A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Friday, September 30, 2005


The posse chill by the camp fire at the infamous watering hole, Ono, Fukui, Japan.

Apologies for the lack of recent postings - my mind has been consumed by a new project that I'm working on, more about which, next time.

In Ono, the weather has become perfect. Warm, sunny days, with cool evenings made it the ideal time for a river BBQ, down at our favourite spot. A couple of weeks ago, I rounded up a posse of gaijin and Japanese, tents were pitched, food was grilled, and a fire was lit.

Beers were drunk till the early hours, and a night dip in the river was executed. Last time, in June we were eaten alive by a particularly nasty species of biting fly that drew blood, however, the cooler temperatures this time have brought on the welcome death of such vile creatures, thus we were left to drink in peace.

A clandestine pagan ritual, Fukui, Japan.

The kids get their freak on, around the flames of the fire.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Sports Day In Japan

Don't mess with the gangster sensei, cos he'll pop a cap in your ass; sports day in a Japanese school.

After a summer of r&r, I’m now back at school teaching again. However, to ease us back into this strenuous role, the Japanese Education Board have kindly devoted the first few weeks of term to sports and culture festivals.

Last year, the sports festival was held during a tyhpoon. A typhoon is the Asian word for a hurricane, i.e. the beast named Katrina that just trashed New Orleans. To read about having a sports day during a thyphoon check the December 2004 Archives.

The irony of this is, that last week school was cancelled for an entire day due to a tyhpoon. It’s apparently fine to be out trying to run a race in 120mph winds, where you are being sand blasted alive, and you are completey sodden by the insanely heavy downpours, but to be inside the saftey of a concrete school building during such an event is a situation far too dangerous to even consider.

It’s easy to see where those crazy enduance Japanese game shows have come from when you have witnessed a school sports day, and even more so a sports day in a typhoon. There are only a couple of events that we would call sports, the rest are just bizarre battles.

Rather than try to explain these events in words, I’ll let the photos do the talking this time.

Like every other single event in Japan, sports day started and finished with a formal opening and closing ceremony. These tend to be long, drawn out, boring affairs, with lots of dull speeches. This time however, we were treated to a little pyro-mania, to spice things up.

The troops march on during the opening ceremony.

In an impressive opening ceremony, two students on the roof of the school weild the flaming torches, that were used to ignite a third torch that was attached to a wire and came shooting down lighting a large bowl of parafin. Not something you'd see at a UK sportsday.

Next, students practice warming up exercises in unison.

One of the few events that I recognised; Kamisho kids airborne. If you look very carefully, you can see one of Japan's smallest ski grounds in the background. That slither of light green between red boy and yellow boy is Moriyama Ski-jo, a small slope of about 200m serviced by a one man chairlift.

Tug o' war.

The 'feeding someone soba noodles whilst blindfolded' event has now been made an Olympic discipline.

One event taken very seriously is the 'cheerleading event'. In fact, this one part alone carries the same point weighting as all of the sporting competitions put together. The kids spend many weeks choreographing the performance for the big show down on the day, amazingly, without the prompting of teachers.

My personal favourite: War of The Tyres. The Japanese have finally solved the long running problem of what to do with old car and truck tyres. Just stick them in the middle of a baseball pitch and let the kids fight over them.

A brave warrior rolls a lorry trye to victory.

Best described as Piggy Back fighting, mounted riders battle to obtain their opponents hat or headband.

This game had the habit of turning nasty. I saw some nasty falls, and tears were shed by some of the girls.

A 'pinata' like game in which participants hurl balls at a suspended box in a bid to breach the paper underside and release the contents.

Capture the flag; the blues struggle to hold back the onslaught of the attacking yellows. First team to topple the bamboo pole, and take the flag is the victor.

Me with my red team brethen.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Road Trippin' Hokkaido: PART 3

Danny G likes his water white. Mugawa river, Hokkaido, Japan. Photo by Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures.

The third and final part of our Hokkaido road trip tale takes us back down south to the small town of Hidaka. Danny had spotted a leaflet advertising kayaking and rafting, and once the wheels were in motion, there was no stopping him.

So we left the smoking volcanoes in our wake and traveled south towards the Mugawa river. We reached Hidaka by early evening and set about locating a camp site to pitch up for the night.

After getting a few directions from the locals, we arrived in a large empty campsite, the only residents of which were a family who were staying in two log cabins. We thought it best to ask them if it were ok to stay the night, and after making a phone call, they kindly offered to show us the way to the main office to book in.

It was then, that we were to experience, as Chris P. so perfectly put it: "the very best, and the very worst of Japanese culture, in the space of five minutes". On arriving at the main campsite office, and asking for a spot for the night, we were told that we could not stay there because we hadn't booked three days in advance.

At first, I just thought we'd heard wrong. The three acre campsite was completely empty, aside from the one family. Not a single tent was present, yet we were being turned away due to a ridiculous rule? I expressed my non-comprehension of the situation.

"Zenzen wakarimasen, I don't understand at all, you have space...",

But the single word reply from the staff, in one foul swoop, summed up the stereotypical Japanese trait of strictly adhering to the set protocol.


We left the office in disbelief, pissed off, and in low spirits. It was getting dark, and we didn't know of any other campsites in the area.

But then, the flip side of Japanese culture presented itself to us. The family beckoned us over to their log cabin, and motioned to their abode. The next thing we knew, they were kicking granny and the kids out of one of their cabins, and squeezing the whole family under one roof, just to make way for a bunch of foriengers who they'd met only a few minutes before!

Once we'd realised what was going on, we had to refuse their generous offering, but the whole situation was amazing to us. Denied entry to an empty campsite due to a pedantic rule, then shown an amazing gesture of kindness, which went as far as booting out their oldest and youngest for us.

We didn't want to camp inside the site after being told we couldn't, because we feared that the family who had been so generous might get into trouble. So we ended up camping right outside the campsite gates, figuring the worst that could happen was we'd be told to move on.

The night passed without incidence, and after an early start, we were on our way to Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures for a spot of white water. HOA is headed by a friendly dread headed Ozzie, Pat, who has travelled the earth riding the rapids of unheard rivers, and scoring several first descents. He showed us footage of his last trip to Myanmar (Burma), where it took his team two weeks to hike the boats in, after the deal on a chopper fell through.

Pat has a great set up; operating out of a beautiful old school building, he has decked the place out perfectly, and offers a range of outdoor sports: bridge swinging, rock climbing, kicking, canoeing, rafting and trekking amongst others.

While Lews, and Gary chose to just sit back and chill in the most chilled out chill out room I've ever seen, Danny, Chris and I hit the swirling rapids of the Mugawa. Pat's team consists of several Burmese and Japanese rafters, and over all, it was a great ride. With a sweet set up, a beautiful location, a cool crew, and great value for money, I would highly recomend HOA to anyone who likes their water white.

All too soon our time to head back to the sweltering southern isle was upon us. We boared the ferry under the cover of darkness, pulling away from the beautiful island of Hokkaido, this time taking the slightly longer route to Tsuruga, which conveniently deposited us just 1.5 hours drive from my door.

We made a brief stop in Fukui before shooting for the bright lights of Tokyo for a few days to round off the trip. We took in several of the tourist sites that I had not seen, and much to Gary's delight, stayed in a capsule hotel.

In three weeks we'd seen and done a lot, but it was time for the Cleobury fellowship to be broken once again. We said our farewells and I melted into a throng of people walking the streets on another hot and humid day in the capital. Leaving the boys to catch their flight as I rode the train out of Tokyo back to the inaka of Fukui, an earthquake hit. "Gary and Chris will be pleased, they wanted to experience a natural disaster during their stay".

A big shout out goes to Danny G, Chris and Gary for making the trip out here. See you boys in the Mortimer.

The Road Trip crew in full. Everybody say Chizu.

Chris and I surf the rapids of the Mugawa. Photo by Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures.

Lewis explains the finer points of a Tea Ceremony to keen students Gary and Chirs, whilst on the 23 hour ferry crossing.

Chris and Lewis chow down at an Okonomiyaki resturant in Tomakomai.

The Tokyo Tower

Chris and Gary get cosy in their capsules, Shinjuku, Tokyo.

The lights of the city; Tokyo by night.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Road Trippin' Hokkaido: PART 2

Tokachidake, a smoking, active volcanoe, in the Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido, Japan.

“Does anyone else think that climbing an active volcano might not be the greatest idea ever born?”

After chilling by the cool crystal clear waters of Shikotsu-ko, for a couple of lazy days, it was time to head east, to Daisetsuzan, Hokkaido’s largest national park, situated in the centre of the island.

It was here that I laid eyes on a smouldering, active volcano for the first time ever. It was also here, where we experienced some technical difficulties with the Jeep (well, no road trip story is complete without a breakdown). The hot weather combined with the steep mountainous roads was too much for the Cherokee, and the radiator burst, sending out a plume of steam, and drenching the road in radiator fluid.

Luckily, we had Danny G on board, who was specially selected for this mission, partly due to his mechanical skills. After an hour or so with his head under the bonnet, and various trips to the public toilet for water refills, the radiator was patched up, and we were ready to roll out.

That night we camped at the foot of Tokachidake, an active volcano. I’d heard that active volcanoes existed in Japan, but I was impressed when I actually saw the smoke bellowing out of the creator, and heard the rumbles and hissing emanating from the depths of the earth.

To get a closer look at this beast, we decided upon a hike up to the peak of Tokachidake, which overlooks the fuming creator. Rising early, we quickly stocked up on snacks, (my fodder of choice being Horse Kastu) and we were soon making progress on the barren trail.

The last explosive eruption was in 1988, and its legacy is very obvious today; most of mountain is a bare, Martian landscape, devoid of flora, but displaying a unique and colourful terrain all the same.

As the mighty smoking creator loomed, billowing sulphurous toxins into the atmosphere, we saw a few patches of snow, sheltered in north facing crevices. At the summit we chilled for a while, snapped the mountain of fire and ate lunch, before making our way down. We somehow managed to miss a turn, either that, or more likely the old route no longer exists, so our route back down to earth took a little longer than expected.

However by late afternoon, we were back at the campsite and ready for a much needed onsen. Danny G, who had opted out of the climb, had spent the day sunbathing, so we regrouped and headed to the hot tub to bathe our weary limbs.

COMING SOON: In the final part of the Hokkaido Road Trip series, the crew goes white water rafting with a bunch of Burmese, before catching the long ferry ride back to Fukui, and heading to the bright lights of Tokyo.

Too much for it to take; the Jeep has a nervous breakdown in Daisetsuzan National Park.

The crew have a little 'keep ups' session, whilst camped at the bottom of the volcano.

The sun goes down at the end of another day in Hokkaido.

While everyone else is out climbing 2000m active volcanoes, the G-Ster has a more pressing task at hand; which brand of ciggies is he going to smoke today?

Tomachidake cross roads; the only way is up.

The brave mountaineers summit the beast. But where's Danny G? Oh..that's right, he's sunbathing instead.

Chris posses in front of the fuming volcano, some 2000m up in the sky at the top of Tokachidake.

They'll be coming down the mountain when they come. They'll be coming down the mountain when they come. They'll be coming down the mountain, coming down the mountain, coming down the mountain when they come. WOO HAH! - I got you all in check.

Exclusive never seen before shots of the interior of a Japanese Onsen. The boys hose down after a long day's climbing/sunbathing. This picture was later to provide a great game called "guess who's ass" by using the zoom in/ out function of the camera: