A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Pirates of the Fukuibean

Brandon the cabin boy, Lewis the navigator, Caitlin the tailor, and moi, the Captain, sit at the finish line. The large fish floating overhead have appeared all over Japan over the last month and are a celebration of "Boy's Day".

Last weekend we took part in the annual “Car Rally”. Fifteen teams descended on the south of Fukui, dressed to the 9’s in all manner of outfits, from Kill Bill characters, to gangster rappers. A set of clues and a disposable camera were given to each team, who then had around seven hours to tear around Fukui in their cars collecting points, answering the questions, taking photos, and completing the various challenges along the way. Five bonus points were awarded for each school child that appeared in photos in addition to the prime target.

All aboard the Jolly Wagon “RRRRR” our Anglo-American team set sail complete with daggers, swords, stripes and monkeys. We drove south, deciphering, snapping, and solving as we went. Full respect must be awarded to cabin boy Brandon who stripped off and ran into the high seas of Japan right up to his neck, winning us the maximum available points for the submersion challenge. Despite crossing the finishing line first, we were far from coming in number one overall, due to a few wrong answers and general lack of school children in our pictures, and we were pipped by those pesky Spice Girls (www.mamfainjapan.blogspot.com).

However, the event was a great way of seeing some beautiful parts of the Fukui that most of us had never laid eyes on, and a good time was most definitely had by all. Next year, we’re going for gold.

Appropriately, Brandon sports the Kanji tatoo "Mizu" - meaning "water". He's obvioulsy a true sea dog.

Brandon heads for the high seas of Japan.

You know I'm a sucker for a good shadow picture. The captain and his monkey about to set sail. (photo courtesy of Caitlin, to view her Japan gallery check: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/caitlin_hansen/my_photos

The landlubbin' ship mates. Jolly Roger accessories by Hansen.

The good ship "Wagon RRRRR"

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Japan's beloved Sakura - (Cherry Blossom).

I have often remarked on Japan’s love affair with concrete. Unfortunately so much of this country is covered in the stuff, as there seems to be little or no planning regulations that prevent the construction of an ill fitting blemish in an otherwise naturally or architecturally attractive area.

Spring is the season of the Sakura (cherry blossom) and is something which the Japanese are most proud of. There are cherry trees everywhere, so for a few days each spring, the blossom explodes and the parks, streets and gardens become the centre for the much anticipated annual cherry blossom viewing parties.

Although the sheer scale of certain cherry tree plantations can be impressive, I think that the Japanese get a little over excited about looking at sakura. During the hanami (literally: flower see) season, there are daily blossom reports on the news and in the papers, charting the exact percentage of blossom that has appeared on the trees, and pinpointing the best spots to see flowers that are in optimum viewing condition. During the short life of the sakura, bbq parties and picnics are held under the boughs of the trees, soon after which, the petals fall and the blossom front sweeps northwards on towards Hokkaido.

It was at the cherry blossom viewing festival in my area, whilst strolling down a sakura lined path by the river, that I stumbled upon the most garish use of concrete to date. Not content with lining every river and stream with concrete, pouring concrete down the sides of mountains and building ugly concrete high rises, I saw to my amazement that concrete had been poured inside several of the trees.

I can only assume that this was done in an effort to strengthen ailing trunks, but I found it puzzling that they would chose to pollute their beloved sakura trees, an object of so much national pride and a symbol of Japan’s beauty, with cold, hard, concrete, the archenemy of all things natural.

Tree surgeons here do it the Japanese way.

Concrete filled trunk, as seen in Kastuyama, Fukui.

Friday, April 22, 2005

A Day in the life...

The only good thing about getting up early: a misty morning view on the way to school.

I have had several enquires as to what exactly I do to support my lavish lifestyle here in Japan. Comments such as “it seems to be all dog walking and snowboarding with no working” reflects the general opinion of thefunkydrummer readers.

So, for the sake of clarity, here follows a typical working day in the life of yours truly. I “work” as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) on the JET programme – a government run initiative designed to improve Japan’s English ability and cultural understanding of foreign countries.

6:50am: Alarm goes off and I immediately hit snooze. It’s an early start for me, and my least favourite part of the day – it’s not all slacking off.

7:40am: After dragging myself out of bed, jumping in the shower, and eating a quick breakfast, I’m in my Suzuki wagon, and I’m heading into work, which will see me dodging students cycling on the wrong side of the road and cursing Japan’s inane need to have a set of traffic lights at every junction ever made.

7:55am: I screech into my parking spot, grab my bag, and sprint to the staff room. It’s normally touch and go as to whether I’ll be able to proudly shout “Ohio Gozaimasu” (good morning) to everybody, or whether I sneak in with my head lowered in shame for being late for the daily teachers meeting. Today, it was the latter.

8:30am-12:30pm: Lessons. I have two or three per day, each of which is 50 minutes long, but requires little preparation as I normally “freestyle” it. I always teach with another Japanese teacher, so my job is simply to provide real life examples of English language and culture. Games, quizzes, role plays and speaking practice is the order of the day, and apart from the occasional disruptive kids, the classes run smoothly.

12:30pm-1:15pm: Lunch time. Food is eaten at my desk in the staff room – this is the same for all teachers. Students eat their lunch at their desk in their classroom. There is no canteen or dining hall and there is no choice of food. You eat what you are given which ranges from the quite tasty, to the unusual, to the occasional down right minging.

After lunch there is about 20 minutes of free time for the students. I often go to the gym and display my football keep up skills to the kids. They love it. I encourage them to join in, but often have difficulty in explaining that the aim of the game is to keep the ball off the ground, not blast it into orbit, which is what they seem to enjoy most.

1:15-3:30 – Sometimes I have a lesson in the afternoon, sometimes I don’t. If not, I normally go for a wander outside of the school grounds if it’s not raining, and if I’m at Kamisho school, I take the dog for a walk. The rest of my free time – which mounts up to around 4 hours a day is spent emailing, surfing the net, or learning Japanese.

3:20pm –3:30pm: Cleaning time. All students must clean the school everyday. The special music comes on over the P.A. system, and out come the dusters, brushes and mops. I normally wander around the school at this time and inform students where they have “missed a bit”.

4:00pm: I can officially go home now, but I normally stay a bit longer. In winter I participate in the cross country ski club, so I stay till around 5:30.

4:45: Unless it’s winter, and I’m zipping around in the snow in the aforementioned ski club, I’m normally home by now. If the weather’s nice, I’ll go for a bike ride, if it’s winter, I’ll go snowboarding, and if it’s raining I’ll watch a DVD, listen to some tunes, or hang out with friends. I also have a Japanese lesson once a week, and sometimes play football with the local Ono team.

5:30pm-7pm: I often eat out as my kitchen is not the ideal catering center, and you can get a slap up meal for a few quid. Sushi, Curry, and Sauce Katsu (a schnitzel like cutlet) resturants are my favourites. A visit to Yasu’s (our man of the mountain’s) bar Yumeya (which literally means “Dream Shop”) is a weekly event.

11pm- By now I'm pretty knackered and ready for bed, so out comes the futon, and I catch some zzz’s, so I can do it all over again tomorrow.

If you'd like to find out about how you too could be living it up in the land of sumo, check: www.jet-uk.org

Behind the bike shed at Shotoku Junior High School.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

New Link Added

So you thought the Japanese were a shy, reserved race?

Check out international drum and bass DJ Will Spin's site, to read "Breakbeat and Enter" - a story all about how the locally famous English born DJ was attacked in his own home by an obsessed Japanese fan, only last month.


Friday, April 15, 2005

The First Japanese Backcountry Trip

All geared up and ready to roll. My dark side at the base of Kyogadake mountain, Ono, Japan.

As the snow line rapidly rises, and the days get longer and warmer, snowboarding is coming off the menu. I’m not bitter, I’ve had a superb winter, with more snow than I’ve ever experienced; basically a season of powder days. The word from the locals is that this winter was a little heavier than normal, but I’ve already got my fingers crossed that the next one will be along the same lines. I’ve now got big plans for the summer, with a road trip around Hokkaido in the pipe line, tickets to Japan’s answer to Glastonbury (Fuji Rock Festival) and a lot of kayaking on the cards.

Even though all the resorts in Fukui closed their doors almost a month ago, there’s still snow on the mountains, so now it’s just a matter of a little local knowledge to find the best spots to hike up and ride down; enter our new best friend - Yasu.

Yasu is somewhat of a local legend here in Ono. As a mountain climbing fanatic, he has conquered some of the world’s gnarliest peaks in India, China, Pakistan and Nepal. He also has extensive knowledge of the local mountains, having climbed anything worth climbing, and to top it all off he is the proprietor of a chilled out little bar, which unlike most Japanese bars, stocks an interesting range of European beers including Hoegarden, Chimay and Guinness.

Last month my American friend Brandon, Yasu and I made our first decent together on the mountain of Kyogadake. With literally over a hundred peaks to chose from, we wouldn’t know where to start without Yasu, but with his expertise and experience we were set for a good day in the Fukui backcountry. Although my Japanese is limited so say the least, as is Yasu’s English, with pera pera interpreter Brandon on hand we all get along just fine.

There was quite a contrast between us foreign devils and the local. The American and I were fully geared up to the teeth with our brand spanking new snow shoes, collapsible poles, and back packs fresh off the shelves. In stark contrast, Yasu sported a pair of the oldest, but possibly coolest snowshoes I have ever seen, made from bamboo and tied to the foot with tattered old rope. The phrase ‘all the gear and no idea’ came to mind.

After having had to cancel our first expedition due to bad weather, we were duly compensated by a glorious spring day this time. By 9am we were all kitted up and ready to commence the hike. A deceptively easy start on a snow covered logging road lead us to the base of a steep and densely wooded slope. This was tough going, and saw Brandon lose both of his ski pole baskets (the circular piece of plastic that prevents your pole from sinking) in the deep snow, and experience some snow shoe binding problems which only made his ascent even harder.

“After that first slope, I thought Yasu would never take us with him again” Brandon was quoted as saying after the trial of battling through densely packed trees and a steep pitch. I too had to wonder what was going through our mountain climbing legend’s mind as he watched Brandon slide down the slope for the third time at one particularly tricky section, losing a snow shoe in the process.

However, from here on it was all downhill. Well, in fact it was all uphill, but with the trickiest slope now in the bag, the rest of the hike was comparatively easy. We slowly marched up the gentler, more open terrain, which after around 3 hours brought us to the top of a nicely pitched slope studded with ancient broad leaf trees.

After stopping for refreshments and photos, we switched boards for snow shoes and began the descent. The snow was somewhat inconsistent; one minute you’d be on hard wind blown, the next you hit a zone of light pow. We cruised through the trees, making as many turns as we could before coming to the bottom. As with all backcountry trips, it takes a lot less time to get down than it does to get up, and the ride was over all too soon.

We left our three lone tracks on the mountainside and made the way down to our cars. Our initial fears about Yasu never wanting to climb with us again were put to rest as we set a date for our next trip. We had past our initiation test, and Yasu was satisfied that we could now handle the next level, or as the Japanese say in katakanerised English, it was time for “Leberu Upu” (level up).

Ginanpo Mountain here we come.

Yasu with the oldest old school snow shoes I've ever seen. Made from wood and attached to the foot with rope, who says you've got to shell out big bucks for titainium alloys when bamboo will do?

An easy start; the logging road took us up to a more challenging slope.

Taking a little time out for reflection.

Brandon takes a break to appreciate the fine Japanese scenery. The mountain in the distance is Arashima, the tallest in Ono. The day after we did this hike, a man died from exposure on Arashima, after hiking back up alone to recover his lost mobile phone.

Yasu on top of Kyogadake mountain.

Brandon close to the top of the first slope. My town of Ono sits in the plateau below, completely encircled by a 360 degree ring of mountains.

On the up, Brandon and Yasu march onwards under the mighty boughs of the trees.

Me on the final straight.

The payoff - Yasu carves a line through the broadleafs. Three hours of hiking for ten minutes of riding. Is it worth it? Hell Yeah.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

My old Northwaves, affectionately known as "the moon boots" by some, pictured in their new home of the museum of snowsports, Whistler, Canada.

Out with the old, in with the New

After seven long years, the time had finally come to hang up my old boarding boots. As comfortable as a well worn slipper, my Northwaves served me faithfully for over half a decade. Made from top quality Italian leather, featuring a stylish hot rod flame, and asymmetrical lacing, these puppies were the top of their game back in the day. Having sampled the snow in eight different countries spread over four continents, never giving me a single day of grief, the pair finally came to rest in their spiritual home of Whistler, Canada.

It was there I left them in the local museum of snow sports (a.k.a. my brothers house) to be admired by a younger generation, who have never beheld such quality craftsmanship or style. Though they have been replaced with a modern boot, made from state of the art synthetic materials, and symmetrical lacing, they will never be forgotten as the most comfortable pair of snowboarding boots I have ever had the pleasure of donning.

Thanks be to Northwave.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Peakaboo. Brother Pat on the top of Whislter Mountain, Canada, just off the peak chair.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Oh Canada

Greetings earthlings, this is thefunkydrummer, back with fresh tales from the great white north. That’s right, this spring holiday saw me jump on a plane and head to my old stomping ground of beautiful British Columbia, Canada.

After a night mare journey involving an overnight stay at Nagoya airport, (the pain of which was greatly eased by a friendly Zimbabwean who was in the same predicament, which lead to us drinking the night away), a less than enjoyable China Air flight, an annoying wait in Taiwan, and a road blocking mudslide to top it all off, I finally arrived in Whistler, shattered, but ready for duty.

Having called this part of the world “home” at one point in my life, it was a joy to re-visit Whistler and Vancouver, catching up with old friends and making some new ones. I stayed at my little bro’s log cabin, who is currently following in my footsteps and enjoying the care free life of a Whistler local.

Four of my former uni house mates also made the trip from the UK to hit the slopes so we had a little Bristol reunion going on. Having had the worst season of snow for some 30 odd years, we were pleasantly surprised to find it had been dumping for a couple of days prior to our arrival, and continued with much of the same for the duration of our stay, meaning the conditions were pretty good, especially for spring.

Being back in Canada made me long for the untamed wilds of forest and rock that Fukui lacks. Despite being considered as countryside by the Japanese, you are rarely more than a few minutes from some form of civilisation, be it a concrete apartment block or a cigarette vending machine.

The highlight of the trips night life was the jamming sessions at Pat’s cabin. Here we were introduced to a man with a unique talent. Going by the name of Dom, this Quebecois had the rare ability to play old Nintendo soundtracks with prefect precision on his electric piano. He welcomed requests such as “end of level boss, 4-4, Mario 3” or “Megaman bonus level”. Armed with a couple of guitars, some make shift percussion consisting of a kindling xylophone and a mini keg bongo, we jammed the night away in front of the flickering flames of the fire, fuelled by a slab of Kokanee and the occasional shot of Baja Rosa.

I could see myself living somewhere in British Columbia one day, in fact if it weren’t for the tricky visa situation, I’d probably be there now. The outdoors opportunities are vast, and the scenery exquisite. However, it’s nice to be back in Japan. The spring is most definitely here, things are warming up nicely and I can smell the balmy summer evenings heading our way,

A big thanks goes out to brother Padrica, lady friend Becky, and house mates Heather and Tobin for the great hospitality, Sammy Sam Chan (did you get my gift?), Jim the master chef for cooking up some marvellous sh*t, Krazee Chistopher Mansbridge and his wild side burns, The Bristol Boys aka Mikey, Yoda, Jonny Bongo and Benito, and Dom and Dave for their musical expertise.

Keep enjoying the BC bud.

Brother Pat takes on a triple pic-nic bench combo. Blackcomb terrain park.

An aerial view of the jam session in progress.

The French Canadian (left) Dom, who had the ability to play Nintendo game soundtacks, with hilarious consequences. His young protege (right) Jon, practices the end of level guardian music on Marioworld, level 6-4. One day, he too hopes to be able dazzle audiences with these rarely played tunes.

Krazee Chris Mansbridge sporting monster side burns. Claims to have a weapon of minor destruction, capable of launching a potato 200m.

Jonny bongo's hands a blur, as he bangs out a beat on the firewood xylophone. Mike applauds in the background.

Benito and Mike enjoy the show.

The venue for the jam sessions. Pat's House in Alpine Meadows, Whistler.

First Nation (Native North American) art at the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia.

English Bay, Vancouver. It's been four years since I was last here, but that made my return all the more sweeter.

Totem Poles in Stanley Park, Vancouver. Carved by the Haida people who live(d) on the west coast of Canada, each pole can tell a story or mark a life or death of a member of the tribe.