A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Monday, January 31, 2005

The moment I dread: Toilet Time in Japan.

Toilet Humour (Warning: VULGAR)

Back in the UK, a trip to the loo was by and large a pleasant experience. A little while sitting on the porcelain throne during the daily bowel movements could only be described as a relaxing way to spend some time. A magazine, or perhaps a book, would help pass the time and it was something you might even say you looked forward too.

Whilst you may have heard tell of high tech Japanese toilets, light years ahead of our own which warm the seat, clean your bottom and then make you a cup of tea, these, unfortunately, are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, the vast majority of WCs that I encounter on a regular basis are of the stone age “squatting” variety. All the toilets in both my schools are of this type which changes going for a No. 2, from a pleasure to somewhat of an ordeal.

Gone is taking a comfy seat and relaxing whilst you let gravity run its course, instead you spend a precarious period hunched over a hole in the ground trying to maintain perfect balance, letting your thighs take the strain. This is far from relaxing; there’s no sitting around reading, you get in and out as fast a possible. The comprising position, added to the sub-zero temperatures and lack of heating makes the overall experience something I’d rather not repeat. Unfortunately, I have to. Every day.

I have also noticed a slight change in the fragrance of my deposits since I arrived. Whilst I make no claims that they formerly smelled of roses, I am fairly sure that the aromour has taken a turn for the worst. Other friends have noticed a similar change: “After dropping the kids off at the pool, I look down and think - I just don’t know you anymore”. I can only conclude a diet of raw fish and miso soup is responsible.

COMING SOON: Snowboarding Through Trees, Accidents will happen.

The Japanese Squatter Style.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Goodbye Big Brother, Hello Small Granny

Sometimes the fact that I’m a foreigner living in a small rural town with its share of small minded residents really hits home. There is no better illustration of this than an incident that occurred a couple of months ago to snowboarding buddy, Brandon. The following article is a true story; forget about Big Brother, it’s Small Granny who is watching you here.

Local Outrage in Hand Holding Incident

An English Teacher has brought disrepute to the foreign community after he was sighted holding hands with a Japanese woman only last week. The alleged incident took place at a cinema in Fukui city and has caused a shock wave throughout the community. Distraught onlookers watched in disbelieve as a western male emerged from a cinema in broad daylight whilst holding hands with an unknown Japanese female.

“It was horrible, I saw everything, first they were talking, and then he just held her hand and walked out, it all happened so fast” said one eyewitness, who was visibly shaken by the scene.

“We immediately called the police, but unfortunately the hand holder sped away in a yellow plate get away car” declared another onlooker, who was later treated for shock.

“It might be a little more understandable if this were Tokyo, but things like this just don’t happen around these parts, it’s normally such a nice neighbourhood.” commented an elderly film fan.

The investigators were soon hot on the heals of English Teacher, Brandon Wright. Twenty two year old Wright is already known to the authorities as a serial hand holder in his native country America, where hand holding is still legal. He was brought in for questioning by his superiors at his school this week but denied all charges. However, eye witness’ claim that Wright was at the scene of the crime, and since he has no alibi, he will have to face a disciplinary hearing with the Fukui Board of Education. Womaniser Wright has been sighted with a number of Japanese women over the last month, but this is the first time he has been spotted making hand to hand contact in public.

The English teaching community are still reeling in shock at the news. Many were too upset to comment but long time friend Fong Xiong had this to say: “I know Brandon is innocent - he would never hold hands with anyone, let alone a girl.”

However, neighbour Tania Gismondi was less surprised “He was kind of quiet, tended to keep himself to himself, I always thought he was the sort of guy that might hold hands with a girl”.

Local Grannies are now calling for more pressure on the government to stamp out the mixed race hand holding, and “shouldering” where the criminal puts his arm around the victims shoulder. “It’s revolting, and I won’t just stand by and let this hand holding destroy our women’s lives” said one distraught granny. “First it’s hand holding, next their pregnant; we cannot let these filthy foreign boys with their unnaturally large shlongs dilute the pure race of the Nippon”. Local grandmother vigilantes have formed a pressure group - Grannies against Gaijin (GAG), in response to this latest incident.

Mixed race holding of hands is punishable under Japanese law, and can lead to a prison sentence of up to six years, however GAG claim that it’s just not enough, and are calling for the death penalty to be reinstated for this particular crime. “It’s the only way we’re going to stop this sort of thing happening again”. They are also pushing for the legalisation of walking and cycling in the middle of the road, something which they have been actively campaigning for, for several years.

If found guilty Wright could face deportation, or even time at a hand holding correctional facility. However defence lawyers for Wright are confident that they will be able to spare him from prosecution on a handshake loophole. The case continues...

Though this article is somewhat ‘toungue and cheek’, the amusing, but alarming fact remains that an elderly Japanese lady genuinely believed that the holding of hands between a Western male and Japanese female was worthy of reporting to the Fukui Board of Education. In their defence, the incident was not taken too seriously, but Brandon was still grilled on the issue, as if he has committed a felony. So, as a foreigner in these sometimes backward parts, you have to be careful what you say and do because Small Granny is watching you.

Monday, January 24, 2005

For once somebody other than me takes a tipper. Cross country skiing on the school circuit.

Turning to the Dark Side

Yes, the rumours are true, I have finally turned to the dark side and joined the ranks of the two plank brigade. I am now a proud part time member of the school cross country skiing club. Now don’t for a minute think that I have forsaken my roots and left my board gathering dust; far from it, I have been snowboarding the last four days in a row, enjoying the delights of a tasty local dish, known as Japanese Pow Pow. However, living in an area that gets more snow in three days than England gets in a decade, I wanted to add another string to my snow cannon, and thus cross country skiing seemed like a plan.

Having only ever done it once before, I am complete beginner. I thought the transition from one plank to two would be easy, but it seemed that my six years of experience on snow counted for nothing, as my first attempts saw me falling and flailing all over the place, much to the amusement of my students. At one stage, the hilarity of my actions was so much that one of the students was actually rolling around in the snow in mirth at me.

However, after a few more attempts, I am now getting the hang of it, and I really look forward to cruising around the track after school each day. The 70 odd centimetres of snow covering the baseball field provides the perfect circuit for training; it’s certainly an excellent work out, (i.e. it’s bloody knackering) and I love being out in the snow. Depending on the conditions, I often spend an hour cross country skiing, and then hit one of the local ski areas for a night boarding session.

What with cross country skiing and snowboarding several times a week, plus plans for some backcountry hikes in March, with a possible Mount Fuji backcountry trip come spring in the pipeline, the future is bright, the future is white.

My first attempt at cross country skiing, whilst the snow continues falling.

The cross country skiing track at Kamisho School. This used to be the baseball pitch, but since being covered in a metre of snow, it's a whole new ball game. Note the school snowmobile at the bottom left.

Cross Country skiing "classical style" at Kamisho Junior High.

Taigan and Shiro the school dog watch and laugh at my cross country skiing attempts.

The kids show me how it's done; cross country skiing on the pitch formerly known as baseball.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The sun finally appears after being in hiding for three days during the snow storm. This is the school shed, which is in fact a rusting, disused train carriage.

The Snowman Cometh

At last my prayers have been answered, and the snow has finally arrived in Ono. Last week, it snowed non stop for three days, laying down about 70cm of nice fluffy snow. I don't think I've ever seen so much snow come in one sitting; even during my season in Whistler, I don't remember getting such an almighty motherlode.

My life now heavily revolves around the white stuff. If I'm not snowboarding in it, I'm driving my Suzuki wagon (complete with snow tyres) in it. If I'm not walking the school dog in it, I'm cross country skiing in it (yes - I have turned to the dark side - more about that next time). If I'm not testing out my new snow shoes in it, I'm sitting at my desk in school watching it fall. If I'm not shovelling it, I'm thinking about it, and if I'm doing none of the above, I'm probably dreaming about it.

So far I have visited 5 of the 6 local ski areas. Granted, there are all very small compared to anywhere else I have boarded in, but what they do have going for them is the amount of snow they receive. If it continues to dump like it did last week for the rest of the winter, I will die a happy man.

Last week, I went for my first night riding session and I was pleasantly surprised to find I had my own private ski area. It was absolutely dumping snow, and I was the ONLY person there. It was just me riding, and 3 lifties working the lifts. Every knee deep powder run was mine for the taking. There's a saying "no friends on a powder day" which means that when the conditions are powderous -you don't hang around waiting for lagging mates. That night, the saying took on a slightly different meaning; there I was, a total Billy-no-mates, with all the fresh lines I could ever want. There was plenty to go round, but it seemed nobody else wanted to brave the storm and join me. By the end of the evening, my first tracks had already been covered again, and I'd say it was some of the best powder riding I've had. I'm hoping that these are typical conditions for this area and that there will be more of the same to come.

Since the epic dump last week, the weather has warmed a little, and we have received nothing but sleet and rain, which has turned the once fluffy powder snow into granulated sugar snow. However it's forecast to snow all tomorrow, so hopefully I will be hitting the slopes after work for another epic night riding session tomorrow evening.

Coming soon on the all new Funky Drummer Website: More Snow Stories.

Just outside my visiting school Kamisho Junior High.

Digging Sam's car out after a big dump of snow. Sad as it may sound, I actually enjoying shovelling snow, and even look forward to doing it when I get home from school. That's true love for you.

At the bottom of a short hike at Rokuroshi ski area, to tap into some of the deep, untouched snow. There is in fact a lift here but it wasn't running. The picture below may shed some light as to why.

So you thought Japan was high tech did you? A rather antiquated one man chair lift at Rokuroshi ski area. This is perhaps the most old school lift I have ever seen, rivaled only by an antique wooden two man in Austria that had built in leg warmers. I am yet to ride this beast, as so far, every time I have visited it has been closed.

A couple of my students give me the "V"s. Having grown up with this much snow every year, many of them don't like it, and they certainly aren't in awe of it like me.

This is a Kadohara night session. Three of the ski areas around here stay open until 10pm on weekdays and 11pm on weekends. This particular night was the night where I had the whole area to myself. Talk about "no friends on a powder day".

This was the drive up to Izumi. You couldn't see the road at all, but my little Suzkui Wagon complete with snow tyres did me proud.

After a great afternoons boarding at Fukui Izumi ski area we return to the car to find it covered again. This is just three hours worth of snow.

The manicured trees covered in snow at my base school; Shotoku Junior High.

Friday, January 14, 2005

HONG KONG PART 2: Not Suitable for Vegetarians

Hong Kong is perhaps most famous for it's shopping, and rightly so. There are shops everywhere you look; from the giant clinical designer label malls, to the tiniest little market stalls where an old man sits hunched over a sewing machine tailoring, there is something for all. I found the street markets to be of the highest entertainment value; some of the fake produce was hilarious, all manner of cheap reproduction label goods were on sale; Dolce & Gabbena tie anyone? How about some GAB clothing? I bought some Buma trainers.

My favourite pastime was to wander around the street markets which were selling food. Every street market, and most of the supermarkets were in fact aquariums and mini zoos. Now, I thought the Japanese ate some minging fodder, but the Chinese easily win the "Most Minging Food Eaten" prize without question. They like their food fresh, and it get's no fresher than this. Tanks of fish, bowls of crabs, shrimps, lobsters, buckets of clams, abalone, cages full of live chickens, cages full of huge frogs, boxes of live tortoises, nets full of turtles were all to be found amongst the market stalls.

I watched in grim fascination at a live turtle having its shell hacked off; a large eel being cut in half and put on display still writhing violently. Fish plucked from a tank and being chopped into thirds and sold still quivering. Some people weren't even bothering to have their supper killed, simply selecting the fish of choice, and taking it home live in a plastic bag. Several large fish had managed to leap from their tanks, only to find themselves flapping around in the gutter, while people walked passed un-obliging. Chickens feet, (apparently a specialty) and fish heads sat on trays, goats heads, and pig's heads hung from meat hooks; everything I saw was either live, or very recently deceased. It was somewhat barbaric to watch, but this is because in Britain and most other western countries, all this slaughtering goes on behind closed doors, thus removing us from the killing and in a way falsely sanitising the meat and fish we eat.

One thing I realised I'd missed a lot whilst in rural Japan was the variety of food. Like most large cities, you can eat pretty much any food from anywhere around the world in Hong Kong. It was great to be tucking into Thai curries, Chinese Dim Sum, Singapore Noodles, even just being able to buy a decent sandwich was great, and ironically, I even discovered some new Japanese food that I liked.

As my stay drew to an end, and I waited at the airport I strangely found myself looking forward to going "home". Once onboard the plane, it felt bizarrely comforting to be back in the bubble; back to only hearing Japanese again, and not understanding 95% of what was going on. I found myself at ease being the only foreigner on the plane, as it felt normal. Yes, I was looking forward to being home again. Looking forward to being home again, that was, until I went through customs. As I rolled up to the final barrier between me and my mountainous temporary homeland, a fresh faced young customs officer sparked into life, and beckoned I walk through his isle. "Oh, it's nice to be back in a country where the people are so friendly" I thought, and continued to sail through amongst my fellow Japanese passengers. But I was soon to be harshly reminded that I am still just a lone white buoy in a sea of sushi. His deceptive welcoming smile was in fact a "I've caught myself a gaijin! I've caught myself a gaijin!" smirk.

After asking me where I'd been, where I was from, and what I had in my bag, he produced a sheet with pictures of some weed, pills, coke, a gun and some bullets, and asked whether I had any of these items in my bag. I assured him that I had none of the above, but my word was not good enough. As every other Japanese passenger on the plane strode though without even eliciting a single question from the officers, I was trundled off to the special "Investigation Room" for special investigation.

When I first walked into the room and saw a torch, I began to worry how special the investigation was going to be. However, I am thankful to say that the latex gloves never materialised. I was then again shown the pictures of the weed, pills, coke, gun and bullets, and asked again if I had any of them on my person, just in case I had managed to buy some on the way from the customs desk, to the Investigation Room. I again denied possession of any of the said items, and then sat and watched as the young customs officer eagerly went through every item in my bags. He joyfully rifled through all my belongings occasionally confirming the identity of items that he knew the English for, whilst praying that he would find some weed, pills, coke, a gun or at least a few bullets.

"Yes DVD."
"Yes CD."
"No, it's a surface to air missile, that runs on a mixture of weed, pills and coke - course it's a book."

Ironically, when it came to the only thing in my bag that might have got me in to a spot of bother, he didn't even give it a second look. You see, most effective drugs appear to be banned in Japan; simple things like Claritin (an anti-histamine drug for hay fever) is illegal. I had some of this and several other suspect medicines, but he didn't even bat an eye lid when he came across my selection of tablets.

I admit I was annoyed at this invasion of privacy, as it had been a long day and I just wanted to sleep, but I was to have the last laugh. After he was (dis)satisfied that I had no weed, pills, coke, guns or bullets, he then had the task of folding all my clothes away neatly and repacking. I am unfamiliar with the protocol a suspected drug and weapons trafficker is supposed to perform; do you help them pack away your things? I wasn't sure, so I just sat there quietly watching him, until he got to my dirty boxers, which he halved and quartered expertly. At this point I requested a photo of the two officers, dirty boxers in hand, but alas, permission was denied. So after about half an hour I was released without charge, and hit the cold streets of Nagoya, in search of the mythical capsule hotel. I eventually found what I sort, but that story will be told another time.

In all, we had a great time, and I would definitely recommend Hong Kong as somewhere you should experience at some point in your life. A big thanks goes out to Action Jackson for being an excellent tour guide, host, and financial advisor, and to the customs officers for their excellent packing skills.

This Hong Konger wasn't too happy with my paparazzi invaision. A large orange squid, chicken legs and chicken feet are on the menu today. Mcdonalds it is then.

A turtle destined for soup tries in vain to escaped its net bag. I saw one unlucky fella having its shell hacked off whilst still alive.

When it comes to food, the Chinese aren't fussy. Roast tortoise served in it's own shell anyone?

I watched the fishmongers pluck the fish from the tank, and take a knife to them. Little of the fish goes to waste as these heads prove.

Pig Heads - and trotters in the foregroud.

These brightly coloured crabs were a common sight at the street markets. Note every one has been tied up with some sort of red sea weed.

I'm not quite sure how to cook goats head. Jamie Oliver claims they go well in a quiche.

Every supermarket and street market stall had live frogs for sale.

In one area of Hong Kong called Discovery Bay, cars are banned, so everybody drives golf carts instead.

Chicken feet. Apparently a delicacy. I will try pretty much anything once, but I drew the line here.

The Chinese seem to eat pretty much every creature the roams the earth, air and sea. Here at a fish stall all manner of fish, crabs, shrimps, prawns and shelfish are on display.

Pink Point Sexual Oil. I believe "Pink Point" is Chinese for "Purple End". See below for a list of ingredients.

10% Gecko, 7% Dear Penis. With these sort of qualtiy ingredients, Pink Point is a must for all "Chinese Emperors of successive dynasties".

These cats seemed content chillin' on the counter of a Chinese medicine shop, but little did they know that they were about to become someones perscription.

Action Jackson chows down on some Chinese dumplings, and chicken in chilli at a traditional style resturant. Note his skilled use of the chopstick.

Live eels for sale in a supermarket.

The famous Peking duck was everywhere to been seen. The ducks are coated in sugar, and spices which gives them their distinctive red colouring and delicious flavour.

We saw many a caged chicken for sale on the streets of Hong Kong, though apparently since the SARS outbreak, many people are now buying frozen rather than live.

I am the eggman, goo goo g'joob.

Like father, like son. These were pretty much the only live animals I saw in Hong Kong that weren't destined for the pot. Terrapins at Victoria park.

Friday, January 07, 2005

PART 1: Hong Kong for Beginners

This Christmas holiday saw Sam and me head to Hong Kong to visit a Scotsman by the name of Action Jackson who is currently living and working there. For those of you who are geographically challenged, let me first give you an introduction to this area of the planet.

Hong Kong is an area officially belonging to China, after the British handed rule back to the Chinese in 1997 having had a 99 year lease on the territory. However, it struck me that Hong Kong is much more like a country in it’s own right, compared to say Scotland, for example, which always bangs on about how its a different country to England, when in reality there is less difference between the two compared to the difference between Hong Kong and China.

For example, Hong Kong has it’s own currency, the Hong Kong Dollar. The border between itself and China is only half open, meaning that mainland Chinese cannot cross freely, and must apply for special visas if they want to enter or work there, and there is a very multicultural feel to the place. The British influence however is still very obvious; they drive on the left (the rest of China drive on the right), they have a funky little tram system, they use British plugs, and English is widely spoken.

Despite these differences, Hong Kong is still ruled by the Chinese government, though there are constant pushes for a full democracy. Currently the area is known as a SAR (Special Administrative Region). It is highly unlikely that the Chinese will relinquish power of such as profitable area, so it will most likely stay forever under their control.

Before I touched down in Kong, I was guilty of believing that Hong Kong was just one gigantic, pulsating, metropolis city, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that HK offers much in the way of natural beauty too. Most people tend to think Hong Kong Island = Hong Kong, but in fact, the total area of HK consists of several islands, and a sizeable chunk of the China mainland called the New Territories. All are connected by frequent ferries, or by the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) a super modern, highly efficient underground system which puts the London tube to shame.

We had booked into a guesthouse smack bang in the centre of the shopping district on Hong Kong Island. Weary from our early flight from Nagoya, we eventually located the correct high rise building, and rang the bell of the owner of the guesthouse on the 15th floor. A woman beckoned us into a rather small, slightly decrepit apartment, full of cats, to wait until the manager could deal with us. I sat down and looked around at the paraphernalia surrounding me; large glass jars full of dried plants, dried mushrooms, and dried seahorses filled the shelves. It transpired that the manager was also a Chinese doctor and was busy performing acupuncture on some middle aged man. However, perhaps worried that we might take our business elsewhere, he simply slid a curtain across to hide the patient in the tiny treatment room, and took to the more pressing task at hand; lightening our wallets.

We were led to our room, walking past grotty looking flats, with a slightly uneasy feeling in our stomachs. We finally dumped our bags on the floor and collapsed on the rock hard beds in silence. It was around this time that Sam (girl) burst into tears. “It’s horrible” she sobbed. I had to admit it wasn’t quite how it looked on the website, but it was clean, cheap, and in a good location, and her tears soon dried up when she realised our close proximity to several high class shoe shops.

The first thing I noticed when we stepped out of our luxury accommodation into the street below, was the insane volume of people. Coming from little Ono, where two’s company and three’s a crowd, I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. As soon as we stepped foot outside the hotel we joined the furious rapids of people swirling past, and it was impossible to walk in a straight line for more than two seconds, as you were constantly being buffeted around by the bubbling masses. I noticed frequent adverts on the TV warning people to “stay calm in a crowd”, and it was easy to see how you could lose it, but I found it an energising experience being amongst so many, having been used to being around so few. Indeed, the city of Hong Kong is an extremely fast paced, fast living, stimulating place which made a refreshing change to the quite calm of Ono.

Action Jackson, yet another friend of ours made during our stay in Whistler Canada, lives in an area called Wan Chai. This is close to the port, and has a long history of being a red light district, which is one of the reasons that Action and his pals like the area so much. Meeting Action’s circle of friends was quite an eye opener. For starters they are all considerably older than him. He has been endearingly named “The Kid” by them, and is quickly learning the benefits of being a western male in Hong Kong. I heard tell of a weekly event nicknamed “Church” from Action’s 48 year old house mate Mario. Every Sunday the Philipino and Inodnesian housemaids of which there are many, have their day off, but they have a curfew, so must be back in their employers homes by 9pm. So, they pile into the clubs of Wan Chai at 4 o clock in the day and go crazy. It appears a western male can have his choice of ladies, for the price of an orange juice and a taxi fare, apparently something which many western males in Hong Kong seem to take advantage of.

One of the things I liked most about the city was its compactness. Due to the geographical limitations of the sea on one side and mountains on the other, the urban sprawl is confined to one area. The city is also located on a number of levels, from the sea level central zones, right up to most affluent “Peak” residential areas. Hence it is easy to escape from the mayhem and head to mountains, and deserted beaches which are only an hour or so out of the city. With Action Jackson as our tour guide, we got to see the perfect mix of hectic city life as well as escaping to the lesser know beautiful white sand beaches, blue sea bays, and the lush green mountains.

New Years eve was spent on the 15th floor of a plush apartment in the affluent “Mid Levels” area. This area can be reached by the worlds longest escalator which takes people down the mountain in the mornings and then reverses its direction in the evenings. We crashed a friend of a friend of a friend's party before heading to an ex-pat bar in town. It was good fun, and showcased the interesting mix of nationalities that Hong Kong attracts. I conversed with at least one of the following nationalities during the evenings celebrations: Scottish, English, American, Canadian, German, Mongolian, Zimbabwean, Chinese and Indian. It was apparently the coldest New Years Day in 40 years, and a frost warning was issued for certain parts of the territory. I watched with amusement TV interviews with people who had awoken early on New Years Day especially to go and bear witness to the frost. “It was awesome – I’ve never seen anything like it” one impressed man declared. Unfortunately I was feeling a touch delicate, so I missed out on the rare phenomenon.

Part 2: “Not Suitable For Vegetarians” coming soon.

The famous skyline view of Hong Kong Island from the water.

You heard.

Even at 1000m, on top of a mountain, in the middle of no where, Action continued to inform me of the virtues of starting a savings plan with his company.

Interestingly - they use bamboo for their scaffolding in Hong Kong. I thought it was interesting anyway.

The trams of Hong Kong are the coolest trams I have ever seen. Tall and thin, old and crowded, they rip along at an impressive speeds.

The Giant Buddha on Lantau Island.

A view of Hong Kong from the top.

Action crosses a rickity bridge after a tasty dish of Singapore Noodles, and a bottle of Tsing Tao beer in the New Territories.

Most things are banned in Hong Kong. My favourite banned substance was "paraphernailia".

Down at the water front, south side of Hong Kong Island.

Sam squared on a deserted beach. Probably deserted due to the fact that it was freezing my brass monkeys off.

Action's favourite area of Hong Kong.