Thrown in the Deep End (With Eels) - My First Time in Japan, and On TV (Part II)
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Thrown in the Deep End (With Eels) - My First Time in Japan, and On TV (Part II)

By Hannah Kentridge (MissHanake) for The J-Pop Exchange

This is the second chapter of a two-part series. You can read the first part here.

Sitting in the back of the people carrier, on my way to our first mystery filming location in Miyazaki, I strained my ears trying to follow the quick Japanese conversation happening between Jamie, my Australian tour guide, and the cameraman and producers. Although I had been learning Japanese for years, I’d never been so immersed in the language, and it was really showing me what I needed to work on. It was easy enough to express my own thoughts, and I could understand people quite well when they were addressing me directly. But the night before, at dinner, I discovered that following a conversation between native speakers is a whole other issue. I could hardly focus on my yummy lettuce and prawn sushi roll, as I darted my eyes around like I was watching a tennis match. I must have looked bonkers, glaring at the face of whoever was speaking, trying to absorb as much information as possible. Sometimes somebody would suddenly say something to me and I would be taken by surprise, or not even notice that they were talking to me. I think the Japanese-speaking version of myself can come across as a bit of a ditz or a daydreamer when I fail to concentrate on more than one thing at once like that.

I have always found it weird how your personality can change when you speak a different language. Some of my favourite things about my English-speaking self are that I’m a feminist, outspoken about the things that matter to me, and (I’d like to think) fairly intelligent. But, Japanese-speaking Hannah is polite (even to men!), air-headed, almost cutesy. I get hesitant to speak out about my opinions for fear of being misinterpreted, and sometimes end up playing into native speakers’ perception of me as a bit of a “ditz”.

During my time in Miyazaki I had to create yet another switch in my brain, a “TV-Hannah” and a “not-TV-Hannah.” In the morning on my first full day of filming in Miyazaki, in my hotel room I was feeling like I was maybe going to be sick. (I don’t think my tummy was used to Japan yet.) But, the producer came and brought me medicine, and told me to come downstairs in an hour. She liked the way I’d shoved my hair in a bun and told me to leave it like that for filming. A lot of people were depending on me to be bright and chirpy, so I had to try my best to leave “feeling sick” behind, with not-TV-Hannah.

We got in the minivan and drove to a supermarket that only stocked locally sourced products from Miyazaki. Jamie led me around the shop, chatting excitedly about the cheap prices and special products. I didn’t quite understand the value of yen yet, so the prices were a little bit lost on me, but I joined in, shouting “Wow it’s so cheap! This looks delicious!” I’d never even been in a normal Japanese supermarket before, so I kept getting distracted. I was interested in a lot of things that seemed pretty normal to someone who’d lived in Japan for a while, but were still weird and new to me. There was a mountain of loose, teeny-tiny dried fish that I couldn’t stop staring at. For some reason, I really wanted to shove my entire hand into it.

We headed towards the back of the supermarket, and suddenly Jamie started clapping and chanting: “MAGURO! MAGURO! MAGURO!” I thought… “Tuna? Why’s he chanting the word ‘tuna’?” but ended up clapping and chanting as well. When we turned the corner we were greeted by, of course, an enormous, 45kg whole tuna fish laid out on a table. And a sashimi guy to chop it up for us! (Or at least some of it.) There was also a crowd of people there to watch! I ate the freshest, tastiest tuna sashimi I’d ever had, and smiled and waved, greeting the audience as though they had any idea who I was. I even got to hold somebody’s cute chubby baby. It was so overwhelming and fun that I forgot I’d been feeling unwell, and seeing the way people reacted so positively to Jamie’s bubbly personality made it much easier to keep up with his energy.

We hopped back into the car and headed to our next location. A beautiful ryokan (Japanese style inn), with a huge water wheel outside it and, once you enter the main gate, koi ponds either side of a little wooden bridge. I was shown around the room I would be staying in, huge with tatami floors, a living room, double bedroom and my own private hot spring bath. I was fed a luxurious million-course dinner, including some famous Miyazaki beef, and an entire little ayu fish on a stick, whose head I bravely bit off whole after being urged to by Jamie. (They never used this footage in the actual show, such a shame!)

After dinner, while they filmed some close-up food shots I had been snoozing on my giant bed in the yukata they’d prepared for me. Then I was woken up by a knock on the door. It was time for me to get in the hot springs bath and film my steamy onsen scene. I had been prepared for this in the email I’d received before I flew to Japan. What I had NOT been prepared for, however, was that I would be presented with a minuscule, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, flesh-coloured bikini. I had to try not to laugh as I explained that there was no way I could squeeze myself into something as tiny as that. Luckily I had packed my own, me-sized swimsuit that I changed into. I had to wrap a towel around myself and tuck in the swimsuit straps so it looked like I was just in the towel, and then got into the hot spring bath. It was pretty strange trying to enjoy a relaxing bath with two cameramen in there with me, telling me, “Look happy, put water on your arms and shoulders, face this way.”

The next day we went to a beautiful shrine by the sea, called Udo Jingū. We looked around the caves, and made wishes by throwing little clay balls into a ring. (I got mine in the ring twice!) When we had a look at the different omamori (charms for good luck or protection) that were for sale, Jamie suggested I buy a “romance” charm so I can “get a nice boyfriend”. Bit awkward. I had realised earlier that nobody on the staff seemed to realise I’m gay. A few times crew members had asked me if I had a boyfriend, or what my type was, or what I thought of Japanese men. I didn’t really feel like explaining myself, so I would usually come up with something like, “I’m too busy studying for men.” There’s another discrepancy between TV-Hannah and not-TV-Hannah.

Our next stop was what looked to me like a bunch of big, grey, warehouses. As soon as we arrived I was mic’d up, and Jamie and I strolled down a path toward the warehouses. He asked me, “Do you like unagi?” I couldn’t quite remember what unagi was. Something to do with sushi…? We turned the corner, and we were faced with a noisy, hot, giant pool full of thousands of wiggling eels. Ah. Unagi meant eels.

I was content enough to stand there trying to spot the eels from a distance, but then we were led to another part of the eel farm. A giant open tank, again full of eels, but also full of tanned guys in blue overalls, waist deep in the water, collecting the eels in a basket and putting them in a special chute so that only the ones big enough to sell can get through. I squealed excitedly as the eels squiggled down the chute, I’d never seen anything like it. The man guiding us turned to us and said, “We’re nearly finished over here, so do you guys want to get in and give it a go? We have overalls for you!” I was thrilled. Jamie was not.

The blue plastic overalls had boots attached to them, so even waist-deep in eel water I wouldn’t get wet. I was feeling brave, so I was the first to side-step along the edge of the tank and slowly drop myself in. It felt like there were more eels than there was water in the tank. I screamed as they wiggled all around me and I tried to avoid stepping on the ones at the bottom. Jamie, meanwhile, was having a crisis, dancing about on the edge of the pool. “Can I go home?! Do I have to? Can I just put one toe in?!”, he was shouting. After much deliberation, he finally, reluctantly, slid in to join me and the eels.

The eel farmer who was in there with us taught us how to pick up the eels and send them down the chute. Eels are, unsurprisingly, pretty slippery so it was quite a challenge to grab them with our bare hands. Jamie got bitten by a feisty one, and I managed to pick a very squirmy eel up from the basket, but then lost my grip and dropped him over my shoulder back into the water. “Sorry!” I said, not entirely sure whether I was apologising to the eel-farmer or the eel.

My earlier desire to stick my hand in a pile of dried fish had truly been satisfied by sticking my whole body into a tank of eels instead. Once you got used to the wiggling, it actually felt almost nice, like a weird full body massage. I was having a great time, laughing with the crew, making fun of Jamie and getting fully acquainted with my new eel friends. Maybe to be a good TV personality you just have to be having enough fun to forget about the cameras and be yourself.

By the time we were filming at my last location, a beach with amazing rock formations on an island called Aoshima, I was feeling confident and positive, fuelled by what a great experience I’d had travelling around Miyazaki and working with an amazing crew. Filming my last goodbye to Jamie, I pretended to run off into the distance, waving frantically. I’d had a great time getting to be “TV-Hannah” for a week.


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