Thursday, March 25, 2004


Hello everyone!

It's been nearly two months since I sent the last bulk mailing on February first, and it's about time I did a little more writing.

To get myself warmed up and thinking, I'll list some of the highlights first.

Let's see, there was making props for the musical, watching Lord of the Rings, practicing for the musical, fallout from the Hadaka Matsuri (aka Naked Man Festival), more practicing for the musical, learning dance moves at the last minute for the musical, dress rehearsals for the musical, freak snowstorms, performing the musical, buying and sending gifts to four or five people, graduation ceremonies, last minute cram-studying of Japanese, trying to get some discipline/order/proper priorities in my life, running, ceasing to run, my grandpa dying, stopping everything for three days just to sit, preparing to go to South Korea, performing the musical, four enkais, getting my suit fixed, writing a multitude of goodbye messages for the sannenseis, aquiring books and CDs from, reading my first whole book of manga all in japanese, performing the musical, successful and unsuccessful karaoke, half of the teaching staff leaving, parties with church folk, finally buying a kerosene heater now that I no longer need it, being encouraged by the judo teacher to go for the black belt test (throught the national association), getting licorice, beer, and nachos from Winnipeg via my JET friend Dion, talking about movies and art in my eikaiwa classes, preparing and conducting interview tests, a field trip to the local "art museum", more preparations for going to south korea, carefully avoiding a game of spin-the-bottle, and did I mention that I was involved in a musical?
(Hmm, I'm sure there is a prescriptive grammarian somewhere who will want to have words with me after reading all that.)

So that about sums up my last two months. I head off to south korea on Monday the 29th, but not before hooking up with a couple fellow winnipeggers to hang out in Osaka for a day on the 28th.

I will fly into Pusan (Busan), which is South Korea's second largest city and its only major city never taken by North Korea in the Korean war. It's a port city on the southeast tip of south korea. from there I will bus straight to Seoul and spend a few days there, hopefully getting to visit the world's largest church and some more standard points of intrest. After that I will bus south to an island called Koje, which is near the city of Tongyeon, which in turn is not far from Busan. "What, praytell, is in Koje?" you ask. Brennan and Rhonda Cattani, whom some of you may know, are teaching english there. After spending 5 or so days with them, I will make my way back to Busan and then back to Japan.

I have never really said much about the musical yet, have I? It's the thing which has occupied most of my weekends for the last two or three months, but I haven't even told you what it was about, have I? This year's was the tenth annual Tokushima AJET musical. As such, it was decided that some kind of adulterated shakespeare would be the most appropriate. A few JETs took the taming of the Shrew, swapped the genders, and made the older brother rather a boor. We called it "The Taming of the Brew." Incidentally, the male lead character's name was bruce. In japanese, The taming of the shrew is じゃじゃ馬ならし (ja ja uma narashi), so we changed that name to じゃじゃ生ならし (ja ja nama narashi), after nama beer. Apparrently it's funnier in Japanese than in English. The basic plot was:

"Two brothers are living at home with their parents. The parents are tired of the two boys and feel that it is time they find wives, get married, and leave home. The youngest brother, Groomio, is no problem as he had a girlfriend who he desperately wants to marry, but his older brother, Bruce, is not interested in a relationship and is content as he is. The real trouble, however, is that the family tradition states the eldest son must be the first to marry and leave home.
Will Groomio manage to make his beer-loving older brother attractive to women? Will Bruce find a girl who can accept him? And who is the evil woman who is getting in the way of all of this? A love comedy of the very modern variety!"

The script was ready by the end of December, but cast was exiguous. We could not fill all the parts, so a few people took more than one role. One JET, Richard Golland, was convinced to take on two of the largest minor roles, which were on more than one occasion written into the same scenes. This wouldn't have been such a problem if the roles weren't Bruce's Father (normal clothes) and Bruce's pet dog (dog suit). We got creative with the stage direction and took a few liberties with the script in order to make it work. It was later revealed that we were working with half the number of volunteers as previous years. When it came to the making of props and the painting of the backdrop, it was almost depressing. Thankfully, winter in Tokushima consists of little snow, lots of sun, and temperatures mostly above zero, else who knows what tragedy may have befallen our show.

Here is the cast as it was once we started performing:
Karl, a thespian by education, was Bruce. I was Groomio. Jenni (Angeline at the last show) was the girl Groomio finds for Bruce. Our producer, Ellie, was Groomio's girlfriend, and a girl on a dating agency video (at half of the shows. At the other half, Andrea was dating agency girl #2). Rich played both the dad and Bruce's dog. Heather, who was the mother, was also a girl on the dating agency video, and was also the evil Veronica's cat who dies in the first scene. Our costume maker, Sarah, was Bruce's evil ex, Veronica. Liz, our producer, and Greg, who is a loose cannon, were the two schoolgirls who introduced the show in Japanese and recapped after the intermission. Liz (and alternately Andrea) was also a baseball player. Greg was also a delivery guy, a dating agency clerk, a friend of bruce , and a funky priest. Colin (Jonny Lawless at the last show) was the date, a clock, a dancing heart, a baseball player, and a girl on the dating agency video. Brian Wright was Groomio's friend in one scene, and a bartender in two two others. Rowan and Elaine were the main dancers at a Latin Club, and at a few shows were joined by Ellie and me, Greg and Heather, Jonny and Andrea. Rowan taught Greg and Heather some moves so that they could replace him and Elaine at the last Show. Rowan was also one of Bruce's friends (and was replaced by B-dubs in the last show).

I don't expect these names to mean anything to you, but hopefully the variety of parts and the numbers of parts will give you some sort of feel for the show. A little.

We also fulfilled a couple of traditions in the costumes and props: guys dress in drag every year (this year Greg and Colin/Jonny), and every year a monkey appears somewhere (this year in the form of a stuffed monkey the dog plays with).

Origionally I had intended to have only a marginal hand in the musical, leaving the rest up to the keeners, but when it turned out that there were far too few keeners, there were several of us sideliner-wannabees that refused to leave our friends in a lurch. As a result, most of the cast also did most of the work.

Even so, It wasn't until the dress rehearsals that our crew began to galvinize, and all the work that some others had been doing out of sight was revealed. I'm thinking primarily of the girl in charge of props, Vivi, who did a horse-load of organizing and planning that nobody else was really aware was neccessary until the rehearsals. At those two rehearsals we began to see everything really come together, and hope re-entered our hearts by force. Suddenly we could see that it was going to happen, and it was going to be good. The two dress rehearsals were in two towns on the last weekend in February. We then did 5 shows in 5 towns on three weekends in March.

The first show was in a town called Ishii, which is immediately west of Tokushima city. It was the first time one of the musicals had ever been performed in Ishii, and they were psyched to have us. (最高やな~!) They even ordered in sub sandwiches from Big Brothers' sandwich shop (which is owned and operated by a winniper and a guy from tennessee) in the city. Nothing like a free meal to get you going and squash some of those butterflies! One of the families from my town came out to this show, and brought me flowers after we finished (a standard practice here). The stage in Ishii was one of the better ones. Speaking of which, I should say something about the stages.

Every town and school comes equipped with a stage. The town stages are generally located in a massive community center etc, the kind of building where you also would find the town library. the stage is sometimes part of a multi-purpose hall, where the seats are either set up manually or mechanically. Two of the venues we were at (Ishii and Hanoura) had permanent theatre-style seats, massive professional stages, professional lighting, and professional sound equipment. They made us feel like professionals. Because we changed venues all the time, we also changed light and sound crews all the time (they were local JETs who we recruited). As a result, we had to rehearse before every show in order to give the crew enough time to learn the cues and sort out technical difficulties.

The Ishii show went fantastic. My plan for after the show was to follow my friend and fellow cast-member Brian Wright (B-dubs) west and crash at his place in the mountains. But first we went out for a bite to eat with a family he knew who had come to watch. It was snowing. After the food we began our trek. Though we were driving in the Yoshino river valley, we were mildly up in elevation. The snow was increasing in depth accordingly. It had been sunny and warm that afternoon...

Now, being a winnipeg driver, a little bit of snow doesn't really get me panicked. However, if you put me in a car made of something like aluminum, give that car tires that leave thinner tracks than my shoes, take away my traction, and put me in a country where no accident is ever totally the other person's fault, I begin to worry a little. To be honest, it was rather intense. At one point, do to the taxi in front of Brian's car suddenly spinning out as it tried to make a turn, Dubs slowed down and I couldn't stop, very nearly hitting his car. After an hour or so of such harrowing road conditions, Brian pulled into a train station. He had gotten a call from fellow JET/actress/director Ellie who was stranded there. I parked my car, transferred my stuff into his, and the three of us then drove off. The ride was much different in his Corrolla with four wheel drive than it had been in my Mira. I was finally able to take some time and appreciate the snow. The bamboo trees sometimes at the side of the road had become laden with snow and were bowed down nearly to the pavement. I had never seen anything like it. Gorgeous.

Due to the somewhat adverse weather, Dubs and I decided against making a trek up to his flat in the mountains and instead accepting Ellie's invitation to crash at her bomb-shelter... er.. that is... house? She has since moved, but picture a gray, dank, one story building, constructed in the 'post-warfare slum bomb shelter' style, put it in a pit, and you begin to get the idea.

At least she lived within 10 minutes of the next day's venue. But she also lived within 5 minutes of a really nice onsen, which B-dubs and myself decided to hit in the morning. Sweet. Giving ourselves an hour to get in and out of the onsen, we were only 15 minutes late getting to the venue! It wasn't that big of a deal seeing as how the performance wasn't for another three hours, but we were transporting the director and its not good to make her late. (^^;;)

Mikamo was the smallest venue. Having come from a venue that was so professional, we tried to pull of some of the same stuff at the smaller venue, and gave ourselves a truckload of technical problems. I think we managed to cover that fact up on stage, but it was worth a good laugh afterwards. The roads were clear on the way home, no snow to be found.

The next show, on the following weekend, was in Matsushige, which is immediately north of Tokushima city. It's where the airport is. I guess there is little to say about the show other than that they had these cool mechanically retracting and setting up chairs that reminded me of something out of a videogame (Einhander/FF7の用に) or a sci-fi movie. Oh yes, and my JTE came to this show. The show went well, and we continued to refine ourselves. This was a good thing, as we were filmed the following day at Hanoura.

Hanoura, 40 minutes south of the city, was the other uber-professional venue, and this time we also had a professional sound and light crew, too. We put on a fantastic show for the audience, and for the cameras. It was probably our best performance. The crowd was good, too-- there were a lot of people, and they were energetic. Also, every member of the cast knew someone in the audience; people had come from all over, but especially from the south.

Our final show was at Wakimachi (along the Yoshino river, west of the city), and was distinct from our other shows for a variety of reasons. Firstly, four of our cast members were replaced. Rowan and Elaine were two who did an elaborate Latin dance in one of the scenes, but they already had tickets to see sumo in Osaka. The big loss was Colin and Jenni, who were at a wedding in Nagoya. Colin and Jenni had been transporting our largest props and the backdrop from place to place in their van. That was easily taken care of-- they left me keys for their van for the weekend. The bigger problem was that Jenni was the female lead, and Colin had four different parts. Both of them, who are very reliable, were replaced by JETs who are more psycho. Our male lead had come down with the flu. Another person who holds four different parts was late due to a piano recital. Lastly, the place we were performing at is a kabuki theatre that was built before the war, has since been refurbished, was at one time a porn theatre, and is now a tourist attraction of sorts. There is a tradition of changing lines and doing unscripted things in the last show as well. It was by far the most fun show to do. Our rehearsal was unbelievable-- soo much joking around, time eaten up by people clutching their bellies and rolling on the floor in laughter, many many lines replaced with "blah blah blah" and the like... cast members not yet there... I was pleased to be a part of it. :D

The theatre is really small, and made all of wood. The people sit on cushions (zabuton) on the floor and second floor terrace, so the audience is really close. The place has an atmosphere to it that would make it difficult not to enjoy any show there. Out of all the jokes and changes that were thrown in, the most surprising was when the JET in charge of sound swapped a dance song with "I like big butts and I cannot lie..." Everyone added something somewhere. It was so much fun.

Afterwards was the post-musical party, which we decided to have in Miyoshi (Ellie's town-- farther west from Wakimachi), was at the same place we had the Burn's supper in January. It was a good enough party as JET parties go, but with the addition of which may sadly become a post musical party tradition. Once people were drunk enough, they repeated something which was infamous from the previous year- "kiss-whoever-the-bottle-points-at spin-the-bottle." Thanks, but no thanks. There are rewards for staying sober.

So that is one major thing.

The next major thing was the 三年生卒業式 (sannensei sotsugyohshiki: thirdyearstudent graduationceremonies). It was quite a big affair. In some respects, I am uncertain as to how to begin to describe it- there was lot of boring stuff, but it was really good. There were innumerable things on which goodbye messages/thanks/etc were written, which was tiresome at times. The ceremonies were rehearsed the day before so that the students could get it right the following day. The gym was set up with many flowers and a pine tree which resembled a bansai tree.

In the morning of The Day, I was wearing my suit an flower and sitting in the office. I noticed that the Kyoto-sensei (vice principal) was wearing a white tie. I thought that was interesting, not being able to recall having seen a white tie before, and tried to think if I had seen him wear it before. Then I noticed that the PhysEd teacher also had a white tie on. Fancy that, I thought. What an odd coincidence, I thought.

When I adjourned to take my place in the gym, and when I began to appraise the incoming visitors and honoured guests, it dawned on me that almost every man was wearing a white tie. Almost, I thought, as I looked down at my grey tie. I began to feel a little self-conscious about my tie. To cut to the end of the story, after the ceremonies, I asked one of the teachers about the ties. It turns out that white means happiness, and they only wear their white ties on special occasions. Bearing in mind that it was a very formal event, I had almost selected my black tie that morning. I now know that the only 'black tie event' in Japan is a funeral. That could have been very embarrassing. (^^;;)

As for the ceremony itself, there was a lot of formal bowing, reading out of names, recieving of parchments in certain ways, and long dull speeches by the mayor, the head of the board of education, etc. However, there was also a thankyou and goodbye speech by the head of the student counsel, a valedictorian speech, a goodbye song from the first and second year students (which was touching), and a goodbye song from the third years (Sakura). My greatest pleasure through the whole thing was to stand at the front with all the other teachers, facing the students, and help to start the applause to which the third years exited. All things considered, I think that the ceremoniousness of the ceremonies made for a good and proper parting. Boring at times, but emotional at others. Largely dull, but very final.

After that, the gym was cleaned and set back to its original state by the remaining students and all the teachers. Then all the non-graduating students, the teachers, and the parents lined up in one of the corridors. The students had gifts (softballs with messages written all over them, baseballs and bats of the toystore variety, flowers, plants, Hawaiian leis (sp?), etc). The graduating students came down the stairs (to the tune, "Sakura") and through the applauding teachers and students, recieving the gifts as they went.

Lastly, there was a 'light lunch' with just the graduating students and all the teachers. The food was provided by the PTA; there was a lot of it, and it was tasty. This was when all of the students new keitais (cells) came out; everyone was taking pictures and aquiring teacher's emails. It was good to have that last social goodbye; good for the students and good for the teachers. It was something that you can only do (but need to do) at a small school like this one. All in all, I was quite impressed.

In the Japanese teaching system, teachers and principals etc all have contracts with schools. An average contract seems to be three to five years. One or two years would be a short contract, and seven or nine would be very long contracts. Once the contracts expire, the teachers/principals/etc are almost always transferred to a different school. This year, by odd coincidence, we are losing more than half of our staff (8 out of 14). Among those who are leaving is my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), and three of the four other good English speakers, including our principal. The principal is going on the "principal exchange program" to work for three years at a Japanese school in Peru. Coincidentally, our next principal is coming off of the Exchange program and is coming from Detroit. (How cool is that!) As I type this, my incoming JTE, Masui-sensei, is here in the office getting the low-down from my outgoing JTE, Nakanishi-sensei.

This being the end of the school year, we have had a number of enkai (parties). Two weeks ago there was the "good-bye kocho-sensei (principal)" enkai on a Wednesday, the "thanks from the parents of the sannensei" enkai on the following Friday (odd sitting around with the drunken parents of the students you know so well). That was the evening on the day of the sannensei graduation ceremonies. Last Friday was the staff enkai, which was the best of the four, starting with Italian food and ending with karaoke. Last was the "good-bye to the teachers from the PTA and the town" enkai, this past tuesday. It was very formal. That was the first time the parents were informed as to who would be leaving. the following day, Wednesday (currently yesterday), was the last day of classes, the closing ceremonies, and the day when the students got to find out who would be leaving. Some of the sannenseis came to the ceremony, even though they had graduated two weeks previous.

In the midst of all that, I have had my correspondance Japanese course to do as well. I think I crammed all sixteen days worth of work into seven actual days in the past two weeks. My brain hurts. But I managed to mail off the test yesterday. (Yatta!)

I also got to visit the Otsuka Art Museum with the ninensei (second years) last week thursday. The Otsuka Art Museum is a collection of the world's most famous works of art reproduced on ceramic panels in full size. It includes a full scale replicas of the sistine chapel and a few other major architectural paintings. The reason the paintings are replicated onto ceramic is that it allows for the texture of the paintings as well. You are permitted to run your fingers accross the images; they have the same topography as the originals. I still felt really self-conscious about it though; i would look both ways before tentatively reaching out to touch the image. I found myself wondering if the acid on my fingertips would be detrimental, and kept having to remind myself that "it's ceramic... it's ceramic..." But because it is ceramic, some of the softness is lost, and the way that light is reflected is also different. And if you look really close, it is apparrent that the paintings have been reproduced digitally. Even so, the overall effect is good. The Bosch painting of the Garden of Delights was smaller than I expected. Some of Reubens and Carravaggio's works were far far larger than ever I would have thought. It was something else to walk on replicas of ancient mosaics. It was cool to stand inside some of the tombs and churches. I worked my way through the museum slowly, and did not really get to much farther than the Neoclassical stuff before I had to hurry to get an overall look at what was there. It would be worth a second visit. I think I got far more out of it than my ninensei (grade eight) students.

So, thanks to that first summary paragraph, I think that this now is enough about my last couple of months. I'll see about writing again when I return from South Korea (only 4 days away!), but more like than not I will next write sometime near the end of April. Until that time,


Matthew Shettler


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