. She could have just stuffed it in an envelope with ‘Here’s the pic,’ scribbled on the back, but she didn’t. She spent some time neatly writing a couple of pages because, I suppose, she thought it would be a nice thing to do. And she was right. It was lovely and thoughtful. The photo may not be a keeper but the letter is. An email would already have been deleted.

There was gold there on Sado. We were just looking in the wrong place.

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