For the past twenty years or so, the city in which I work has been running an exchange programme with its twin town (or ‘sister city’, as they prefer to say here) in the States, so for much of last week I had the chance to act as interpreter, when a group of ten students and two teachers came for a whirlwind tour of Ibaraki.

Not that they were short of interpreters: at the first-night welcome party there were four of us, most of the Japanese speeches had already been translated into English, and the Americans – K-sensei and her student, er, K-san – did an admirable job of reading out the phonetic Japanese versions of theirs, leaving me with more time to relax and eat pizza (the organisers of the exchange had decided not to inflict anything too culinarily outlandish on their guests when they had only just arrived in the country).

The following day T-kun – who back home in the States is in even more sports clubs than his Japanese counterparts: basketball, athletics and American football – was guest of honour at the school where I am currently working, and we immediately put him to work in some first-grade (seventh grade if you count the American way) English classes. After a few minutes of conferring, each of the students asked him a question – Do you like Japanese food? How tall are you? Do you have a girlfriend? etc – although even with everyone speaking English, I still needed to do some interpreting, this time from beginner’s English into British English, and from American English back into beginner’s English.

In the afternoon the exchange students were treated to a bunka-taiken (文化体験 / cultural experience), and first up was origami, for which they didn’t just learn how to make the usual birds and planes, but also a so-called kami-teppoh (紙鉄砲 / paper gun), an ingenious triangular contraption that you hold at one corner and snap open with a whipping motion to produce an impressively loud banging noise (so impressive that the boys never tired of creeping up on people and firing it off directly behind them).

Next was shodoh (書道 / calligraphy), for which they wrote the character for friend (友) over and over, until it was legible enough to be committed to posterity on a square of gold-edged card. T-kun is left-handed, and I asked the sensei if this might present him with any difficulties.
‘To be honest,’ she said, ‘left-handed children used to be made to write with their right hand instead. These days you can use pens and pencils, so it isn’t so much of a problem, but kanji were originally conceived to be written right-handed, with a brush.’ (Possibly for the same reasons, Mrs M’s father, who was born left-handed, taught himself to be right-handed when he was still at school.)

Last of all we donned kimono and hakama (袴 / essentially a man’s kimono) for chadoh (茶道 / the tea ceremony). This was my fourth or fifth encounter with chadoh, and while I don’t pretend to know anything more than the absolute basics, I did at last find out about the whole bowl-turning thing: the chawan (茶碗 / tea bowl) has a decorative front and a plainer reverse, and the server presents the more appealing decorative side to the customer (the drinker?). The customer then rotates the chawan clockwise through 180 degrees, so that the decorative side is facing away from him or her. He or she then drinks from the plain side of the chawan – thereby keeping the decorative side pristine – before rotating it anti-clockwise though 180 degrees to its original position and handing it back to the server.

‘All we need now is some kertarner,’ said the boys as they struck samurai-style poses for the camera after the ceremony. ‘Don’t they have any kertarner we can use?’
‘What’s a kertarner?’ I asked them.
‘You know, a samurai sword!’
‘Oh, you mean a katana!’
‘Is there anywhere we can buy one?’
It was at this point that K-sensei intervened to try and persuade them that maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to try and smuggle samurai swords onto the return flight.

After another day at school, on the Friday we took a trip to the Aquaworld aquarium in Oh-arai Town, where as the first customers of the day we were granted a glimpse behind the scenes. Our guide wore a Britney mic and carried a portable loudspeaker, but even with the volume turned up, his voice was drowned out by the sound of the many pumps and water treatment gizmos above the fish tanks (whose perspex walls, incidentally, are a reassuringly sturdy 55cm thick), which made the experience rather less educational than it might have been.

After watching the dolphin show we headed for the food court, where I sat down to have lunch with a couple of the Japanese boys.
‘So, do you want an American girlfriend?’ I asked them.
‘Yes!’ came the enthusiastic reply, and I assume the Americans would have returned the compliment: after several days in each other’s company, the students finally seemed to be getting over the double-whammy of a language barrier and teenage shyness, and had more fun skimming stones and paddling in the Pacific after lunch than the penguins did at feeding time.

In the afternoon we went to a shopping cen…sorry, I mean ‘outlet mall’, which on a dull weekday was almost completely devoid of customers. Still, some of the girls managed to spot a slightly scary looking transvestite (is there any other kind of transvestite than a slightly scary looking one, I wonder?), and the boys – egged on by me, it has to be said – dared each other to go into the Triumph lingerie shop, ask one of the assistants for help, and hold up a bra-and-panties set in front of the mirror as if they wanted to try it on.

After a very long flight, several days of looking after a group of rowdy kids and several evenings spent with a teetotal host family, the other American teacher, S-sensei, was in dire need of beer, so we booked a table at a nearby izakaya for a child-free evening meal. By about 10pm, S-sensei was finishing off his sixth dai-jokki (大ジョッキ / large glass of beer), and insisted on ordering ‘One more!’ before calling it a night – much to the surprise of his hosts, he was still able to walk and talk as we made our way out to the car park.

The following evening, Mrs M and I were invited to a barbecue by T-kun’s host family, and when we arrived, the boys were having a BB gun shooting contest. T-kun managed to knock down a row of three bottles and cans in twelve seconds (it was the kind of gun you have to reload between each ‘bullet’), and just as I was remarking how only an American could handle a gun so expertly, one of the Japanese boys achieved the same feat in just seven seconds.

After dinner we grabbed some torches and headed for a nearby valley, where along a gravel track at the edge of the rice fields, a few points of greenish light were flitting back and forth in the long grass. These were hotaru (蛍 / fireflies), which for a first-timer like me were an enchanting sight, and which even Mrs M confessed to not having seen for the best part of twenty years (in a nice example of linguistic logic, the kanji for hotaru forms part of the Japanese word keikoh – 蛍光 – meaning ‘fluorescence’).

After a farewell party on the Sunday evening, the exchange students and their teachers began the long journey back to America, although not before expressing their continuing amazement at the fact that I don’t have a middle name (‘You don’t have a middle name?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘My parents didn’t give me one.’ ‘But you have to have a middle name!’ ‘What’s your middle name, then?’ ‘I’m not telling you!’ etc). As well as allowing me some time away from teaching English, it had been nice to be able to see the country through the eyes of those who are experiencing it for the first time, and reminded me of how I felt on the occasion of my first visit nearly a decade ago, when – as S-sensei described it – Japan seemed like ‘a magical place’.

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