Well, it finally happened. This year, I ended up staying in Japan instead of going home. I expected that I’d feel homesick, that maybe I’d even feel like a terrible person for missing out on family time.
I have a confession to make: I felt NONE OF THAT NONSENSE. God, the amount of stress relief was amazing. No getting up at the crack of dawn to travel down to Narita. No crying babies for hours on a fourteen hour flight. No running to catch my stupid connection through a busy airport only to wait two hours for the next one. No traveling all over the country after I get to the U.S.A. because my family lives in separate states. No one bitching at me to come home instead of “living so far away.” Repeat process in reverse to get back to Japan and add in some really awful TSA groping at some point in Chicago O’Hare (aka the pit stain of airports). I love my family and friends, but being able to take a break from the Christmas madness was awesome.
Because I didn’t go home, I actually got to go the winter closing ceremony at Hinode Junior High School. At first, the students came inside the gymnasium, shaking and shivering while saying, “Samuiiiiiiii! (It’s cold!)” They divided into columns within their own year, dressed properly in their school uniforms. The boys were lucky because they got to wear suits, long sleeves and long pants. The girls wore long sleeves and long skirts, which exposed skin to the cold.
It was so cold they could see their breath crystallize in the air. The teachers all stood there, shivering like crazy, but trying to put on a brave face. Shouldering onward, the ceremony began with students standing up to bow before their vice principal and principal. I lazily sing the school’s theme song (I never remember the whole thing, so sue me). I stood in the back, pretending to pay attention, but my eye keeps drifting over to the one heater that reluctantly blazed into the huge, open two story tall building. The heater was pretty usless since it didn’t affect anything but perhaps two feet in front of it. The cord was only a foot long, so the heater stayed close to the wall, far away from all of us freezing humans.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard ex-pats in Japan complain about the lack of central heating and air in schools. Strangely, no air conditioning doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal. Instead, foreigners bear a grudge against the Japanese anti-heating culture. It’s as if somehow being warm is a luxurious idea instead of a basic package deal with any school building in Japan.
In America, if a school didn’t have central heating in the winter, we canceled school (or at least they did in Kentucky). American parents would pitch an almighty fit if their children were forced to sit in freezing conditions like my Japanese students did that day. I can imagine the phone lines ringing off the hook for hours, just complaints after complaints. “How dare you make my child sit there for a whole hour in the cold? That’s child abuse!” And other things like that.
Here in Japan, parents are fine with it. There is still a tough love is the best love mentality here when it comes to things like that. Most of my teachers think that central heating systems are “too expensive” and “frivolous.” They talk about central heating like it’s some kind of constantly running, energy depleting demon that cannot be stopped once the on button is pressed. I’m fairly certain they’ve been lied to by the construction companies, or the construction companies are awful. Either way, there’s a severe misunderstanding on their part about how central heating works.
Anyway, since I didn’t go home I was also able to go to the end of the year parties (bonenkai) with some friends associated with YES Eikaiwa, an English school that’s just down my street. We ate at a Chinese restaurant, where we sang Christmas songs and did a Santa Swap.
I ended up winning some bath salts, which are amazing. I don’t know where they’re from, but they make my skin nice and pretty.
And of course, I got to do Christmas lessons. The students this year did songs and activities. The first years (7th grade for you Americans) got to make 3D Christmas cards. Some of them were really pretty!
The BINGO game was fun. You could choose from a huge pile of presents when you won. I ended up choosing some fancy chocolates. I found that funny considering I gave chocolates as my gift. One of the teachers had this strange random number gadget that he would press for the next number. It kept doing old numbers over and over again, so all the teachers gave him a hard time.
After the first round was over, we all went to the second round of the party (nijikai). We went to a karaoke place to sing and drink, which is par for the course of a nijikai. The party didn’t go onto a third round (sanjikai) because many teachers were also coaches that had games the next day.
Usually, people who are deeply liked, respected, and/or higher in rank are invited to the next party. If you’re just a part timer or the youngest of the bunch, it’s not uncommon to not be invited to the second or third rounds. For ALTs, it depends on the school if you get invited to the bonenkai or not. Some do, some don’t. Both of mine do, because they know I will sing Lady Gaga like no one’s business.
For Christmas Day, I went over to my friend Cameron’s house in Toride. She served some delicious chicken, salad, and some wonderful stuffing.
We had red velvet cupcakes for dessert.
In between this time, I visited other friends in Japan, getting in touch with them again and having a blast. I remembered my family fondly, recalling all the times I’d gone to my grandmother’s house packed full of my father’s side of the family. All my aunts and uncles catching with up everyone about what’s going on and what everyone’s planning to do. The people in my age range talked among ourselves for the most part, my brother and I swapping stories and inside jokes. However, I didn’t really feel like I was missing out. I knew I’d be there again someday in the future, and I sent them my love from Japan.
A few days later, I went with some friends to the Kashima Shrine (Kashimajingu). I did go there on New Years Day about two years ago and it was a madhouse! This year I ended up going later, but guess what? It was still a madhouse!
We purified our hands before going inside and getting our fortunes for the new year (the year of the horse, by the way).
Turns out that for at least a week local shrines are packed full of people buying things for the New Year, such as good luck charms and fortunes. People will also burn certain items as offerings to the god(s) of the shrine and might get themselves purified within the shrine in the spring. The spring, by the way, is freezing cold, but it’s supposed to give you long life and good health so people go in for a dip. You can take a drink from a running spring in the back of the shrine, too, which is also for good health and longevity.
I did neither of those things because I would rather not be colder than I already am. Besides, my fortune was the top ranking, you can do anything you want this year congratulations kind of fortune.
These fortunes are fun little things that supposedly tell you what you’re supposed to do this year to get what you want out of life. If you get a bad one, most people tie them to trees or a standing wire board provided by the shrine so you can expel the bad luck.
I took mine and put it in my wallet. Putting good fortunes in your wallet is believed to bring you more money. It’s only good for one year, so once the year is over, you have to take it out, or so I’ve been told.
All in all, I was very pleased with my first Christmas away from home. It was a nice change of pace, and really did make me feel more at ease than trying so hard to get back. I think I will go home next year for sure, though, because Christmas really means a lot to my family.
Happy 2014 everyone! Let’s make it EPIC!