A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

It's Cleaning Time

Start 'em young; a 6 year old student practicing the ancient Japnese art of Soji - or cleaning.

I recently realised that I’ve been in Japan for almost a year and a half, yet I’ve never documented the phenomenon of “Soji” or cleaning. Everyday, at around 3:30, all students spend about 15 minutes cleaning the school. There are no professional cleaners in Japanese schools, and students are always surprised and jealous to hear that students in most other countries don’t have to clean their place of study.

However, I think soji is quite a good idea, as it instils a sense of responsibility for your tidying up after yourself at an early age. Though I’m not sure about kindergartens, I can tell you that from primary (elementary) school age and up, all students participate in this daily ritual, until they leave high school at the age of 18.

In my school, the trigger for soji is a certain song that comes blasting out over the P.A system, marking the time for students to collect at their allocated area, (any where from the classrooms to the corridors), grab a broom, mop or duster, and get to work. Amusingly, at my school the cleaning time music is none other than the Village People’s Y.M.C.A.

The downside to soji is the often dubious quality of work that the students produce. The key to soji seems to be making sure that you look like you’re cleaning, whilst actually performing the minimum amount of work. One trick I’ve noticed students use, is to clean the same small area, over and over again; the ever present smell in the toilets suggests cleaning skills could be improved.

Cleaning details are allocated randomly and remain the same for a whole term. The most sought after position is the staff room, as it’s normally fairly clean anyway, plus it’s heated in winter, and air conditioned in summer, and the short straw is obviously the toilets.

During soji, I either lend a hand here and there with a duster or brush, or I head for the kennel and take Shiro the school dog for a long walk, around the rice paddies.

It’s a dog’s life.

The short straw; toilet cleaning duty. Better luck next term.

One of the better spots to have been assigned to in summer; sweeping down the steps at Kamisho Junior High.

Students run along the floor pushing a cloth out in front of them. I've always thought this particular disipline is rather ineffective and bad for your back. What's wrong with a dustpan and brush?

Gym detail - "I wanna see my face in that floor".

Day in, day out, the steps get hosed with water and scrubbed down; a primary school student at Kamisho Elementary gets busy with a brush.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

FRESH: The Fukui Ski Guide

Those who are hungry for snow can now check out my latest piece of work; The Fukui Ski and Snowboard Guide. Last winter, I made it my mission to visit as many of the ski areas within range of Fukui as I could, to allow me to put together a much needed guide to showcase what was on offer to winter sports enthusiasts living here, and I believe it's the first of its kind in English.

It's full of photos so if you'd like to see what snowboarding in Fukui is like, take a gander. A big thanks goes out to web mistress Kim Daniels, who did all the web design and will now be helping me out with further web projects.

Rumors flying around the staff room suggest the first snow in Ono city might arrive early next week.

My board is ready and waiting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Autumn Falls by the Wayside

Shiro the school dog; a Sam's best friend. Together we explore the narrow rice paddy roads near my school in Kamisho village.

This morning, as I had no lessons, I decided to take Shiro, the school dog, for a walk around the rice paddies that sit in the plateau surrounded by mountains by my school. As I strolled down a narrow road, I was excited to see that some of the higher peaks have just received their first dusting of snow.

There was a definite bite in the air in contrast to last week which was pleasantly warm. Today I noticed the few remaining dragon flies have been grounded by the dropping temperatures, their wings beating slowly with the last of their dwindling energy supplies.

I can see three ski areas from outside my school, and although it will likely be another 6 weeks before any of them open, to see snow on the runs of Ski Jam is a sight for sore eyes.

As I made my way down the straight road, a small van pulled up and out got an old farmer woman. She asked me several questions, and though I know haven’t studied nearly enough Japanese as I should have, I found I understood her well enough, and a brief conversation about the weather, England, and the dog ensued.

Though I have been known to get annoyed by the locals' stares whilst round and about the town of Ono, they are a very kind and generous bunch. As the old woman bade me farewell and I walked away, I heard her shouting “Sensei, Sensei!”.

I turned to see her beckoning me back. I knew what was coming next. During the harvest season, I have become loaded with farm produce, from big white daikon (a type of large radish) to sweet kakis (persimmons). The problem, is that I receive much more than I can consume, which has lead to a surplus fruit and vegetable hill in my appartment, similar to the wine lakes and butter mountains that exist in the European Union.

But how do you turn down the generous offer of a gift, without offending the giver?
Well, for the first time ever, I managed it today. At least I managed to turn down the offer of daikons and onions; whether she was offended or not, I cannot say.

It’s a credit to the Japanese, that those that I’ve met are so giving to complete strangers, and it’s something that I’m constantly experiencing during my stay here. From free Japanese lessons, to free drinks at a bar. From fishing trips to backcountry snowboarding expeditions, the hospitality I have been shown is remarkable, and Japan stands out as the most welcoming country that I’ve ever had the pleasure of inhabiting.

A late season crop; onions(?) growing in the shadow of the mountains.

The red roof of the gym and the blue of an autumn sky; it's another fine day at Kamisho Junior High.

Tall shadows from a short man; a primary school student makes his way home past Mount Arashima, the highest in Ono.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Funky Drummer Sells Out

This was a post about a certain advertising company which you may see on this website. Unfortunately, I have been forced to remove the post or face the closing of my account. Apparently, the post was against their polices.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Five Seasons

The Cherry blossom viewing season distinctly marks the spring in Japan. Here the crowds gather to walk under the boughs in Katsuyama, Fukui.

I used to think England had four seasons. Then I came to Japan, and discovered that although we think we do, compared to Japan, we don’t. We have closer to two; a cold wet winter, spring and autumn, and a warmer, but normally fairly wet summer.

Japan’s seasons are far more clear cut and extreme. It does vary some what depending on latitude, but here on Honshu, the largest of the Japanese archipelago, we have a cold snowy winter, a nice warm spring, a hot and unpleasantly humid summer, and then a refreshingly cool, but still pleasantly warm autumn.

The Japanese are very proud of their seasons and the changes associated with each one. It seems they are a lot more seasonal in many aspects of their lives. For example there is a defined mountain climbing season in spring and summer, swimming season from July to mid August and hanami (flower viewing) season in spring. Amusingly even if the weather remains perfect to facilitate an outdoor activity, to suggest a sea swim or a mountain hike outside of its predetermined season is just crazy talk... if it’s not the season, it’s not the done thing.

Foods are also very seasonal with many fruits and vegetables only being available at certain times. Right now we are mid kaki (persimmon) and satoimo (Japanese potato) season. However, even seemingly season-less snacks may not be available year round.

An example of this is the mahn Family. These are small, steamed, deliciously doughy snacks, with a variety of fillings. My favourite is the curry mahn, though when unavailable I will settle for the pizza mahn. Since my introductions to this glorious fodder, which can be bought from any convenience store (conbini) for a mere Y100 (50p), I have been a regular consumer and have spread the word to every gaijin I’ve ever met.

However, towards the end of the spring, I noticed that they were becoming scarce. At first I put it down to the shop running out of stock.

“Perhaps a delivery failed to get through’, I kept telling myself, “It’s nothing to worry about” I thought.

But as I found that other shops too, were beginning to become “ mahn-less” I began to fear something deeper was afoot, so I immediately contacted my right hand man and Japanese interpreter Brandon Wright and called for an investigation.

My worries were well founded. It was revealed that the curry mahn and his brothers pizza mahn and meat mahn are seasonal products, only available during the cooler months of the year. There seems to be no logistical reason for this, it’s not as if the curry mahn tress are only in bloom during these times, it’s just a tradition of some sort. However, I am happy to say that the mahn family is currently back in stock in all good conbinis.

Despite the Japanese touting their country as having four seasons, they actually have five. Their tourist propaganda fails to mention the rainy season, a few weeks at the end of June/start of July when the skies open and batter the lands with heavy tropical downpours. Generally, the Japanese don’t like this time of year but I really enjoyed it, as the earthy smells that fresh rain brings reminded me of being in England.

Over all, I prefer the climate of Japan to that of England. For starters they get a decent white winter, with plenty of snow from late December to early March which keeps the scenery stunning, and the ski areas topped up nicely. Then you get the perfect temperatures of spring and autumn, most of which is like a good English summer day, and are just right for outdoor activities such as camping, kayaking, hiking and biking. Summer is the only bad season; it’s too hot and too humid to want to spend much time outside of air-conditioned zones, and makes it hard to sleep at night.

However, I’m not complaining, three out of four ain’t bad.

Summer in Japan for me means messin' about in the river. I am lucky enough to live just 15 minutes drive from this lovely spot in Ono that allows us to keep cool during the hot sticky sauna that is a Japanese summer.

An autumnal sunset that I snapped just a few days ago near my home in Ono.

My favourite time of year: winter. The heavy snow that Ono receives transforms the area into a winter wonderland. Here a long since forgotten car sits half buried in a rice paddy.

Raining cats and dogs, it's the season they don't tell you about; a torrential downpour during the 3-4 week rainy period.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Flip Reverse It

It's rare to find two posts about teaching so close together here on thefunkydurmmer, but after my recent rants about wanting to exterminate some annoying students, this afternoon I was completely thrown by a strange reversal of the situation.

Today I have my worst class of all, the dreaded 1-2. After last week’s less than enjoyable experiences, I found the prospect of having to teach this class was playing on my mind somewhat. However, I’d prepared a worksheet and I would just put up with it, after all, 50 minutes of shouting and getting pissed off is a small price to pay for the overall easy lifestyle out here.

However, the situation went from bad to worse when just ten minutes before the class, my Japanese teaching partner announced that she had a last minute meeting, and I would have to go it alone. Despite this being officially against our contracts I have been asked to hold the fort a couple of times before, but it’s never been for the dreaded 1-2 class.

My heart sank. These kids are hard enough to control when we’re double teaming, but on my own it was going to be suicide. I was being thrown to the piranhas and I wasn’t happy about it.

But just to show me that Japan always has a little trick up its sleeve, somehow, instead of being devoured alive, the class ended up being incredibly fun. The kids were quiet, fairly responsive and overall much better behaved than I’d seen them in a long time. We even got talking about nick names, and I discovered that mine is the rather unimaginative, yet inoffensive “Ham Sensei”. In the past I've left that class wishing I never had to teach them again, but today I enjoyed it, and I saw a new side to the students I always saw as trouble makers.

It seemed that in the absence of my Japanese teaching partner, the dynamics were altered, and the kids decided to behave better which I find rather strange, seeing they could have gone berserk and I would have been almost completely powerless to stop them.

It’s something I’ve noticed before here in Japan, that just when you think you’ve got it all worked out, something happens to make you realise you don’t know the score at all. Classes seem to continually change their nature; a good class can turn bad, bad kids can turn good, and good kids can become the new bad kids. It’s a mystery to me, but all I can do is ride out the storm or enjoy the good weather while it lasts, because next week it’s all change.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Wu Tang Sword Style

A real life Togishi, or Japanese sword sharpener in his house and blade workshop, Fukui, Japan.

Well actually, it wasn't the ancient Chinese Wu Tang sword style at all, but this weekend I had the chance to visit a real live togishi, or Japanese sword sharpener. There are less than 100 togishi left in Japan today, so it’s quite lucky for me that there is one living only 20 minutes down the road from Ono.

A small slice of the foreign community were invited to Umeda Shuji’s house, where he studies, grinds and polishes Japanese swords and daggers for sale to museums and private collectors across the world.

His house was a beautiful traditional dwelling, made of wood, set amongst tall cedars, and moss covered rocks, in a small village called Heisenji. Through our American interpreter (none other than the nihongo jozu Bran Pan Man) we learnt that it takes at least two weeks to finish each blade. The work is done purely by hand, and through a series of 10 whetstones, (large lumps of grindstone) the blade is filed down, sharpened, and finished with an elaborate wavy pattern displaying the tempering of the steel.

As the whet stones alone cost over £200 each, it was no surprise that the swords themselves fetch at least £4000 a piece. When asked why he chose to live at Heisenji, a small rural village at the foot of pine covered mountains, he said

“The most important thing is that this is a place where you can still hear the owls hoot at night.”

Umeda not only works on new swords, but also reconditions ancient blades.

“This sword has definitely killed someone” he mused, whilst showing off a 600 year old katana (samurai sword).

These days, his swords are no longer used in battle, yet Umeda proclaims that they are still powerful as a form of art, rather than a weapon.

“The power of the sword is in its beauty, because people are drawn to it. Born from sacred water and fire, a Japanese sword is imbued with human spirit”.

I found it enlightening to hear that this sword sharpener considers himself an artist, rather than a metal worker. Apparently he needs pristine water and clean air to carry out his work, and through a meditation like focus, he creates his own personal world in which he becomes enveloped, whilst working the blade.

There was one thing that didn’t quite add up though. Umdea San gave us leave to explore his house and grounds whilst he was talking to a second group of visitors. Amongst the lush garden of his tranquil abode, with a mountainous backdrop, and tall pines shading the sliding doors of his ancient home, we spotted an M-16 assault rifle, casually leaning against the window frame.

I suppose in this age of convenience, despite having an armoury equipped with some of the sharpest blades in Japan, the modern day samurai now prefers to pop a cap in an assailant’s ass, rather than slicing him up Wu Tang style.

Looks like Tom Cruise really was the last Samurai.

Bran Pan Man translates as we observe a master a work.

Chilling at the back of a sword sharpner's home, under the tall pines by moss covered rocks, just meters away from the M-16 assualt rifle that we saw leaning up against the window frame.

It's a lengthy process to sharpen a sword. He works his way through the set of stones which gradually get smoother and smoother, eventually using tiny very smooth pieces, roughly the size of a British five pence coin (less than 1cm in diameter).

The room where the magic happens. It's done today, as it has been for hundreds of years, the only tools being a set of whet stones, and a support to rest the sword upon.

The entrance to the sword sharpner's home, a beautiful, traditional wooden house, in the quiet village of Heisenji, only 20 minutes from my town of Ono.

Friday, November 04, 2005

How I Could Just Kill A Man (or student)

The most frustrating thing about being an assistant teacher of English in Japan is having little to no control over the kids. This is no problem when the Japanese teacher with whom I team teach with is doing their job and keeping the brats in line, but I teach at two schools and the contrast between them is amazing, despite them being of similar size and only a ten minutes drive apart.

At one, discipline is simply not required. These are the angelic kids, the ones that the world has been lead to believe are typical of all Japanese students (if only). They are attentive, polite, and keen, and teaching them is easy and fun.

At the other school, I have a number of bad classes, which seem to be getting worse. Today, I had two in a row, and by the end of them, I would have loved to have dished out several beatings to the rude, annoying, disrespectful little punks. The fact that my Japanese teaching partner simply ignores their bad behaviour drives me mad. Whilst they’re all talking amongst themselves, throwing stuff around, and running in and out of class, he just continues the lesson, rarely even raising his voice.

As we are only assistant teachers, it is not our role to discipline the kids, but I now find myself having to, with what seems to be decreasingly little success.

As a result, they know they can get away with it, and I have now come to hate trying to teach them, and hate the little brats themselves. Thankfully, of the 14 classes I teach in total each week, I would only classify 5 as bad, and they are only 50 minutes long, but when I’m in that class trying hard to keep calm, that’s a long, long 50 minutes.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

All Hallows Eve

A heroin chic ghost and an old school gangster - Sam Squared have entered the building.

Another year's Halloween has rolled around, and with it comes the annual parties. In my younger days, the thought of having to dress up for a party always put me off as such as hassel, but once you get into the swing of things it's always a good night.

Last year saw me hit the parties and clubs of Fukui in the latest pirate fashions, complete with monkey accessoiries, but this year, I was going gangster with my herion chic ghost in tow.

The night started well at a house party, but came to an abrupt end outside of a club, when both mine and Sam's stomaches decided that they had had enough alcohol for one night, and proceed to simultaneously empty themseles onto the pavement. It was then decided that it would be a great idea to make the costly 30 minute journey back to Sam's house in a taxi, rather than staying at the prearranged accomodation in Fukui city (our friendTilly's floor).

After a touch and go journey, where Sam and I sat with our heads dangling out of the windows tyring to hold back the waves of nausea we eventually made it home, only to find that we hadn't enough money to pay the fare, which lead to Sam having to take a tin opener to her sealed savings tin.

Same again next year? Ich don't think so...

Don't mess with Matt G, or he'll have his mates The Joker and Mr Potter on yo' ass in a flash.

Pukker Up Tania, Caitlin the Blonde '40s (?) doll, a herion chic ghost, and Miss Cruella De Ville.

Can Bat Girl defeat the evil Red Devil?

Kate, Tania and Sarah gettin' jiggy wit' it.

It's the hostess with the mostess - Sarah B plunges a syringe deep into her heart, emulating Miss Thurman's famous scene from Pulp Fiction