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Chu-hai and Cherry Blossoms

April 11th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Togane Lake

A “hanami” is a cherry-blossom viewing festival, a very popular activity during the cherry-blossom season, which lasts for different durations in different parts of Japan but is usually about one month long. The cherries only started blossoming last week, but they were in full bloom by the time of the hanami on Sunday.

I never received my school schedule in the mail from Interac, so all I knew on Sunday was that I had to attend the school’s opening ceremony the next morning. I didn’t know if I’d then have to stay the rest of the day or even do any lessons, but I was pretty resolved not to drink. It wasn’t until text messages from other ALTs informed me to bring drinks that I realized this was going to be that kind of event, so I ended up bringing four tall cans of chu-hai (a sweet alcoholic fruit-flavored beverage which is less expensive and less fattening than beer, but often with a higher alcohol content).

Before leaving for Tokyo the day before, I rang the doorbell of the new Interac ALT for Togane, Kim, and asked her if she knew about the hanami and if she wanted to go. She said yes, so I rang her again on Sunday when I was ready to go. Kim is practically fresh-off-the-plane, having just come from the big Interac training session in Narita, and she’d invited another ALT from training who now lives in nearby Sanmu, so the three of us walked to Togane Lake together while I told them about the area, about teaching Japanese students, and about all the things they learned at training that aren’t exactly true. It felt very weird to suddenly be the experienced one. Up until now I’ve been the new guy in nearly every situation.

There were already a ton of people at Togane Lake when we arrived at 3:00. After taking my first pictures I immediately spotted some of my students and said hello, and felt some more apprehension about drinking at this event. I’ve never had to encounter students in that state before, and there were guaranteed to be many of them here.

Lake entrance.  Along the path.

Japanese loveliness.

We walked around to the back of the lake, taking in the gorgeous and quintessentially Japanese scenery, until we spotted the two giant tarps on the grass swarming with fellow gaijin. Ben was there and immediately gave us a warm greeting, launching straight into introductions with the two new ALTs I’d brought. There were a few other familiar faces, but a whole bunch of people I’d never met before. Pretty much all of them had some kind of alcoholic beverage in their hand, so I went ahead and opened one up myself. They didn’t seem to have any qualms about greeting their students with booze-in-hand when they walked by, so I figured I shouldn’t either.

The gaijin tarps.

I chatted with a few people I haven’t seen in awhile and met a few others. Atsushi, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, was one of the few Japanese people there to mingle with us, but it was nice to have a few Japanese faces among us. Most of us were American, and most of the Americans were from Wisconsin, as apparently Wisconsin and Chiba are “sister-states” and there’s a special program for Wisconsinites to come here and teach English. Kim is Canadian, and as far as I know the only one among us.

One of the first people I ended up in a conversation with is Dan, from the infamous night of Ben’s Christmas Party when he took Diana from me without realizing I’d been interested in her. I naturally hated him at the time but he clearly felt bad about it and even apologized in a Facebook message after-the-fact. We didn’t bring her up at all, but by astounding coincidence she just happened to walk by us right when we were talking, chatting some other foreigner’s ear off. She didn’t seem to notice us and he didn’t notice her, so I didn’t say anything.

What we did talk about was the teachers our schools would be exchanging. His school was getting S-Sensei in exchange for K-sensei, whom Dan told me is a really great guy who loves to chat in English and is really easy to get along with. Apparently they’ve even hung out outside of work. But he also said, “With him you’ll hardly have to do any work,” which made me nervous because having a teacher who does everything himself and leaving nothing to me is exactly what I’ve been fearing most about the replacements. But if he’s as nice a guy as Dan says, I can probably just ask him point-blank to give me more lesson-planning responsibilities.

After a little while, Kim and I decided to take a walk around the rest of the lake and check out the rest of the festival. As we walked I kept passing groups of students and saying hello, eventually no longer even thinking about the chu-hai in my hand. A few of the students’ eyes widened when they saw me with Kim and they asked me if she was my girlfriend, but I laughed and told them in Japanese that she isn’t—she’s just a new ALT. Kim thought it was funny how in Japan, if a guy and a girl are walking alone together it must mean they’re in a relationship. But she was also very excited to see how enthusiastic some of the students can get when spotting their teacher. She’s obviously looking forward to it, and indeed it is one of the best things about this job.

In fact, it turned out to be one of the best things about the festival. Back at the gaijin tarps as I continued to drink and chat with other ALTs about everything from where we’ve lived to places we’ve traveled to our impressions of Japan and so on, students would constantly be walking by and they all smiled and said hello. That doesn’t even happen at school, where the presence of their English teacher is nothing unusual and therefore calls for no acknowledgment. But seeing me outside of the school environment, in my street-clothes, drinking chu-hai, was quite a novelty for them. Some groups would call me over and challenge me to remember their names, which was really difficult having not seen them for a few weeks but I turned out to be a pretty good guesser and they all got a kick out of watching me struggle.

Of course the best part was seeing some of the recently graduated third-graders again. It’s been weeks since they graduated and I got all sad and melancholy about the idea that I’d never see them again, but since then I’ve been seeing them everywhere. The Spring Concert, the farewell ceremony, out jogging or riding my bike, in the supermarket—they’re all over the place.

The one group of recent graduates who were the most amused to see me was the “bad kid” group, Japanese middle-school version of “hoodlums” I guess you could say. They weren’t really bad, just the kind who didn’t care about school and would frequently disrespect teachers (though never me). The fourth time I spotted that group, one of the boys came up and put a chu-hai in my hand. I didn’t understand what was happening at first but one of the other ALTs explained he was giving it to me. I don’t know how he got it, but I thanked him and took it. At that point I was on my third and pretty buzzed, so if there was anything unethical about that I wasn’t concerned. He’s not my student anymore anyway.

Jack's back! I also got to see Jack and Lily again. They’re now back from visiting Jack’s parents in Boston and Lily’s parents from France are now here visiting her. I walked around the festival with them once and got caught up. Jack actually has some sort of job with Interac now, not as a teacher but something else I’m not too clear on. He was actually at the Narita training session, so he’d already met Kim before I did.

As dusk was setting, everyone was told to leave the grassy area and move to one end of the lake from where we could view the fireworks. I spent so much time trying to get good fireworks pictures that I forgot to enjoy the fireworks. The pictures I’m posting here are just a few of the many dozens I took, a waste of camera memory space.

The crowd just starting to assemble. Boom.

Fizzle. Ooh! Aah!

During the fireworks I also somehow managed to finish the chu-hai my former students had given me, which pushed me past that fine line between buzzed and drunk. That made the next part a ridiculously bizarre experience, as with everyone all bunched together I was bumping into students left and right, and my super-enthusiastic hellos must have been highly amusing to all of them. I’m pretty sure a bunch of students had heard I was there and were deliberately coming up to say hello, perhaps just for the fun of seeing me drunk.

I probably shouldn’t have felt too apprehensive about that in the first place. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. All the other ALTs were drunk and greeting students too. I found out later that getting drunk is expected at a hanami, just like it is at an enkai. I’ve interacted with teachers while drunk, and now students as well. No harm, really. All I did was say hello and try to remember their names.

One of about 20 pictures I don't remember taking. Ben invited us all back to his place for an after-party, and at that point I was extremely merry and just wanted the fun to continue, so while I really should have just gone home, eaten something, and drank tons of water before going to bed at a decent hour, I went to Ben’s place, drank my last chu-hai, and got embarrassingly drunk to the point where it wasn’t until the following afternoon that I was able to remember some of the things I did. Thank god my students didn’t see me in that state. I’m embarrassed enough that other drunken ALTs saw me that way too, but after apologizing to Ben through Facebook the next day he assured me it was okay, everyone was pretty sloppy at that point and his memory is pretty hazy too, but that getting sloshed is perfectly appropriate for a hanami.

Eventually I did stumble home and go to sleep, though I have no idea when. All I know is that the sleep I got wasn’t nearly enough. The alcohol would not wear off completely until the following afternoon. And of course, the following morning just happened to be the first day of the school-year.

To be continued…

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