sniffing the morning cool

During my week in Tendo I got an exciting variety of Japanese winter weather: burning sun, drizzle, thick snow, and an earthquake. The last was a magnitude 5 in the neighbouring Miyagi prefecture, and took the form of a big jolt followed by a minute of disconcerting general wobble. It wasn’t particularly scary, but it wasn’t something I’d like waking me up at night.

My biggest Tendo Adventure was locating and climbing a hill named Mount Maizuru, navigating using only dead reckoning and the memory of Google Maps (augmented by visual aids, viz. Maizuru being a giant hill sticking up like a sore buttock from the otherwise totally flat Yamagata valley). Snow had fallen the night before, but the day was bright, and the shrine I found at the base of the hill was breathtakingly picturesque as a result; so were the arches, mini-shrines and tall carved standing stones on the ascent. From a wooden platform halfway up I caught vistas of half the valley; unfortunately, the camera ran out of battery before I reached the top, so the giant shogi board where Tendoites play fancily dressed human chess every year went unphotographed, as did the views from another platform at the peak, which showed the entire city and stunning views of the other half of the valley, all the way to the snow-capped mountains.

Besides that, with Fran at work during the weekdays I mostly stayed under the kotatsu relaxing, doing law work, and being generally domestic with laundry, sweeping, DIY, and cooking. This last duty required me to venture to a supermarket, which was pretty much exactly like a Western supermarket except with 10% more cutesy mascots, 50% more fish, and the bagging area very sensibly separated from the till. The cheery counter lady indicated the constant canned Christmas music (a heavily-Japanese-accented Santa Claus Is Coming To Town at that moment) in a friendly “look, foreigner, a taste of home! this is what you like, right?” way, and I sang along a verse for her in the Futurama lyrics (“You better not breathe/you better not move/you’re better off dead, I’m telling you dude/Santa Claus is gunning you down”) which she seemed to enjoy.

The lights at (almost universally cross-shaped) Japanese road junctions have a two-stage cycle of all cars and pedestrians going one direction, then the other (rather than the cars-go-one-way, cars-go-another-way, pedestrians-go-all-ways cycle that’s usual at home). Pedestrians all obey this scrupulously and don’t jaywalk. Drivers, who in Tendo mostly drive small, high-sided, boxy “kei cars” (obviously practical but obnoxiously ugly), with quite a few electric cars and hybrids among the rest, are as a rule incredibly careful and considerate. It’s nice.

Tuesday was Fran’s only evening without some sort of activity; I cooked her bolognaise and we sat under the kotatsu watching Ghibli films and making Christmas cards for her students (she having had an idea for Christmas-themed lessons which… escalated). On Wednesday, after a nice-but-not-cheap takeaway bento dinner from something called “Hotto Motto”, I went with her to her choir (she hadn’t originally intended to take me, but once the proverbially-gossipy housewives got wind of the word “boyfriend” apparently they insisted on meeting me.) After they all sang (very nicely, I might add!), they cracked open a case of gourmet rusks to nibble on, and I did another self-introduction and answered lots of questions about myself and England. Bringing small tasty souvenir-gifts from distant lands is a very big thing in Japan, and the Union Jack-adorned bag of Fox’s sweets I brought (which were actually Fran’s, but we agreed they didn’t need to know that) went down a storm, as did holding open the door for them at the end (which got a ripple-murmur of “English gentleman.”) In return, they made me a gift of all the left-over rusks to sustain me on my studies, and someone gave us another big bag of apples. I wasn’t expecting otherwise, but they were really lovely people.

At the end, they all divvied up the rusk wrappers and boxes, and packed them in their bags. This is a Civilised Japanese Thing; everyone takes their own rubbish home, and puts it through a complicated system of recycling categories which makes Bristol’s rubbish-sorting regime seem pretty lax. People don’t eat on the streets, and the only bins you’ll see are beside vending machines (and, amusingly, at train stations, which thanks to the IRA are one of the places you never get them at home.) Blocks have communal rubbish-dumping areas where everything is left in colour-coded bags; when going on my walk up to Mt. Maizuru, I saw one such dump with a sign which appeared to forbid putting rubbish in an area outside your neighbourhood, featuring a furtive-looking tipper and a cartoon rabbit and bear expressing extreme disappointment that anyone would do such a thing.

On Thursday, I went with Fran to her guitar circle, at the same community centre place as English conversation, with the same tiny old chap Shoji. How the young female English violinist fits in with the three old guitar-playing Japanese blokes I didn’t quite understand, but they all get along well; none of the Japanese dudes were incredible, but they weren’t rubbish either, and a high point was when two of them sang a sad, haunting duet about love and loss in Japanese; the effect was only slightly ruined by following it up with Puff the Magic Dragon.

Complete tally of things lovely Tendo people gave me/Fran over the course of the week: 4x boiled sweets, 7x gigantic yet delicious apples, 2x canned drinks, 2x satsumas, about 20x gourmet rusk things, and a shoulder bag.

What a nice town.

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