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Part XXXVI Back From The Abyss

November 12, 1999

I apologize for the long gap since my last update -- I've been so busy that I haven't had a chance to write anything.  Fortunately, that means that I have a whole lot to talk about this time.  So much, in fact, that I will have to save some for next time.  I just came back from a three day English camp for 40 female high school students, and the week before that I was in Korea, and the week before that my parents were here checking out Kiryu.  However, in order to keep things in chronological order, all of that will have to wait until the next update.  In this update we have the newspaper article, the peeling of fruit, the mounted archery, and the fondling.

First, let's rewind all the way to August (!).  Every year there is a traveling World Press Photo Exhibition, in which the best press photos of the previous year are shown.  In August, this traveling show came to Takasaki, a big city nearby.  The exhibit itself was very interesting, although most of the photos focused on war, famine, disease, violence, and other bad stuff.  It was kind of depressing, actually.

On my way out, a man came up to me and asked in Japanese whether I spoke Japanese, and I said that I did, a little. I started to turn away, but then he asked whether I had a few minutes.  It turns out that he is the managing editor of the Gunma prefecture office of Asahi Shimbun, one of the most widely read newspapers in Japan.  Each Sunday there is an insert in the Asahi Shimbun for all Gunma residents that reports on stuff happening in Gunma (about 280,000 people get this insert).  He was doing a story on the World Press Photo Exhibition for this insert, and wanted to interview me.

So, we talked (in Japanese) for about 15 minutes about who I was, what I was doing in Japan, and what I thought about the exhibition.  It was a little tough, because my Japanese really isn't very good, but I think I got him to understand most of what I was saying.  Then he took my picture next to my favorite photograph -- a picture of one of the few surviving participants of the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland, holding a lily (the symbol of that uprising).  On September 10 the newspaper came out, and there I was.  It was pretty cool, especially since a lot of the teachers that I work with saw it -- about 10 of them gave me copies of the page.

And speaking of the teachers that I work with, my friends and I here have noticed a fruit phenomenon that is kind of strange.  I first noticed it at school while eating lunch with the other teachers.  They were peeling their grapes.  It seems that in Japan, every fruit is peeled.  And I do mean every one. People don't eat the skins of apples, pears, grapes, or anything else.  I asked why people do this, and I got the same answer from many people:  there are pesticides and other bad stuff on the peel which isn't good for you. OK, fair enough, but have to ever tried to peel a grape?  And I don't just mean those big ones, either -- they peel even the tiny grapes.  The way they do it, though, is by putting the whole grape in their mouth, sucking out all the fruit, then spitting out the skin.  Of course, in the process they have probably sucked all the pesticides off of the skin without getting any of the vitamins and minerals and good stuff that is in the skin.  Good job.

And now, for a fairly violent change of subject, let's switch to mounted archery, or yabusame.  In Japan there is a traditional form of archery called kudo which uses very long wooden bows, and people treat it like any other martial art -- that is, they take it very, very seriously.  However, the real bad-asses go for yabusame, in which the participant rides a horse at full gallop past a stationary wooden target and shoots an arrow at it (if they are really, really good they can sometimes get off two shots).  Last month I went to a yabusame exhibition in Kasakake, a nearby small town, and it was one of the coolest things I have seen in Japan.

The archer, wearing full ceremonial armor and gear, quickly brings the horse to full gallop.  He (I only saw men doing it) then lets go of the reigns, draws the bow, and when nearly parallel with the target he lets fly.  About half of the people I saw hit the target, and I got a really cool picture of a target just after it was hit by the arrow -- the arrow is still in flight, and pieces of the target are flying everywhere.  This is one part of Japanese culture that I definitely want to see again.

And now for something completely different.  And I do mean completely.  I was in a bar with Jimmy and Karen, two other ALTs in Kiryu, and we happened to be sitting next to two fairly drunk Japanese women in their twenties.  We were talking about this and that, and everyone was drinking, until the aforementioned women became very drunk.  Suddenly, one of them asked Karen whether she could feel Karen's breasts.  We all just sort of said "WHAT?!"  Especially Karen.  She then got in to a defensive position (arms up) and said no in a way that brooked no argument.   The women were puzzled, however.  One of them explained that in Japan, women often do this out of curiosity.  That is, "she has breasts, I have breasts, but they are different size, and it's fun to see how they feel different." The actual phrase she used was ěplay with.î  We must have looked at her in blatant disbelief, because she and her friend decided to provide proof.

So, Jimmy, Karen, and I were sitting next to two drunk Japanese women who proceeded to reach across the table and fondle each others' breasts.  How do you react to something like that?  After we were finished laughing (and after the groping was finished), Karen explained that in England, women do not do that, and furthermore she had no intention of doing it then.  The two women were disappointed, but not for long -- one of them was so drunk that she soon had to go to the rest room, and she spent the next hour throwing up.  So, given that they were trashed, we have to take whatever they said with a grain of salt.  Nevertheless, it was a memorable evening.

I had a similar reaction when a student at one of my schools, who normally doesn't really participate in English class, came up to me in the hallway and said "Do . . . do you . . . do you like, uhh, masturbation?"   (It sounded more like "mastabay-shone" but I knew what he said.)  Not knowing quite how to respond, I just said "Do YOU like masturbation?"  He smiled and said "Yes.  Everyday."  I can't say I approve of the content, but at least we were having a conversation in English.  I'm just glad he didn't ask that question to my parents when they visited the school.