A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Thursday, December 23, 2004

5 Months and Counting

Well, I've now been here for almost half a year, so time for some reflection on my experiences so far. Firstly, as I expected before I even set foot in Nippon, I'm loving it. Not that I was uhming and ahhing over the decision to quit my job in the first place; I was in need of a change and some more adventure and Japan has hit the spot.

Of course there are times when I get pissed off here; getting stared at all the time by old Japanese grannies, is beginning to grate. Today as I got out of my car, some old biddy, who I had previously over taken whilst she was walking on the side of the road (despite there being a perfectly good pavement available) couldn't keep her goggle eyes off me. I gave her a friendly "konichiwa" but she just looked away momentarily with disgust before locking her eyes on to the foreigner once more. This is a common occurrence here, but thankfully it seems to be only the old Japanese women that have no manners. Most other sections of the population at least reply to your greetings.

However, the very fact that my only complaint is being stared at by grannies, is a telling sign that life here is pretty good. I'm beginning to pick up a little of the lingo, and although there is a long long way to go yet, I know a lot more now than when I first arrived. I'm getting to know students and teachers better, and despite having some rowdy students, I enjoying the teaching.

There are of course a few things that I miss about England, aside from friends and family:

1. Cheese and pickle sandwiches
2. Dare I say it - good drivers and roads (oh round abouts - how I miss thee)
3. Cosy pubs, with crackling log fires and sofas.

And, there are a few other things that annoy me about Japan:

1. The drivers - it's just a matter of time before I'm involved in an accident.
2. The old grannies walking in the middle of the road and starring at you all the time. What's the matter - ain't you never seen a white boy before?
3. Houses that lack insulation, and central heating.

But, overall Japan is a great country to live in. For starters it's so safe. I don't want to tempt fate, but where I'm living, I doubt the police ever have anything to do. People leave their 4x4s running with the doors unlocked when they go into a shop. People leave their front doors unlocked all day. Completely absent are gangs of tracksuit clad Burberry skanks, with their Kappa slapper bleach blonde worm perms in tow, hanging around on every street corner.

Secondly I love living in a city surrounded by mountains. And today it snowed. I was tempted to grab my board and head up to the ski areas, but I think I'll wait until I return from Hong Kong, when the snow is deeper. Apparently it's late this year.

And thirdly apart from the grannies - I'd have to say that the Japanese are one of the most friendly, welcoming people I have come across. The people living in my area have been so kind and helpful to me. From inviting me into their houses for dinner, to giving me free Japanese lessons, to taking me fishing. Even the smallest actions make a big difference to someone who is a long way from home, and understands only a fraction of what he sees and hears.

For example the other day I was in a super market. I picked up a box of sushi and continued browsing, when I noticed I was being followed by an old Japanese man. I tried to lose him by taking a short cut through the womans underwear section, but he intercepted me in the dog food isle. "Here we go... what have I done now?" I thought to myself. The man said something in Japanese that I didn't comprehend and motioned for me to follow him. Assuming I had made some sort of cultural boo boo I followed him right back to where I got the sushi from, but it turned out that as it was the end of the day, the sushi was being reduced, so he swapped my box for one with the reduced price sticker on. This old man had noticed that my box wasn't reduced, and had gone to the trouble of chasing me half way around the super market to bring this to my attention.

Another example was when I first got here, and I was trying to find where a bus stop was. Due to immense flooding which destroyed the railway line to Ono, a special bus had been laid on to compensate for the train. I didn't have a clue where the bus stop was, and stopped to ask two girls. I spoke no Japanese and they spoke no English, but eventually I got the message across. They had no idea where the bus stop was either, but we went back and forth asking all sorts, till eventually the illusive bus stop was located, but they still wouldn't let me go until I was safely on board.

It's acts of random kindness, generosity and helpfulness that make life for a foreigner so much nicer than it might be. I have made up my mind to stay for another year. This won't come as much of a shock to most of you, as it has always been my plan to stay for at least two years, unless I really didn't like it, and that was always going to be unlikely.

So - 5 months in, the snow on it's way, the ski areas are poised to open - the next 3 months should see me making several trips to the slopes. Many people hate the winter here, as the houses are cold, driving is difficult and it's dark and miserable - but for a snow lover like me, this is exactly what I've been waiting for.

Happy Christmas.

Once you pop you can't stop. Hello Kitty "POPPUCON" vending machine.

Do the Mario. The most famous plumber in history makes an appearance on the side of a rubbish collection point.

The museum in Katsuyama. I have yet to go inside, but it's on my list.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Pros of living in Rural Japan.

Fukui is inaka. Inaka means country. Although Japan is one of the most densley populated countries in the world, you wouldn't think so from living in Fukui. I'm quite happy here; the sprawling urban metrolpolis slums are not for me; give me mountians, lakes, rivers and dog walking duty anyday. Despite being a little rural, you can still buy genuine Lee and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce at the local supermarket. With this sort of quality merchandise on my door step, I need never want for anything more.

The benifits of a rural school: dog walking duty.

A misty morning on the way to school.

This is Kamisho JHS. Home of the dog.

Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

It's Pardee time

Last weekend the ex-pat community of Fukui got together for a night of fun and frolics at Lewis' house. At least 8 nationalities were represented, if you count Scotland as a separate country. Most JETs only have a small appartment, but there are a few lucky ones that have a whole house to themselves. Lewis is one of the lucky ones. The only downside to your own personal mansion is that it get's a bit nippy come winter. A good time was had by all concerned, and even Father Christmas himself popped over from Lapland to say hello and share a beer with us. The house party had all the elements that a good house party needs; a house, a party, a glut of booze, a dancefloor in the lounge, and a chill out room in the ever popular kitchen. Thanks goes out to host Lewis for allowing us to trash his place. Same again on Christmas day?

Shoes off at the door please. It seems that there were many people at the party who minds were not harmonious (see Zen Wisdom below)

Our very own Santa

Mitch sparks up a cuban

Host Lewis and Miss Flick dancing "most inapropriately"

Ruan the South African with his hard man drink "Pink Lady"

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Matt hits Nippon.

“Good Morning everyone... today we have a special visitor in class. He is called Matt and he is from England.”

This weekend, a good friend of mine from England came to visit. I first met Matt back in Whistler, Canada, in 2000, and have been trying to shake him ever since. Despite only being in my neck of the woods for three days, we managed to pack a lot in. Amongst other things, we experienced a personal taiko drumming display, a Christmas meal, a wicked house party, a visit to one of the most famous temples in Japan and a trip to an open air Onsen (hot spring) over looking the ocean. I think Matt particularly enjoyed this part of his stay, as you have to go in naked, and he emerged claiming that he was “King Dong”. Unfortunately ladies, I am unable to back up this claim photographically, as I had left my electron microscope lens at home on that particular day. We also went to a couple of cool restaurants, where Matt fell in love with a waitress, and a cool bar in Ono where Matt fell in love with the size of the whiskey shots.

To end his stay in O-Town, I took him into school for a couple of classes. The first thing the kids said was that Matt was “cool”. It appears I have taught them nothing so far. When I questioned them as to why he was cool, they said he had a “cool face”. However, it seems that my first years are a little more street wise; when the teacher asked one girl if she liked Matt, she replied “No, I don’t”. The same class was slightly rowdier than normal, and they seem to have learnt some new English – “vomit”, “diarrhoea”, and “erotic boy” are the new IN words. One student also presented me with a detailed picture of the male tool that he had spent the entire class drawing. Cheers mate.

The posse that I have named “The Back Flip Boys” were keen to display their latest acrobatics to the NEW gaijin with the cool face, and proudly busted out multiple somersaults, flips and twists on the concrete.

Anyway, all in all, we had a great time, and it seems that Matt enjoyed his stay so much, that he is seriously considering coming back here to teach next year. All the ladies in the house, watch out – the Berkulator is coming for you. Cheers Matt – see you next year.

Matt enjoying the Yaki Niku resturant, where he fell in love with the waitress.

"Hi Kids, I'm Matt, and I'm from Liverpool"

A piece of zen wisdom that we all apprieciated at the Eheji Temple.

A Nation of Tree Lovers

Whilst Britain is known for being a nation of dog lovers, it appears Japan is a nation of tree lovers. Almost all trees in gardens and parks are manicured into a distinct Japanese style. Now that the snow is on its way, every tree, shrub, bush and hedge have been strung up, boarded over or tied up, to protect it from the weight of the impending white stuff. It seems that no tree is deemed too small for protection. I am hoping that this is a sign that the snow will be deep and crisp and even. Last week I was elated during my drive to school, as I discovered that it had snowed on the mountains, and all but the smallest peaks were covered. However, my elation was short lived as the weather has since warmed, and now all but the tallest peaks are bare. :(

Every last shrub gets it's own set of ropes.

Even hedges have to be protected from the deadly snow.

Heavy duty wig wam protection.

Wouldn't want to snap any of their ickle twigs off would we now.

Strung Up

Like the cool kids that drive their souped up cars without seat belts, I caught these rebel trees behind the bike sheds, smoking, and not wearing their ropes. All I have to say is, they won't be so cool when their branches have been torn off from a 1m dump of snow, will they? Damm punk trees.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sports Day and the Typhoon - The Spirit of Gaman

Three months ago we had school sports day. This is perhaps the most import event in the school calendar, along with culture Festival. This is the day the kids have been practicing for all summer. Day in day out, before school after school and on weekends. Everything had to be perfect; the formal opening ceremony complete with flags being hoisted, the school orchestra playing the school song, the military marching drills, and the numerous speeches by the headmaster, and school captains.

It was also the same day that a typhoon hit us. A typhoon is the Asian word for a hurricane; a cyclical weather pattern that gains its power in the ocean and when it hits land, unleashes all of mother natures fury in the form of extremely high winds and horizontal rain. I had never been in a typhoon before, and let me tell you, these winds are strong, the strongest I have ever experienced, scary winds, winds where you feel your roof is going to peel off, or your car door will be wrenched out of its hinges and sent flying into the sky.

The kids and teachers had put so much effort into the preparations; they had made huge flags, massive manga style banners, they had written songs to support their team and even composed music for the day. After all those hours, days and weeks spent practicing, and preparing for this sacred day, and having had to have rescheduled once already due to the last typhoon, there was no way they were going to let a little wind and rain spoil their day, so it went ahead regardless.

The first few events were similar to what we have back home, 100m sprint, 400m sprint, a relay. But that was pretty much it in terms of sports. The rest of the competitions were just pure Japanese craziness. A 50m sprint to a baseball bat, spin round it with you head down 10 times, down a 500ml bottle of ice cold coke, sprint another 50m. Throw Up. “Hat Battle”; grab your opponent’s hat whilst on piggy back, or my personal favourite “Tyre Wrestling”. There was a line of about 30 old car and lorry tyres, big and small. On either side of the tyres the red and blue teams were lined up. Upon the bang of the gun, they have to run to the tyres, and grab as many as they can a bring them back to their side.

As the minutes ticked by, the weather was rapidly deteriorating. We could all feel the storm building, the black clouds looming, the winds increasing in strength, and the mercury falling. Everyone kept glancing up at the ominous, moody heavens, everyone could feel it brooding. Rain began to fall in short powerful bursts. The teachers and spectators ducked into under the shelter of the tents, but for the students there was no such respite. The games continued.

The gusts of wind began to cause problems, spectators hats were being removed from heads, and the tents were in danger of being sucked into the sky and deposited somewhere in Ishikawa. It was promptly decided that one tent should be dismantled, before the wind did it for us. Still the games continued – with now all the spectators teachers and announcers cowering in the one remaining tent, desperately holding onto it to prevent lift off. Nervous smiles were exchanged, in an attempt to ignore our inevitable fate.

Another quarter of an hour passed, by which time the rain was hammering down, and the kids were drenched. I was just wondering how much longer they were going to let the punishment continue when an almighty gust of wind picked up the wooden banners with all its force and flung them across the pitch. Suddenly, it’s action stations and teachers are jumping left right and centre, attempting to baton down the hatches and prevent loose debris from become weapons of mass destruction. In winds this strong, a clip board becomes a ninja star and the humble pencil a bullet.

I rose to the occasion and heroically dived on a piece of plywood 2m by 2m and held on to it as it flinched violently as though preparing for take off. A teacher motioned that I should take it inside, which was the other side of the pitch. I wasn’t so sure that this was the greatest idea I’d ever heard, but seeing as it was my first typhoon, I thought it best to listen to the experts.

I picked it up and began to drag it across the pitch, the wind making it buoyant in my hands. I tried desperately to hold on it, but to my horror another huge gust of wind wrenched it from my grasp, and sent it hurtling into a crowd of kids - STRIKE! – it wiped them out, splitting them like pins, but still it didn’t stop there. I shouted a warning at the top of my lungs, but in vain; it flew another short distance and caught one unlucky first year right in the legs before finally coming to rest three meters up in the air, pinned to the fence by the force of the wind.

I felt terrible, but the students didn’t seem to hold too much of a grudge, and were more concerned with avoiding other shrapnel that was heading our way. All sorts of objects were flying past us at 100mph, bottles, fans, random bits of wood. Even the sand from the pitch was being fired at our bear legs, arms and eyes – we were being shot blasted alive! It was an scene of absolute fear, panic and disorder, but in true Japanese style, they refused to cease the games.

The grand finale was the “cheering competition”. All of the "disciplines", I’d seen today, I think this is the one that was viewed as the most important. Everyone had a part to play, and this is what would determine the winning tea. Each team had to perform a short cheerleading style dance piece. Here was a group of 15 year old girls and boys, waving their pom-poms around thinking they were the mutz nutz, and to be fair they were. Some of the boys were busting out back flips and somersaults all on a shitty piece of gravel/sand which was now mud, whilst the rain was pounding them, absolutely drenched, with the wind blasting them at 150mph. They were soaked to the skin, but full respect is due to them, as they carried on till the bitter end.

It was on this day that I learnt a little about the Japanese grit, determination, endurance, and spirit. What the Japanese refer to as Gaman I believe.

Rain stopped play?

Never. We’re Japanese don’t you know.

My favourite event - "The War of the Tyres"

Tug o' war.

Blue team teacher support.

The girls get dirty whilst battling for the lorry trye that will win them the game. Posted by Hello

GO RED TEAM - check out my kanji tats. Posted by Hello

The red teams flags. Posted by Hello

A fellow teacher dressed up for the occaision. Posted by Hello

One of the two impressive manga style banners made by the kids. This was taken after partial damage by the typhoon. Posted by Hello

More warring of the tyres. Posted by Hello

Linkin Park

Thanks to the help of fine English Gentlemen Lewis, I have now managed to install a "Links" section to the site. Should you ever grow tired of my words, several different prespectives of life in these parts are just a click away.

I have on offer for your viewing pleasure:

Lewis - A fellow brit, and lover of tea ceremony living in a small town called Asahi.
Brandon - My fellow mountaineer, living in the neighbouring city on Katsuyama, and written in a very enthusiastic American stlye, check it out it's FREAKIN AWESOME!!!
Laura - The fine Finn, who lives in the big smoke of Fukui City itself.

I have also installed a web counter, so I'll know how many people are checking in... and if I find out you're not bothering... there'll be trouble. Don't make me come over there.

Monday, December 06, 2004

An interesting publicaiton I stumbled on at a local bookshop. Note the dog's satisfaction as he chows down on a nice meaty house plant. Nine out of ten cats prefer geraniums.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

This time the kids have gone too far.

This time the kids have gone too far.

I walked into school today to be confronted by the strong smell of a highly flammable liquid, and the sight of twenty odd petrol canisters. "This time, the students have gone too far," I thought to myself. I know that there are a handful of slightly disruptive students at my school, but I never thought they'd go as far a dousing the place in petrol and burning it to the ground.

However, it soon became apparent that arson was not on the agenda after all (at least not that day). You see, Japanese buildings don't have insulation or central heating. To me this seems absolutely insane; in a country that is 30c+ all summer and sub-zero C all winter, why would they chose to omit such vital, yet simple elements from their structures? WHY? I am still waiting for a sensible answer on this one, but one of the excuses I have been given is that due to the frequency of destructive natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons and floods, buildings have an much shorter lifespan here, so why bother with the extra expense of insulation and central heating? Personally I don't buy it, but that's the way it is, so you have to put up with boiling hot/freezing cold interiors.

The method they use for heating their buildings is via paraffin burning stoves. Granted, they do keep the rooms warm, but this heat comes at a price, the constant smell of paraffin fumes. I wonder how safe it is to be breathing these noxious gases in all day, but nobody seems to think it might be detrimental for health, so we all just sit there and inhale.

There are several other amusing devices that the Japanese employ in the war against cold, which I will cover at a later date, but just to whet your appetite here's one of my favourites - a heated table.. I kid you not... more weapons of warmth coming soon.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Stangely insect like in her movements, a stilt walking girl was the scene that I arrived to at my first visit to an elementary school.

What is this, some sort of crazy circus school for midgets?

From an early age they are taught to use the "V" sign when ever in range of photographic equipment.

Please sir... may I have some more? In J-schools there are no dinner ladies - the kids serve each other and then eat in the class room.

Elementary My Dear Watson

I had my first visit to an Elementary (primary) school the other day. The first thing I noticed when I pulled into the car park was a lone child walking across the play area on stilts. “Odd”, I thought to myself, but continued inside. As I walked down the corridor I was confronted by a row of unicycles. “What is this place? – some sort of mad circus training school for midgets?” I said to myself.

The Japanese primary school kids are tiny. But do not make the mistake of underestimating their power in numbers. At break time, they insisted I play with them, “no problem” I thought, “I can handle a bunch of tiddlers”. However - how wrong I was. First they chased me, and for a while, I ducked and dived, dodged and weaved, completely evading capture, but like a fox being hunted by hounds, they slowly wore me down, until I could run no more. Then like a swarm of giant ants, they attacked me. I was completely overwhelmed by the little blighters but there was nothing I could do, they crawled, clung and clambered all over me, went through my pockets, grabbed by legs, pined my arms, touched my hair, pulled my shirt, at first I tried to hold them off, but there was too many of them and I was powerless to stop the relentless onslaught. I was eventually rescued by another teacher – but by then the damage had been done, and I was left a quivering wreck.

They were incredibly energetic, and the lessons were great fun, apart from when I made one girl cry. Obviously asking her to repeat the number 14, was just too much, and she broke down in tears. Apart from that I had them dancing a round the classroom to the sounds of Side Effect, and they even played me touching piece they had been practicing on their recorders.

I only have one Elementary school visit per term, which frankly, is quite enough as it will take me till next term to recover. However, some ALT’s do this everyday - rezpect is due.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Overall, I would say that Japan does not deserve it's reputation for being expensive. For example, petrol is half price, eating out is dirt cheap, and you can buy a lot of good stuff at the Y100 (50p) shops. But fruit is one area where this reputation is well deserved. This gift pack of fruit consists of nothing more than an apple, an orange, a melon, a pear and a couple of kiwis, yet costs a hefty £18. The fruits do come individually gift wrapped though.