A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The triumphant trio at the peak of Mount Arashima - 1523m high.

About 30 minutes from the peak. Autumn is a nice time to be in the mountains in Japan as the changing leaves provide some nice eye candy.

Brandon catches his breath during one of the steeper climbs through the beech forests.

Almost at the bottom - we pass through swathes of Elephant grass. This is part of the ski area so in a couple of months I'll be boarding down this section.

A tantalising glimse of what's in store for me this winter.

More Mountain Madness

Sunday was an active day for me. Brandon, an American friend who lives in the neighboring town, Sam and I climbed the highest mountain in Ono, and one of the highest in the Prefecture - Mount Arashima. At 1523m it's higher than Ben Nevis, and it took us almost six hours to get to the top and back. The inspiration for the climb actually came from a book I came across entitled "Snow Mountain Fukui". Although all in Japanese, the book shows some tantalising photos of winter climbs in the mountains of Fukui and it got me thinking about doing some backcountry hiking and snowboarding this winter. I'm already looking into snow shoes and poles and we thought we'd scope out some potential terrain before the snows come, which won't be too long now.

The climb actually started off in the small ski area that is at the base of the mountain. The majority of the trail passes through beech forest before opening out into bamboo groves towards the summit. It was quite tough going, with some steep sections, and some slippery muddy parts too, but after about three hours we hit the peak. It was very windy and hence cold at the top, and unfortunately it was a hazy/cloudy day so there was no view, but we got chatting to some Japanese guys who gave us food and some amusing conversation.

Arashima is listed (in true Japanese style) as one of the top one hundred best mountains in Japan. Apparently some Japanese people make it their mission to conquer all 100 peaks during their life time. I've already bagged two, so just 98 to go.

The descent was tiring, and we were glad to be down after nearly 6 hours. With weary legs we headed home, which is only a 15 minute drive so I can see the peak from my apartment. We thought Arashima had potential for backcountry snowboarding, but I've have since found an account by some Japanese guys who claim it is unsuitable for off piste riding. Oh well there's plenty more mountains in Japan. I'll be back to check out the official ski area in a couple of months time.

Mushroom Magic

The day of the tentacle.

Mr Miyagi foddering out on some sushi - that's about as Japanese as it gets.

Squid on a stick

There's something fishy going on around here...

The famouns Echizen Crab

Market Mania

I tend to have “I hate Japan” moments and “I love Japan” days. The former normally occurs when I’m driving and am lost due to Japan’s crap signposting, am confronted by a bike riding granny happily peddling along the wrong side of the road, or I encounter some other driver who should be banned. Driving in Japan has made me realise that the drivers back home in Blighty are actually quite good. Even Fat Bob looks good compared to the J-Drivers and he’s had 9 crashes.

This weekend was two “I love Japan” days in a row. It was a lovely cool sunny autumn day, and I was out on my bike heading for a mountain trail. However, the bike ride was soon cut short when my suspicions became highly aroused after spotting a group of 8 people –together at the same time. Normally a sighting of four people together implies an event of some sort, so I knew that something really big must be going down in O-Town that day. Using the tracking skills picked up from Bush Tucker man whilst in Australia, I was soon sniffing out the action, hot on the heals of the local Ono-ites.

My inquisitiveness was to be rewarded. I had just stumbled on perhaps the biggest gathering of people I have yet seen in Ono. It seemed that all 40,000 of the “city’s” inhabitants had come out of hiding to attend a bustling market place featuring traders from far and wide, selling arts, crafts and delicious foods*. It occurred to me that the residents of Ono must come out of their lairs for this one weekend to purchase provisions for the hibernation period, which lasts until the market returns the following year.

Being the only white boy around I was subject to the normal goggle eyed looks and stares, but the locals are really very friendly, and were keen to chat and impart their free gifts on me. Unfortunately some of the gifts had to be later binned due to their ming factor, but it’s the thought that counts. I whiled away a couple of hours perusing the stalls selling giant crabs, fish of all shapes and sizes, mushrooms of many colours, whilst wondering why anyone would want to buy a soil encrusted root or eat an entire octopus tentacle.

As the market wound down, and the traders packed up, I headed home, satisfied that I had been part of something special, and loaded with purchases including locally made grape wine, and a miniature bamboo bow. It had been a great day, but I couldn’t help wondering if I would ever again see a gathering of such magnitude in the city that always sleeps.

*Foods may not be delicious

Thursday, October 21, 2004

What was that boy....two sumo wrestlers are beating up Mr Miayagi and karate kid is out playing pachinko?

Shiro - the dogs d@nglers.

Shiro - A Sam's best friend

Shiro - A Sam's best friend.

As far as I know, I am the only ALT (assistant language teacher) in Fukui, and possibly all of Japan lucky enough to have a school dog. Shiro (which means white) was found wandering around the school a couple of years ago. At first the teachers were going to get her put down, but the students pleaded, and Shiro was saved. She now lives in a small wooden kennel in the school grounds and is constantly being lavished with attention by many of the students.

When I feel like a breath of fresh air, I switch shoes and head for the kennel. Shiro has only three good legs. Her left hind leg was badly damaged when she was run over by a car. However, this doesn't stop her from going ABSOLUTELY MENTAL when you pick up her lead, and taking her for a walk is like being towed by a speed boat. I suspect that her leg may infact have been amputated by one of the teachers who found themselves being dragged along the ground by Shiro on a regular basis.

Before coming to Japan I was told I would have to be flexible in the work place, but I never thought that walking the dog would be one of my duties as an English teacher. Now however, it is an established part of my daily routine, and I always look forward to spending a little time out and about with Shiro even though her English is a little hard to understand (although it's better than some of my students).

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Pink sky at night.

Mountains as far as the eye can see - sunset in Ono.

The Sprawling "City" of Ono.

How Ono ever got city status will always be a mystery to me. Despite claiming to have 40,000 inhabitants, I have never seen more than 6 people together at any one time outside of school. It's a sprawling metropolis of rice. The nightlife is limited to a handful of tiny bars or the dreaded karaoke booths.

One thing Ono does have going for it though is its unique positioning. It is one of the few cities in Japan (the world?) that is completely encircled by mountains. 360 degrees of peaks can lead to some nice sunsets - these two shots are from my balcony.

When I'm next in need of some extra dope wear, I know which ill store to select.

A typical Japanese garden - this one is in the Imperial grounds in Kyoto.

The Koi Carp swarm in the garden pool. Even my mate Chris could catch a fish here.


Kyoto is a city steeped in history, temples and culture. A few weeks ago we made the 2 hour trip south to explore this attractive area. Unfortunately, we only managed to see a couple of the many temples, but we did come across a lot of cool shops. It was nice to wander the steets and take in the hustle and bustle, something which Ono, and even Fukui City sorely lacks.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Fishing in Obama - the pace of life seems slower down south.

Land of the setting sun - at the end of our hike, the sun goes down over the mountains of Obama. Just minutes later we spotted several monkeys monkeying around.

Surfs up on Mikata beach - although Fukui is not known for its surf spots, the waves are there if you know where to find them.

Mikata Beach

The North South Divide

This weekend some of the northern Fukui-ites headed down to the south of the prefecture, to check out the area, hook up with some friends and generally do some exploring. The southern area of Fukui is beautiful, - rugged coastline, lakes, forest, beaches and ocean. We saw several monkeys, loads of big birds of prey (eagles? kites?) and a lot of beer monsters. There was a good house party on the saturday night that ended with the police turning up, so we all hid. I wanted to get a photo of the police but was advised against it. No one was arrested.

We also went to the beach, watched the surfers, and played some frisbee. I hope to buy a surf board soon and try and catch a few waves myself.

Friday, October 15, 2004

What did you call my mum?

Everybody was Kung Fu fighting.

Enjoy your trip?

Karate Kids

All Japanese children are trained to be ninjas from an early age. Behind every young innocent face is a deadly warrior, competent in one of the many martial arts of Japan. Disguised as Mr Miagi, I managed to sneek into the training dojo of my school and get these photos.

Watch me wreck the mike.

WOO HAA - I got you all in check.

Karaoke - watch us wreck the mike.

Back in the UK I always hated karaoke. Listening to poor renditions of "I will survive" is not my idea of fun, and I can't sing myself so I never liked the idea of embarrassing myself infront of a smoky pub load of people.

Knowing I would have to do karaoke in Japan, was one of the things that I was least looking forward to. However, karaoke here is a far cry from "Disco Dean's Karakoe Night" down your local boozer. In Japan they do it properly. You can hire out a private karaoke booth, complete with disco lights, a huge TV, comfy sofas, and a hot line to the bar. You even get a score at the end of your number.

They also have a very extensive collection of tunes. I was amazed to come across one of my favourite tunes, so I thought I'd pay my respectz and bust out a bit of Busta.


I got you all in check

Thursday, October 14, 2004

I'm lovin' it.

I'm Lovin' It.

Sometimes, when I'm sick of rice and fish, and fish and rice, and bowls of miso soup with strange mushrooms in them, and rice, there's only one place to go.

Pachinko - bother.

Pachinko is a very popular gambling game in Japan. There are hundreds of pachinko palours all over place as it is one of the few forms of legal gambling here. The closest thing we have to pachinko are fruit machines, but at least there is some skill involved in these. I thought I'd see what all the fuss was about and spent a couple of hours at a pachinko palour with a few friends.

The first thing I noticed was the noise. Imagine standing right by a waterfall and trying to talk. The sound of a million little silver ball bearings being fired into machines and spilling out of the bottom again (if you're lucky) is deafening.

How it works:
1.You put money into a machine - which then gives you a few hundred balls.
2. You feed the balls back into the machine.
3. If you randonly get the balls in the right places, you win more balls.
4. You can then exchange the balls for gifts. And exchange the gifts for money (but you have to go off the premises to do this as it is illegal to win money).

I was dissapointed to find that the only skill involved is turning a little knob to the left or right. This alters the power at which the small silver ball bearings are fired into the machine. But that's where the skill ends. Within about 15 minutes we were bored, but pachinko is a religion for many japanese people, most often middle aged men.

It was worth checking out, but I doubt I'll return until I'm middle aged.

Pachinko - the noisiest game in the east.

Jar full of fish anyone? Note the blur of the hands as this master chef prepares the finest sushi in the land.

This poem was written by the 15 year old school captain - straight from the heart.

I beg your pardon...?

Being one of the few gaijin (foreigners) that the kids have come into contact with, I get asked some strange questions. Here are a few of the quieries the kids have had about me:

"How many girl friends do you have?"

"What colour is your under hair?"

"Do you know Dabid Backam?"

"Do they have book shops in England"

I also often get congratulated on my amazing ability to use chopsticks, and am frequently reminded how difficult Japanese is, (obviously only a true genious could learn to speak it.) Saying a simple phrase such as "good morning" is often looked upon with amazement... "how could a forienger possibly learn our impossibly difficult language... we thought it was gaijin proof."

A view of the manicured trees surrounding the playing field at Shotoku JHS.

A view from the window of Shotoku Junior High School. I spend three days a week here.

Here is Kamisho Junior High School - I spend two days a week teaching here.

Another picture of Kamisho JHS.

Back to School

After a month of dossing, it was time to start "work". My job is basically to entertain the kids during their English lessons. I teach at two junior high schools (ages 12-15) - both small rural schools with less than 200 pupils in each. However, the two schools are quite different.

At one (Kamisho) the kids are very well behaved, and their English level is high. They are motivated to learn, and there's no messing during lessons. I really enjoy teaching here, as lessons are basically fun time for all.

At the other (Shotoku) - the kids are more streetwise, but less well behaved, and there are a few rude boys in the pack. This makes my job a little more difficult, but it's still fun for the vast majority of the time. Some of the kids can do backflips and somersaults, so when I'm bored, I hunt them down, and make them perform for me. My predecesor didn't like this school much, but so far, it's going well for me. I have made friends with the Principal and Vice Principal and we recently went on a fishing trip together, which I'll tell you about another time.

At both schools the teachers are friendly, although most of them don't speak much English ( not in school anyway) so conversations are generally short lived. However, during office parties (enkais) which are an important part of teacher life, after the asahi, sake, and shochu start flowing, English suddenly seems to appear from nowhere, and the teachers are keen to chat.

Both schools are set in beautiful surroundings; mountains, trees, and rice paddys everwhere, and both have koi carp pools. At kamisho there is even a school dog, so in times of boredom I head to the kennel and take Shiro (white) for a stroll.

I normally teach two or three classes per day, and always with another japense teacher, so it's normally quite fun. It's true that the Japanese work hard - I come in at 8 and leave around 4. They come in no later than 7:45 and wont leave till 6 or 7, or sometimes even 10 or 11! The kids also stay after lessons for "club activities" such as baseball, taiko drumming or brass band, and have to come to school on Saturday for this too, so don't have much free time.

My work load is perfect. There is enough to keep me busy, what with making Harry Potter work sheets, or designing new £1 notes for the Royal Bank of Baldwin, but there is always time to surf the net, go for a wander, or learn some kanji.

Although I know it's early days, so far, so good.

When it rains, these little tree frogs scale the walls. They are tiny - about the size of a little matchbox. My next door neighbour used to allow one to live in her bathroom. She even gave him a name - Edward. One day she had a new sofa delivered, and when the delivery men left, she discovered that poor Edward had been squashed. Sad but true. My thoughts go out to Edwards friends and family.

Here is a view from my balcony, you can just make out Ono Castle on the top of the smallest mountain.

Here is my appartment block. I'm on the middle floor, second column from the left. It's not a work of art but the views aren't bad.

2.5 months in Japan

Welcome to my blog. Over the coming months, I am going to try and post pictures and thoughts here, so that you can pop in at any time and check out what I've been up two. It saves the whole group email business, which nobody likes anyway.

As the title suggests, I've now been in the land of the rising sun for 2 and a half months... so its time for a little relfection me thinks.

First off, arriving in Tokyo - it's just like in the films, a city of neon hustle and bustle, sky scapers as far as the eye can see, hot, humid and packed with people. Making friends with people you're never going to see again, exchanging email address' in vain. Conferences all day, hitting the streets of shinjuku at night. Karoke booths, bars, electronic shops and vending machines everywhere. Everybody is jetlagged, but the excitement of being in JAPAN keeps you going. That and the caffienated, nicotinated "harder than redbull " genki drinks available in the numerous vending machines.

Then, before you know it, bus load by bus load, you are wisked away to your little corner of the country which will be your home for the next year or so. A couple more days in another smaller hotel in your respective prefectural captial, and then you're finally shipped to your appartment by your English speaking (if you're lucky) supervisor.

After a week of being surrounded by hundreds of English speakers, you're suddenly all alone in your new appartment with no phone, no Japanese, and no mates. This is when it dawns on you that things might be a little trickier than you thought.

Next comes the highs and lows of everyday life. You don't have to start school for a month, so you've got time to settle in, check out your surroundings etc. This was a period of great amusement, as well as extreme frustration. For example, trying to do a simple thing like calling home from a pay phone turned into a 2 day mission. Finding the correct combination of phone card and phone box was not easy, and I came close to vandalising several phones.

On the flipside - the novelty of wandering round a supermarket is great! Just feasting your eyes on all the strange unidentifiable products, wondering what the hell they are, and realising that there really are a lot of different fish in the sea.

Some things get a little easier, with a phrase book as your new best friend, you go about your daily life with difficulty, and a lot slower than normal. Many things you'll never understand. Reading a magazine ain't gonna happen - but you can always look at the pictures.

Anyway - I will update this now and again, and put up any intresting photos for you perusal.


Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Conquering Mount Doom

Mt Fuji, Japan, August 2004

We’d all heard the horror stories from those brave souls who came before us. The gruelling climb, the horrific queues, the altitude sickness, the biting icy winds, the death risk from falling rocks and the extortionate prices. An ancient Japanese saying reads: “A wise man climbs Fuji-San once, a fool climbs it twice”.

Every single account of Fuji I have read describes the terrible hardship endured, the terrible pain, and the terrible suffering. It seems that there is yet to be a single person who enjoyed the experience and I was lead to believe that perhaps modifying the ancient saying to “Only a fool climbs Fuji-San” might be more appropriate. So, here’s a turn up for the books; against all odds, I actually had fun on Fuji.

After an 8 hour bus trip from Fukui City, the twenty odd group arrived at station 5 of Fuji Mountain. The crew were in high sprits, full of excitement, pumped up and raring to go. A quick stop at the base shop ensured everybody had loaded up on the obligatory snacks, drinks, gloves, hiking sticks (complete with annoying jingly bells), and some even stocked up on oxygen canisters.

By 10pm, we were all set and the groups began to move out. The mass of JETs quickly became fractioned into small climbing parties, and prearranged groups soon became separated in the darkness. I lost my climbing team early on and found myself walking alone for a while, then spotted a couple up ahead and powered on to join them.

Unbeknown to me, I had just sealed my fate; I had inadvertently just joined two super fit female JET athletes, who were training for a half marathon and were taking no prisoners. My plans for a leisurely cruise were put to pot, I was now involved in a mountaineering mission. They were going for a record breaking time and it looked like I was going with them, well let’s be honest, I couldn’t let two girls beat me to the top, could I now?

So, up we went, full speed ahead. Switch back after switch back, no time for breaks, no waiting in lines, our freshly formed trio powered up the paths, scrambled up rock faces, and criss-crossed through the queues of Japanese (equipped with their 60 litre rucksacks and their climbing ski poles), who seemed content to wait in line. We went off road, we went on road, we took back roads, high roads and low roads…anything, as long as we didn’t stop moving.

You can tell how high you are on Fuji not just by the degree of altitude sickness, but by the price of the drinks. They start off at 200Yen, and by the summit, they have risen to 500Yen. By the time we reached roughly the 350Yen mark, the crowds had thinned, and apart from the odd couple huddled in the shadows, we had a free reign of the mountain.

At the 400Yen mark I could feel the air thinning, and as my steps became more laboured, I wondered to myself whether I would be able to hack the pace for much longer. I was feeling a tad light headed, as if I might just suddenly topple backwards and tumble all the way back down Fuji. The glare of resting climbers’ head torches (who had the annoying habit of shining their million watt beams straight into your eyeballs) mixed with the pitch black darkness was inducing strange tracer like hallucinations. My sweat soaked back was rapidly cooling down as the wind began to pick up, but we weren’t stopping now. “Gambatte, gambatte”, I kept on saying to myself, and endured on.

The clear skies revealed the stars in full view above us and the glimmering lights of the city below. After around three hours, we were sure we were making good time and guessed it couldn’t be more than another couple of hours to the top.

We came to what we thought was the next rest station, and the wind was really howling. We agreed it would be a good place to stop for a minute or two, eat a snack and put on gloves. As we sat there contemplating what was yet to be climbed, it dawned on us that there didn’t appear to be much more of the mountain left. In fact, there didn’t appear to be anything left to ascend at all. Could this possibly be it? No, surely not. Slightly perplexed, we accosted a Japanese duo, with Japanese along these lines:

“Top desu ka”.
“Hai, so desu yo!”

They must have misunderstood, surely this can’t be top. By all accounts we should have at least another hour to go. After a further ten minutes of exploring our surroundings, repeating the question and throwing in a bit of sign language, we finally became convinced. We were at the peak, we’d done it, this was it, and all in a total time of 3 hours 34 minutes. Ok, so on the one hand reaching the summit was a bit of an anticlimax, but on the other hand, at that precise moment in time, we were the highest gaijin in Japan.

Now this would have been all fine and dandy, but now we had a slight problem on our hands. We hadn’t expected to reach the summit so early, and were now faced with a 3 hour wait for sunrise. Unfortunately for us, the lodges were all closed so there was no cover; we were cooling down fast since we’d stopped moving and the biting icy wind was whipping over us penetrating our clothing and stealing our precious body warmth.

It would have been a shame to perish from frostbite and hypothermia after such a good climb, so we sought shelter against the back of a small stone building that smelled of urine. The three of us sat tightly huddled together, sharing what little body heat we had left, shuddering intermittently whilst watching the minutes tick away ever so slowly. The only others to be seen were a handful of Japanese lurking in the shadows sleeping under silver space blankets.

It was a moment of silent triumph, it was a moment of bonding and it was a moment of uncontrollable shivering. The team ichi-ban trio were at the top, and even though we were freezing our arses off and wishing we’d brought silver space blankets too, at least it was mutual suffering. At the end of the day, we had done it. Team Ichi-ban Trio:1 Fuji san:0

Approximately half an hour later, the next group of JETs peaked, and like us, had difficulty believing that they were at the top. It didn’t take much to get them to join the huddle and soon there were seven of us shivering. After about an hour and a half of the huddle, just as our core body temperatures were falling below critical levels, the food huts opened, and we piled in for some warmth and the best bowl of miso you’ve ever tasted in your life.

By sunrise, the crowds had built up, and as the first rays of light struck the peak, hundreds of hands reached for cameras and clicked away. By 5am, it was light, and I was freezing and looking forward to getting moving again. After getting my stick branded just to prove I really had made it, we began the descent. As the darkness faded away, we could finally see what we had been walking on; a Martian like landscape of red and ochre earth, rock and rubble, devoid of all life, shrouded in cloud and mist. The descent was fairly uneventful; we snaked down the paths made from deep volcanic pumice, which when added to tired legs was a recipe for wipe outs. I saw several people go down, but thanks to my bell adorned hiking stick I was spared the embarrassment.

Two and a half hours later, back at base camp as the weary climbers rolled in there was a range of emotions on display; tears of joy to finally be off that god forsaken mountain of hell and misery, rage at having to wait in the horrendous queues, bitterness at having been tricked into doing it in the first place, and just quiet satisfaction at having conquered the beast. A couple of injured parties braved the descent without assistance from the Fuji horses, having sustained twisted ankles and wounds from falling rocks. Another unlucky group took a wrong turn on the way down and ended up in another prefecture, costing them a pretty penny in taxi fares. However, one by one we slowly regrouped, swapped climbing stories, ate yaki soba for breakfast and dozed in the warm morning sun.

At around 12 noon all twenty-odd mountaineers had been accounted for, and we boarded the bus. The return journey was considerably more sedate than the outgoing one, with most people enjoying a well earned kip after promising themselves never ever to return to Fuji again.

However, thanks to my small team of fitness freaks (without whom there’s no way I would have been driven on at such a pace) we avoided the crowds and were able to enjoy the mountain itself. Call me a fool, but I would even go as far to say that I might climb Fuji San a second time….but maybe not for a while.

The triumphant team "Ichi Ban" back at base camp.

A hazy view from the top

"The Huddle" - losing body heat at the summit