A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Monday, November 29, 2004

In Japan it's all about the bling bling. It's very much a cash based society here, I am yet to use a card to pay for a single item, and I've bought a car. This means that everybody carries around huge bundles of cash. Back home I would never carry more than £50 for fear of getting mugged, but here, having £500 in your wallet is prefectly normal. It's taken a while to get used to, but now I too enjoy the delights of having a phat wad of cash in my back burner at all times. Each one of these notes is Y10,000, and is called a "man". This little collection is worth about £400.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The famous Echiznen Crab. First you turn it upside down, and eat all the eggs in its egg sack. Then you open it up like a tin, and devour the brain, and internal organs. Then you go to work on the legs and pincers. Wasn't too keen on the eggs, but the rest was ok.

In a old school sushi resturant this black belt sushi samurai whips up some sashimi.

These crayfish are about 25cm long with their pincers, and every last piece met the same fate as the river crabs.

Everybody loves the great taste of whole crabs.

Salted River Crab - a local delicacy.

Revenge for nipping my toe in a rock pool, many years ago in Weston Super Mare.

The hardcore - all that's left of the first party. No mater how long I stay in Japan - I vow never to starting doing the "V" sign in photos.

The Enkai

An enkai is the Japanese word for a party. I think the term can be used to refer to any type of social gathering, but I come across it most frequently when being invited to work parties.

Japanese teachers do have to work long hours; a ten hour day seems standard, but they sometimes stretch to 12 during busy periods. Whether they actually get more work done than their lazy 8 hour day western counterparts is another matter, and will be discussed at a later date. To compensate for their sacrifices, they reward themselves by having frequent enkais. These normally take place after extra effort has been put in to work life, for example after sports day, after culture festival, or after a school evaluation by “The Board”.

An enkai is certainly an important element of the school life, as it is deemed very important to have good relationships with your co-workers. It is also a mutually exclusive event – no husbands, wives, friends or family allowed. One of the best things about them for me is that I get to go to restaurants that I otherwise would not be able to visit, because they are normally traditional Japanese style with no menus, where you eat in your own private room, so you have to know what you’re doing.

There is always a quick speech given by a teacher to congratulate everybody on their hard work, and then a quick “campai” (cheers) and the party is started. Getting very drunk at enkais is very much encouraged, and in fact it appears to be part of the school rules. This is one of the few times when teachers can talk freely without the restrictions and hierarchy of school life.

One way they ensure that a drunken state is achieved is by never letting your glass get empty. However, it is a faux pas to fill your own glass; bottles of beer and sake are placed on the table and it is your duty to ensure that your neighbours glass is always full. I personally think that this responsibility is taken a bit too seriously. Many times I have taken a sip from my full glass, thereby reducing the volume of liquid by appoximately one cubic centimeter, only to be instantly pounced upon by my co-worker replacing the vital lost fluids and thus refilling my glass to its former full glory.

The most unusual food I have tried thus far has been at enkais. Whole river crabs, shell, legs, claws, crunch it up, - all down the hatch. Whole crayfish, antenna and all - the same way. Echizen Spider crab eggs, brain, and insides. All manner of sushi and sashimi (sliced raw fish) platters, cow intestines, pig intestines, boiled fish heads, deep fried stone loach (a tiny river fish) and a spectrum of mushrooms and vegetables.

It is also at enkais that it becomes apparent that my co workers can speak more English than they let on. Though alcohol is classed as a depressant, it seems to stimulate the linguistical lobes of the brain and aids the lines of communication. It works both ways though, with me trying to speak Japanese as much as they are speaking English. Enkais seem to grease the wheels of social interaction – I have been invited on fishing trips, skiing trips, even wake boarding trips at enkais, and whilst I know the booze has had its part to play in the invitation, at the same time I’m sure they are genuine offers.

The so called “first party” is normally 2-3 hours of continuous feasting and drinking. Everybody shares several dishes which are constantly being renewed. I love this aspect of Japanese dining as it makes for a much more interesting and social meal, rather than every man for himself. As the first party winds down, its time to round up the troops and head to the next location for the “second party”. After such as huge feast, it only seems logical to head out for... well, another huge feast, what else?

So normally about half of the original group (usually minus the women) head to the next restaurant to continue feasting. I have been to enkais where we have visited no less than 3 restaurants in a night. Thankfully only one of my enkais has resulted in karaoke so far – where I was forced to sing a number of Beatles songs, (unfortunately no Busta Rhymes available). Bars are less common over here, so to continue drinking till the early hours, restaurants are generally the way the Japanese seem to go.

I always enjoy enkais, as they are a great way to get to know my co-workers better, a great place to practice Japanese, and just generally good fun, but the sad thing is that no matter how well you got on the night before, it always seems to be back to the slightly rigid “we can’t/don’t want to/ really speak English” (whilst reeking of booze) the morning after. Oh well – you just got to party like it’s the samurai era while you can.

Friday, November 19, 2004

No Running, No Bombing, No Petting, No Chewing Gum, No Shouting, No Eating. It didn't say No Fishing.

The mass of trout doing lengths.

Izumi Village Fish Fest.

Fresh from the pool - nothing tastes better than a chlorinated trout.

More Fishing Fun

When it comes to bizarre Japanese fishing practices, I thought I’d seen it all when I went on a fishing trip with my school principal a couple of months ago. I mean, what could be stranger than buying a barrel of fish, pouring them into a river, and then fishing them out again?

Well, that question was answered for me a couple of weeks ago at a local autumn fair, in a neighbouring village called Izumi. Here, they went one step further.... Want to do some fishing, but got no river to put your fish in? No problem! Just stick them in the local swimming pool instead!

I watched in amazement as men, woman and children whipped out trout upon trout from the deep end and then proudly took their catch to a giant BBQ for cooking. I’m sorry to report that the fish were not obeying normal pool rules; I saw a couple of teenage trout heavy petting in the corner, but it was ok because the lifeguard didn’t spot them.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

As you have seen from previous posts, vending machines here come in many guises. However, this one I believe, is the holy grail. Like a fly to an ultraviolet trap, it draws you in with its ultracool lighting. The only choice you have is: big or small?

I have never been a big computer game fan; the last game I completed was "Repton around the world in 40 screens" for the BBC basic. However, this is my kind of game. What you're looking at is a Taiko Drumming game. Just pick up the sticks and bang a long to the beats. I'm missing my kit, so when I feel the need to paradiddle, I hit the arcade and get my fix of flams.

Another shot of the temple in Katsuyama.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The sun setting over the mountains as I drive back home, after a hard days "work".

A fishing game at a local fair, where the youngsters attempt to catch gold fish with a net and if successful, get to keep them.

The pogoda and daibuchi temple, which homes the biggest buddha in Japan, or so it's said. This is in the neigbouring town of Katsuyama, about 15 minutes drive from Ono.

A lovely traditional Japanese house, nestled right next to a forested mountain.

Masks seen at a local fair in Ono. Some of the popular characters include "Atom Boy" -Japan's equivalent of Mickey Mouse (thanks Lewis), "Anpanman" - a super hero with a bread roll for a head, a robotic cat named "Doraemon", and of course good old "Thomas the Tank Engine".

There are at least two Nuclear Power Stations in the Fukui county, and the fall out radiation can affect hair pigmentation. I spotted this young lad in an Ono street called Terramachi - meaning Temple Town, so named as it is lined with temples and shrines.

Scattered everywhere and anywhere, temples and shrines are a common sight in Japan. This one is in the outskirts of Ono.

This is a scence close to my school. When I feel like a walk, I just up and go, and occaisionally I take my camera with me. My schools are in rural areas, largely surrounded by rice paddies and mountains.

Locals Scenes for Local People

Ono, like all Japanese settlements that I have seen so far, seems to be a mix of ugly concrete, and beautiful traditional buildings. There doesn't seem to be any planning regulations here, and as a result, there appears to be nothing to stop people building a monstousity in a street of otherwise attractive arcitecture. Here are some scenes of the more interesting and eye pleasing views of Ono and surrounding areas. These are local scenes, for local people.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Another Day, another mountain climbed. This sign marks the beginning of the trail. In the distance you can see a section of the Great Wall of Japan. Strangely, this landmark is not well known, even in Ono, as it is normally overshadowed by Japans big brother, China.

Same Trio, different mountain. This time we conquered the peak of Mount Ginampo. Here we are 1441m up in the sky, again higher than Ben Nevis. The climb took only about 3.5 hours up and down. The primary objective of the mission was to gather intelligence on the mountains terrain, and evaluate its backcountry snowboarding potential. We were tipped off that Ginampo mountain has some nice bowls - so we will return in a few months when it's nice and white and go exploring. Mission Accomplished.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The Japanese Black Bear in its natual habitat, a lush forested mountain side. Unfortunatley this picture is not the best as I had to use my full zoom to snap it, but you can make out the mama bear, and just above it a smaller bear, most likey it's offspring.

Bear All

This weekend we were lucky enough to see not just one, but two Japanese black bears. Praise must be given to the young American lady Caitlin "Hawk Eye" Hansen, who spotted the beasts feeding in dense undergrowth, on the opposite side of a river that we were driving alongside, in the eastern region of Ono.

We were able to observe the bears, which have been recently terrorising the residents of Ono, for about five minutes before they moved under the cover of trees. Although the national press plays down the Ono Bear Crisis (OBC), and has reported that only a handful of bears have been captured and killed, I have exlusive information that suggests otherwise.

An inside source who works closely with the bear patrol unit of Ono City says she is only too familiar with the bear problem. The source, who has asked to remain nameless for fear of reprisal attacks from relatives of the incarcerated bears, had this to say: "About 40 Bears have been captured this year, half of which have been slain, but the authorities try to keep it quiet".

Few Japanese people ever see the bears in the wild as they usually stay away from urban areas. However this year, unusual weather patterns have lead to the bears' normal source of food being depleted, hence they have been forced out of the mountainous regions and closer to the city in search of fodder. The presence of the bears within the city limits has brought terror to the people of Ono and there have been several attacks on humans, resulting in at least one death.

I can now exclusively report that the Japanese eat bear meat; a source close to the bear hunting industry (which is legal during the open season) says it can be bought in mountainous areas, although a member of the bear eating community said that "it smells a bit funny". Bear gall bladder is also a revered medicine for stomach complaints, and is available in most pharmacies, although the price is so high that many people use alternative remedies.

It remains to be seen whether the bears will strike again, but the residents of Ono are hoping for an early winter this year, which will send the bears into hibernation until spring.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Who needs shops when you've got vending machines?

Vend it like Beckham.

Pink cigarrettes for ladys, blue for men; it's the law.

With huge doses of caffiene, vitamins, and nicotine, most of the nation are hooked on these "harder than redbull" genki drinks. Including me.

Don't put all your eggs in one vending machine.

Underage drinking is not a problem in Japan despite alcohol being freely available on the steets. In this picure, it seems that the brewery has come up with a novel way of increasing sales to minors; simply pretend that beer is a soft drink. This "soft drinks" machine actually contains six vareities of beer.

The world famous Beer Vending machine - this one also sells Sake.

Vend it this way, BOY!

In Britain, it is said that you are never more than 10 meters away from a rat. I have no way or knowing if this is true, but I can tell you that in Japan you are never more than 50 meters from a vending machine. Even in the most remote villages, you still find them, luring you in with their flashing lights and hypnotic music. Some even have loyalty cards -in fact I only need another 11 points and I will be able to get a free bottle of green tea from my local.

The vast majority of vending machines here sell drinks. Coke, ice coffee, and green tea are the most commonly found beverages, and of course there are beer vending machines too, although they are less common. There are also many cigarette machines here, and they even have cigarettes for men, and cigarettes for women - denoted by the colour of the pack. Machines selling snacks or chocolate are very rare. However, I have stumbled upon an egg vending machine.

The Japanese vending machines are high quality pieces of equipment. I have never been short changed, never lost my money, and my drink has never got stuck half way down. Amazingly, there doesn't seem to be any problem with kids buying cigarette's and alcohol from the machines. Although the machines are just sitting there on the streets, the kids seem to just happily obey the legal age limits, and don't indulge - obviously something that would never happen in blighty.

Anyway - I need to whet my whistle, so I'm off to vend it like Beckham. Mustn't forget my loyalty card now.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Can't see the wood for the trees... the view from the dinning table.

Beautiful Rocation

The principal stalking his quarry

"They taste so much better when you've caught them yourself"

It's fishing Jim, but not as we know it.

A couple of months ago I was invited by the principal of my school to go fishing with him. As I used to be quite a fisherman myself, we had already discussed fishing in Japan; trips had been mentioned drunkenly, but I never really expected anything to come of it. In Japanese schools there is a rigid hierarchy in the workplace, so when the trip came to fruition, I felt honoured to have been invited. However, it wasn’t fishing as we know it.

I rolled up at 8:02am on the Saturday morning at the designated meeting point, to find that all three of the other members where already waiting. The Japanese are extremely punctual, so when they say 8:00am they mean it. Feeling slightly guilty for being so late, I made my apologies and we were on our way.

We set off toward the river, going from major road to minor road to narrow lane, to dirt track. As the width of the road decreased, the beauty of the scenery increased. We wound up a small mountain path that eventually opened out at a little hut. I stepped out of the car, to be surrounded by lush mountain forests shrouded in wisps of mist and a beautiful crystal clear river rushing down the mountainside. I was quick to agree with the principal that this was indeed a “beautiful rocation”.

The principal went to speak with the man who owned the fishing there, and we were soon walking up to the river to commence the hunt for the mighty trout that were said to inhabit these waters. By moving some of the rocks and boulders, the short stretch of river had been divided into a series of deep pools. I chose a pool, took the rod provided by the principal, and with a salmon egg for bait, I was soon attempting to lure the trout from their lairs.

My principal, was quick to strike, and had soon pulled out several small rainbow trout from the pool he was fishing in. Unfortunately, I wasn’t having so much luck in my pool, but unbeknown to me, my “luck” was about to change. The owner of the fishery came trudging up to the bank, bearing a large barrel. He then proceeded to pour the contents of the barrel into the pool I was fishing in. The barrel contained in the region of twenty five small rainbow trout.

I then realised how this was working; the fish man breeds rainbow trout. You pay the fish man for a barrel of fish, which he then deposits into your pool. You then proceed to catch the fish he has just put into your pool. This was not partially challenging. The trout have no where to go, and are most likely starved before being put into the pool hence they tend to go for your bait without much hesitation.

After about an hour – I was a little bored of hooking trout – but my principal insisted I catch all twenty five trout that had been put into the pool – after all, he had paid for them.
At around midday, we took our haul of trout, (the biggest of which can’t have been more than 20cm), gutted them, salted them, skewered them and cooked them over a fire. We then ate them Japanese style, i.e. eat everything apart from the head. Fins, bones, and most of the spine go straight down the hatch. I was a little reluctant at first, but they we actually pretty tasty.

It was a very pleasant experience to be sitting there in a forest, munching down broiled trout, with my senior colleagues; the generosity shown to me by my workmates has been much appreciated, and has made me feel very welcome in Japan. I think the principal made the perfect end to the day when he announced to me that: “they taste so much better when you’ve caught them yourself”.

As easy a shooting fish in a barrel?

Not half.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Pilsbury Dough Boys making bread.

The legendary Shogo bopping the butter.

Behold - from the same artist who brought you the poem "beautiful women", Shogo Yamada's latest creation. Microphone - or something else?... You decide.

School Tripin'

Last week I was invited on the school trip. We went to an exhibition of a famous Japanese artist – Hauksai, who’s work you all will have seen – (that famous scene of the massive waves crashing onto little boats in a tempestuous Japanese sea). We also went to a history museum which was good, but the highlight of the day was the bread making centre.

Calling it bread making was a little grand – we were really just dough shaping – having been provided with balls of ready made dough. We were shown how to make various animal shaped bread, and all the students proceed to produce cats, dogs, hedgehogs and a variety of other creatures. All the students, except one that is - Shogo Yamada. Shogo is the school captain. His English is good and he is academically a sound student as well as being a proficient sportsman. But, he is also a 15 year old boy with raging hormones.

Shogo’s bread creation reflects this. When suspicious staff members questioned Shogo as to the identity of his bread, he claimed it was a microphone. I wasn’t convinced.

Next we made butter. This consisted of shaking a small tub of milk/cream very hard for about ten minutes. Shogo and his posse couldn’t resist the connotations of this action, and proceeded to make the most of it. Watching a bunch of 15 year old boys bopping the butter was too much for me to take and I was reduced to hysterics for a good quarter of an hour afterwards. On the return journey Shogo had a query he wanted to clear up, so he asked me the following question: “have you ever play sex?”

In my eyes Shogo is already a legendary character, and I look forward to seeing what he can come up with next.

Here Model Matilda Gore is sporting what every fashion concious Vampire will be wearing this season.

Lewis Scissor Hands. Unfortunatley for Lewis, the white face paint was somewhat more permanent than he was lead to beleive. We had an important event the following day - meeting our Japanese host families for the first time. Lewis also forgot to bring any spare trousers with him so ended up having to wear Mr Scissor hands' pair complete with braces whilst still looking like he had a rare skin disorder. Lewis you are a legend. I feel for your host family though.

The primate proved to be very popular with the ladies, who were feeling my monkey left right and center. Yo ho ho.

The pick of the litter.

PRRRRRRRRRRR.....all the ladies in the house say kitty kat.


Although not celebrated by the Japanese, there are enough Americans around to ensure that Halloween is a big event here. In America, you can dress up as anything, it doesn't have to be associated with ghost and goulies. Here are a few snaps of the party we went to - at which a good time was has by all.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The J-Boy Racer's weapon of choice.

Bad to the Bone

J-Boy Racers

So Mr XR3i – you think it’s cool to black out your rear window do you?... well no J-Rude Boy worth his soy sauce would be seen dead with a rear window to black out.

So Mr Townie you’ve got a three inch exhaust pipe I see..? Just the one then..? The minimum legal number of exhaust pipes for a qualified J-boy racer is four, but the cool kids sport at least eight.

Here in the land of sushi and sumos, the boy racers soup up their wheels in style. Forget that pussy little ford fiesta with lowered wheels, a Kenwood sticker and a wide bore exhaust - the J-rude boys could teach UK Garys a thing or two about car customisation.

Think wings that could fly, think whale fins, and think multiple tail lights. Think a sound system powerful enough to play Glastonbury, and an aerial that could broadcast to the nation. With a massive rude value, these J-Boys make UK boy racers look like Reliant Robin driving grannys.

Bad boy vehicles like this are not an uncommon sight here, and although I think parking could prove to be tricky, my next car may well be something along these lines.

Watch this space...more bad ass motors coming your way soon.