A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Friday, March 18, 2005

Encapsulated under deep snow, the camera had little chance of surviving the 8 weeks of burial. At least I can now finally seek closure to what have been some hard times.

Lost and Found

You may remember back in February's issue I brought you the sad tale of my digital camera being lost to the snow. Well after a season of living entombed off piste, it reappeared in the spring melt and has finally managed to find its way back to me.

It pains me to say that its soul has gone to digital heaven where batteries are ever lasting, memory cards never get full and there are all the beautiful shots a camera could ever hope to capture.

The damage sustained was severe: a pronounced dent in the casing, multiple fractures of the screen and heavy internal injuries. The autopsy report confirmed the cause of death to be a substancial impact to the body inflicted with a sharp instrument, most likely caused by a skier running over it, followed by hypothermia and finally drowning.

However, it was carrying a donor card, and some of the internal organs can be used to save other cameras; its leather case was salvageable and the battery and memory card seem ok so its death was not completely in vain. In fact even after being buried in the snow for the season there were a few photos still on the card that can now unlock the secrets of the past, like a woolly mammoth that gets spat out of a glacier thousands of years after death.

Although the loss hit me hard, at least now I can seek closure to this distressing episode and I can finally move on. With time, I hope to be able to find the same fulfilling relationship with my new camera that I so cherished with my old one. R.I.P.

I will be out of the country for the next couple of weeks, so there will be nothing new on thefunkydrummer for a while, but rest assured, when I return there’ll be some treats in store.

A fractured screen was just one of the multiple injuries that my camera sustained during the horrific 8 week odeal that eventually lead to its death.

It's strangely apt that from my buried camera should come a picture of my buried car. I sometimes had difficulty finding my Suzuki in the snow, so my camera stood little chance of being rescued.

Relics of the past; this is what houses used to look like many weeks ago. The photo was found on a memory card that had spent an entire few weeks buried under deep snow.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A graduate is hurled into the air by his fellow students; Graduation Day for the third years.

Graduation: The Final Countdown

Today I attended the Graduation Ceremony in honour of the parting third year students. The ceremony was typical of what I’ve come to expect from formal Japanese events, i.e. a hell of a lot of bowing to each other, lots of boring speeches, and military marching with military precision. In fact last week I attended some of the “graduation ceremony practices” where bowing in perfect unison was being rehearsed to perfection.

It was a touching experience to witness the third years as they marched up to the stage to collect their certificate from the principal, knowing this was the final day of their junior high school lives. For many of the students and teachers the moment was too much to bare, and they became overwhelmed with sadness. This wasn’t helped by the choice of music that accompanied the scene. Instead of a “Hooray! We’ve just graduated and we’re moving on to bigger and better things” kind of sound track, the music teacher played the most heart rendering, tear inducing, poignant piano solo you could imagine, which was guaranteed to turn on the water works in even some of the baddest boys of the year.

However, the tears of sorrow were soon to dry up as the ceremony took on a more mundane mid section, with so many bows and speeches I was surprised they didn’t start crying again from boredom.

The grand finale saw everybody sing another rather sad song, which set many of them off again, (I have to admit it did tug at the heart strings somewhat) before marching out, heads bowed in sorrow, accompanied to the applause of the school. Then we all ate special graduation miso soup, and everybody was happy again.

The Graduation gift of choice was a mobile phone. Junior high students are forbidden by their school to own such a device, so it is seen as an important coming of age present here. They proudly showed off their flash new devices, swapped numbers and took photos of each other, before collecting their things, and walking out of the school for the last time ever.

School will be a lot quieter for a while.

The third years march in to the gym for the last time.

The students take turns to march to the stage and collect their certificates, accompanied by the soundtrack of tear jerking piano chords, which was enough to make even the bad boys weep.

The special graduation miso soup soon turned all the frowns upside down. Here, three smiling third years display their macho pink graduation flowers along with their bowls of joy.

The third year girls pose for a final photo. Note the girls on the far left and right are opting for the standard "up yours" finger positioning, whilst those in the center are using the more progressive "scissor style" display of peace.

Behind the scences - around six hours of rehersal goes into the making the one hour Graduation Ceremnony perfect on the day. Here, all 200 students practice bowing in unison, for the seventeenth time.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Osaka Eye. A giant ferris wheel similar to the London Eye that allows you to view to the city from the sky.

Urban Jungle

The picture below is fairly typical of what a big Japanese city looks like. Not exactly eye candy is it? With no parks, green areas, or barely even a tree, Osaka city sprawls out as far as the eye can see. If they could flatten the mountains and build on them, they probably would. As much as I like a hustle and bustle of the city, I happy to be living somewhere that is encriceld by mountains, rather than concrete.

In other news, just when the snow shovels had been put into summer hibernation, the winter makes one last stand. Everybody thought that spring was here to stay, and several of the low altitude ski areas have already closed. But I am now happily eating my somewhat premature words claiming that the last of the big snow dumps had been and gone. There’s currently about 40cm of fresh on the ground, and it’s still coming down strong. This means spring conditions are out, and powder is back on the menu, for a few days at least.

The dense concrete of Osaka city. With not a park in sight, they'd flatten the mountains and build on them if they could.

In comparison to the urban jungle above, this is the view from my balcony, taken this morning after the heavens opened once more and blessed us yet again with heavy snow.

A selection of the Fukui Crew; an Aussie, a Finn, and five Brits. Can you guess who's from where?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

No Tattoos. An anti-tattoo sign as seen outside an Onsen (Hot Spring) in Osaka.

Taboo Tattoo

In the western world brandishing a tattoo is merely another way of self decoration. People from all walks own body art, from skinhead renegades to high school girls. Though they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, a tattoo says little about your personality or background, other than you like tattoos.

In Japan, having ink under your flesh broadcasts a different message. Over the last couple of hundred years, tattoos have come to symbolise mafia. The Japanese mafia (Yakuza) which have become the subject of many films and books, are famous for having extremely colourful and intricate artwork on their backs and limbs, and until fairly recently, tattoos were the exclusive property of these mafia criminals.

The Yakuza seem to have a prominent place in Japanese society, and I have even been warmed by my teaching colleagues about the dangers of crossing paths with these violent gangsters. Famous for organised, and often very brutal crime, the Yakuza are feared and hated by the majority of law abiding citizens.

In a move by the general public to show their distaste for the Yakuza ways, many hot springs, (onsens) and even gyms, do not allow those with ink to enter the premises. Unfortunately for the many tattooed westerners and the increasing numbers of young tattooed Japanese with no mafia connections what so ever, this means they too are not welcome.

To make the point very clear, many proprietors of onsens, display “No Tattoos” signs outside. Of course, it’s the criminal rather than the tattoo that they are really objecting to, but in Japan, the two go hand in hand. Though it is quite possible to get away with it, I personally know several westerners who have been kicked out of gyms and onsens for bearing tattoos.

Only in Japan could such blatant discrimination be made, but the fact remains that, at least in the eyes of the older generation, having a tattoo = being a criminal.

Got Ink? Get Lost.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

One of several beautiful jellyfish seen at Osaka aqaurium.

Creatures of the Deep

During a recent visit to Osaka, we went to the aquarium. It's main claim to fame was the possesion of a Whale Shark - the biggest species of fish on earth. However, the one they had must have been a baby, as it wasn't particulary huge. My favourite part was the jellyfish section. Beautiful but deadly, they floated around their tanks, in a sea of ultramarine blue, many with brightly coloured or illumintated tentacles trailing in their wake.

Floating in a sea of blue, these brightly coloured jellyfish were hypnotic to behold.

Look but don't touch, the venom from this jellyfish can kill a shrew.

Beautifully intricate, this jellyfish illuminates its tendrils to attract prey.

More jellyfish.

A silver swirl of sardines.

RoboCrab: a giant ocean floor dwelling spider crab. When extended it's arms span over 1 meter each.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The snowball effect: the last of the big dumps at a Kadohara ski area night session.

Winter's Winding Down

Although there is still snow on the ground, the winter is finally ebbing away, making way for warmer weather. The occaisional flurry of snow still falls, but the last of the big dumps has already come and gone. Slowly the rice paddies are reappearing from their white winter blankets, and the snow is retreating from the quiet streets of Ono.

This has meant a sad end to my cross country skiing exploits. Despite there still being several inches covering the pitch, baseball training has already recommenced and the school snow mobile has been laid to rest in its summer home, where it will remain till next winter. Although I was still getting lapped by 13 year old girls, I felt I had progressed to a reasonable level and next winter I plan to give those first years a run for their money.

However, up in the mountains, it is a different story. The snowline is at a healthy level, and the resorts are still recieving small top ups. This can only mean one thing: spring skiing. The sun is out and the snow is soft. What better way to while away the increasingly lengthening evenings and graduallly warming weekends than cutting up sugar snow, and riding the off piste corn.

A long awaited trip into the unknown with our Japanese backcountry guide is planned for next weekend, but this weekend we're off to the famous city of Osaka for some hustle and bustle.

Variety is the spice of life.

Slightly off piste at my local resort; for maximum time on the slopes, night riding is the way to go in Japan.

It's unlikely I'll being seeing scenes like this again until next year. This advanced plough cuts up snow at the front with combine harvester style blades, and then spits it out onto the riceless rice paddies. It makes me laugh to think that just a tiny fraction of the snow seen here would cause England to shut down.

Despite the baseball field still being covered in several inches of snow - the cross country season has just ended, and the baseball team will soon be reclaiming their rightful territory.

The award winning short story that took the girls team to victory.

Flattery Will Win You The Game

During a story making game students took turns to add a sentence to the blackboard. The topic was "fun". This offering may not be the greatest story every written, but due to the excellent choice of subject, it swept the floor and took the girls team to victory. Flattery does get you some where.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Sleeping on the job, an exhausted teacher catches forty in the staff room at school.

A Nation of Kip Artists

I have never before come across such a sleep deprived nation of people. My standard classroom greeting; “Hello everybody, how are you today?” is, everyday, without fail, met with “I’m tired”.

Kids frequently sleep through class without reprimand from teachers, and teachers sleeping at their desks is deemed perfectly acceptable. I admit I’m thankful that I wasn’t raised in Japan. It’s no wonder the kids and teachers are sleeping on the job considering the hours they put in. Starting at 7:45 in the morning, students are in school till around 5:45 in the evening. The long ten hour day, which lacks any substantial breaks, combined with compulsory after school clubs and hefty piles of homework ensure the kids sleeping hours are kept to a minimum.

It seems this is simply the training for a future life of little shut eye. Working hours are longer here, and for many, Sunday is their only day off, which is often spent just catching up on missed zzzs. Teachers at my schools rarely leave before 6:30pm and often stay till 8 or 9, if there’s a job to be done, and teachers who are lumbered with sports club duties may not have a single weekend off for several months.

However, from my observations the long hours aren’t always necessary, and despite being renowned as a highly efficient country, it often seems that the emphasis is placed on looking busy, rather than just getting a job done and going home. The working culture here dictates that leaving early is “letting the team down” – and even if you’ve completed all your work for the day, you are required to sit and shuffle papers, or tidy your desk, anything which could go under the guise of working.

When social pressures force the Japanese from their Sunday naps to go out and make the most of their one day off, the results are often just a re-location of the slumber zone. I’ve seen people dozing in ski resorts, temples, and shops, anywhere they can get their head down for a bit of shut eye. Again, it seems that the reporting of “what I did at the weekend” to your colleagues back at work on Monday, ranks higher in importance than the actual enjoyment of the event itself.

However, I’m not complaining. If they want to drive all the way from Osaka to Ski Jam, (3 hours) and pay for a lift ticket, just so they can sleep in the mountain restaurant in order to claim they went skiing at the weekend, let them.

It’s all the more snow for me.

Catching forty winks at Ski Jam ski resort.