New Year’s in Japan – Ayako and I recently stayed a couple of weeks in Yonago with her family where we celebrated the New Year in Japanese fashion.
A Future in Yonago? – We have the option of living in Yonago in the future. There are many reasons why this would be a good idea, but I have some concerns.
Of Several Trades – I love having an abundance of hobbies and interests, but it is making it difficult for me to decide on the direction of my life.
As always, thank you so much for reading.
New Year’s in Japan
In late December Ayako’s parents came down from Tottori Prefecture and visited the island. Hiroshima and Tottori are neighboring prefectures, so by car the commute takes about 3 ½ hours. Due to us living relatively close to each other we are able to travel back and forth several times a year. This trip marked the third time that they have come down to the island, and there were a few reasons for this visit. One was that on December 23rd I played the trombone with the brass band in a concert held on the island, and since they had never heard me play they wanted to come and listen. A second reason was that Ayako wanted her mother to help her clean our apartment. Our apartment is owned by the island’s board of education, and for decades many different ALTs have called it their home. For this reason there have been various things that have just built up in the closets, cupboards, and storage rooms over the years, and Ayako wanted her mom to help her sort through it and throw away the garbage and organize what was left over.
Now, for those of you who know me, I am notorious for being a packrat and not throwing things away. I could really have cared less about doing any cleaning, but Ayako is a neat freak (an adorable neat freak, of course ) and her desire to rid the apartment of years of junk prevailed. I was a little worried though prior to this cleaning of epic proportions, because in the past whenever Ayako “cleans” the apartment that actually translates to her reorganizing and hiding my things without telling me where she put them. Therefore I had just cause to be concerned when not only Ayako but also my mother-in-law were going to be throwing away and moving my things around. In the end though I was very pleased with how it turned out, and I’m actually glad that they threw away a lot of things that we hadn’t been using and that the future island ALTs would also most likely not use.
The third reason for their visit was so that they could drive us back up to their hometown of Yonago in their car that was equipped with snow tires. We left on Christmas Day, and that evening Ayako’s younger brother Kouta also returned home from his university in Osaka so we were all able to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken and cake together which is the thing to do on Christmas in Japan. The main winter holiday for the Japanese is New Year’s Day, and this is the day when families get together and spend nearly the whole day with each other. There are many traditions associated with New Year’s in Japan. During the day on New Year’s Eve there is the making of rice cakes, or mochi tsuki, and the traditional way of doing this is by steaming a big batch of rice, and then beating the hell out of it with a large hammer over and over again while someone on the other end is carefully turning over this rice dough in between hammer strikes. Recently a lot of families are using machines instead of hammers to make the mochi, and this is how Ayako and her family made theirs. I was a little disappointed that they were using a machine because I wanted to swing the big hammer around.
On the evening of the 31st we had crab for dinner, and while I love crab it sure is a pain to eat by hand. By the time I had finished mine it had taken me 45 minutes, and I was mentally and physically drained from concentrating so hard for so long. After eating we watched kouhaku utagasen, which is a televised concert where practically all of the year’s famous Japanese musicians divide into two teams, red and white, and then perform and compete against each other. This show ends around 11:45pm, and then all of these singers and performers scurry to other shows where they are the hosts (all celebrities in Japan do everything – sing, act, report the news… everything) and we watched the countdown on one of these programs. After midnight Ayako, Kouta, and I went to a nearby shrine to do hatsumode, the first wish or prayer of the new year. New Year’s morning I went with Ayako’s dad to another shrine, the largest in Yonago, where we waited in an extremely long line to do a second helping of hatsumode. Afterwards we went to the grandparents’ house and met up with the rest of the family at around 11am. Ayako’s grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins were all there, and we enjoyed each other’s company while drinking beer and ceremonial sake (containing little flakes of gold) and eating a large meal of nabe (a stew filled with meats, seafood, noodles, and vegetables), yakitori (grilled chicken), and osechi (a traditional New Year’s food consisting of a plethora of little pieces of seafood and vegetables served in square shaped bento boxes).
We stayed there until around 7pm, and even though I saw all of the same people last year on New Year’s, this time was more enjoyable because my Japanese had improved a lot in the time between allowing for some better conversations. Personally, I find there is nothing more rewarding to learning a language than the ever increasing clarity and enjoyment you get from communicating with those around you. For me it is such a nice thing being able to learn about and open myself up to my new family whom I have known for years, yet only recently have been able to have a decent conversation with. I am happy that I now feel closer than I ever have to Ayako’s family, and I look forward to seeing them again so that I can see how much further our communication has improved due to continued improvement in my Japanese.
A Future in Yonago?
While in Yonago I managed to make a few trips to Matsue City where I used to live, and it was very nostalgic seeing old friends as well as the familiar sights of Matsue Castle and Lake Shinji with its little island of Yomegashima. It’s hard to believe that it has already been almost 5 ½ years since I first moved there. I remember celebrating my 25th birthday in Matsue and thinking it was a rather momentous occasion to be celebrating it in Japan. Soon I will be celebrating my 30th birthday, again in Japan, and that will be even more momentous. I’ll save my thoughts on turning 30 for a later blog, but since I’m talking about Yonago I should mention an option that could await us in the future. Ayako really wants us to live in Yonago so that she could be closer to her family. There are some good incentives to this plan. One is that we would be given a house. Yes, that’s right. A house. Her father is currently renting out his parents’ former home to a friend, but he has said that if we wanted to move in he would immediately kick out the current tenant. Two, Ayako and I would like to have children at some point in the future, and if we were living in Yonago we would have a free babysitter nearby. Three, Yonago is a beautiful town with an ocean on one side and a snow capped mountain on the other. It is also only 30-40 minutes away from Matsue where I have many friends to see and places that I enjoy visiting.
It seems like a good plan, right? I mean, a house, free babysitters, an ocean, a mountain, and Matsue right next door. I could see this coming to fruition. Here are my concerns though: I love Ayako’s family, and I really enjoy spending time with them. However, I am worried about living too close to them. Japanese families are a very tightly knit group, and to someone of my cultural upbringing this closeness is sometimes over the top and quite irritating. I do not enjoy the thought of my mother-in-law coming over unannounced. I also do not enjoy the thought of the pressure I am sure we would feel to constantly be together. Most of you probably already know this, but in Japan it is common for children to live with their parents well into their 30s and 40s, and sometimes actually never move out. It is quite the opposite from the American mindset of it being embarrassing to live with your parents into your late 20s or after graduating college. I moved out when I was 19 around the same time as the majority of my friends. I don’t want to make any general assumptions on whether or not Japanese parents and children actually do get along better than their American counterparts, but it can be said that socially and culturally the Japanese appear to be closer in the long term.
There are many reasons I can think of for this cultural difference. There are not as many options of residences to move into, as Japan has far less land available than the U.S. does. Another is the importance of independence that is held very highly in the United States vs. in Japan. While Americans begin getting their driver’s licenses and start working around the age of 16, Japanese people probably don’t start driving until they are around 18-20, and since most high schools here forbid their students from working even a part-time job Japanese people often don’t have any work experience until they finish high school or even college. My brother-in-law Kouta began driving when he was around 19, and he is now 21 and about to graduate college in March. When he graduates he will begin work, and it will be the first job he has ever had in his life. In the U.S. it is rare for someone to have no work experience at this age so this situation surprises me, but again, it is just a cultural difference as it is the norm here in Japan. I’m spending too much time on cultural differences. Long story short, I am worried about the cultural pressures of conforming to the closeness of a Japanese family. While we would not be living under the same roof, I am still concerned about simply living in the same city. Perhaps this is something that I can become more accustomed to the longer that I live here.
Here are two final reasons why I am a bit worried. The first is that I hated the winter in Matsue. I couldn’t stand not seeing the sun for six straight weeks, and that is probably one of the main reasons that I left after just one year. Yonago has the same weather, and for someone who spent the first 24 years of his life in Tucson, Arizona where it is sunny with blue skies about 300 days out of the year, it would be hard to get used to living long-term in a climate that is exactly the opposite. The second reason is that I have no idea what I would do for work. Maybe by then my Japanese will be super awesome and I’ll have a variety of options. The easiest job would be to teach English, but that would be a last resort. Teaching English is fun, but leading into the next section, it is not something that I am passionate about. My interests and how I divide up my time among them seem to be guiding my life in a direction on what I would like to pursue in grad school as well as a career. The problem is that I have quite a few things that I am interested in.
Of Several Trades
The other day a fantastic violinist and piano player came and performed on the island. It had been a while since I had heard musicians of their caliber so I really enjoyed the concert. Being a musician myself I think I tend to get more out of a musical performance than others would, just as one who is educated in media arts would probably have a much deeper appreciation for the imagination and collaborative effort that went into the making of a movie than someone who has not spent time learning about these things. When I listened to this violinist and pianist I was emotionally moved by the combination of notes coming out of these two instruments as I am sure everyone else in the audience also was, but I was also actively thinking about the hours of practice that these musicians must have invested into their instruments to get to such a high level of skill in addition to my ongoing curiosity of how and why my brain responds so differently to music depending on its tonality, timbre, and texture.
As I mentioned in my first blog, given my upbringing in a musical family, years and years of practice on various instruments, and a bachelor’s degree in music education, my forte (please excuse the lame pun) seems to be music. To be even more specific, I am not too bad on the trombone and the guitar, I have a pretty good understanding of basic music theory, and I like to think that I was a decent elementary school music teacher. However, here is where my musical bragging has to come to an end. I have met an incredibly large number of people in the world who are much better trombonists, guitarists, music theorists, and elementary school music teachers than I am. I am by no means an expert when compared to these others whose talents are greater than my own or who have invested far more hours of their lives into these areas than I have.
Referring again to my first blog, I wrote about how as a musician in college I developed tenosynovitis in my wrists and how as a result I was forced to think about other avenues in life, and this is what steered me away from music and eventually led me to Japan. Even when I was dedicating myself solely to music though there were many other students who were far better than me in class. While these students might have had just one instrument that they committed all of their practice time to, or a particular favorite class that they devoted more time to studying, I managed to fill my time with a little bit of everything. I studied jazz and classical trombone in addition to practicing the acoustic, electric, and classical guitar. Unlike most instrumental music education majors, I also took a voice class and sang in choir. Instrumental music education is a diverse field in of itself, so I learned to play all of the orchestra and band instruments, played and performed in several different groups, studied music theory, music history, and K-12 music education, plus I learned a lot about educational psychology at the college of education. In short, even though I studied “music” in college, I really had no specific focus and spread my time across a variety of activities and subjects within the field.
Back then I may have spread myself pretty thin, but at least it was all music. Now I feel that I am even more spread out than before. I am living in Japan and teaching English. My free time is devoted to studying Japanese, playing guitar, trombone, and taiko, listening to music, reading books, learning about astronomy, taking pictures with my new camera, exploring my island and surrounding towns, traveling, watching TV and YouTube, spending an embarrassing amount of time on Facebook, and enjoying life with my wife, my cat, and my friends. Now more than ever I feel like I don’t have a specific direction that my life is headed in. I am not living here solely for my job, but rather my job was a means for us to move here so that Ayako could work at an English school and I could practice and improve my Japanese. My Japanese has drastically improved since moving here, and I credit that primarily to how much I studied prior to passing level N2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) last summer. During the months leading up to that exam I was studying several hours every single day. Once the test was over though I wanted to resume the other hobbies that I had been taking a break from and I cut back on how much I was studying.
This past December I performed on the trombone with my island’s brass band, and due to the pressure of having a very talented guest saxophonist, a newly added rhythm section, and a new set-list of pretty challenging tunes, I felt obligated to take my abilities to the next level so I practiced practically every day for the month leading up to that performance. Thanks to this experience I am now a better trombone player than I have ever been. Perhaps I should actually say that at the end of December I was the best that I have ever been because since the concert I haven’t touched my instrument. Just like with the Japanese studies, I got much better in a short amount of time due to the pressure of having a need to perform well looming on the horizon. However, once that pressure was gone, instead of maintaining this practice schedule so that I could even further improve, I stopped and resumed my plethora of other hobbies. I see my interests as a bar graph with regards to how much time I put into them, and while some of these interests such as Japanese and music rank higher than reading, traveling, science, and photography, they each seem to have an equilibrium whereas even though sometimes one might increase temporarily due to the pressure of the need to perform well, in the end they will return to their natural state because I feel a need to do them all. When this need isn’t fulfilled I actually become irritable and depressed.
In some aspects I like being a jack-of-all-trades (more like “several” trades) where I enjoy learning about practically anything and everything. I know that everyone in the world is better than me at something, and I enjoy talking with the people I meet about what that thing is so that I can then in turn become more knowledgeable about it. I think that it is fun having multiple interests that I can bounce in between, and I feel that I am getting a lot out of this life by learning a second language, playing multiple instruments, and reading a lot about a wide range of topics, giving me a growing appreciation for this world and this universe that against all odds I was lucky enough to be born into. While I have always been one to enjoy having a variety of things to do, I consider this current need to dab in multiple areas a mental by-product leftover from my injury in college. I suppose that I might have this built-in defense mechanism for the rest of my life, so that I will never again put all of my eggs in one basket. This way if something unexpected happens again in my lifetime, robbing me of one of these interests, I will have other safety nets that I can quickly fall back onto in order to avoid the level of depression that I once experienced and never want to repeat again. I actually feel a genuine fear of devoting myself too much to music again.
What does this mean? Will I ever have one thing in my life that I can say is my specialty, or am I destined to just be pretty good at a variety of things? Maybe I’ll be able to find a job where my specialty IS being good at several things. For now I feel that I should spend the majority of my time in improving my Japanese and simply maintain and enjoy my current abilities in music. Next December I will attempt level N1 of the JLPT, and pretty soon I will have to begin studying for it. I recently re-contracted for another year on this island and my goal while I am here is to pass that test. In my remaining free time I will continue playing music, and I have many books on my bookshelf that I am itching to read. The time is approaching though when I will need to seriously think about grad school as well as a career. How will I apply myself? I’m not sure yet, but most likely I will do something using music and/or Japanese as these seem to be the top two areas I have chosen to invest my time in.
Though my career and direction in life are a little unclear at the moment, I am still extremely happy with the ongoing journey that is my life. Every day I learn something new, and every day I improve the areas that I am investing my time in. I actually find the lack of clarity about my future to be rather exciting, and I am up to the challenge of whatever awaits in the years to come. Luckily I am not alone in this journey, as I am also sharing it with my wife and my cat who I couldn’t be happier with.