Posted by: deliciousirony | November 18, 2012

Meeting Ton-chan at EcoMesse

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This actually happened a couple of months back but my first draft disappeared into the ether somewhere and I’m only just getting around to re-writing it.  You know, had a baby and all to help bring into the world.  🙂

Rochelle, Cory and I had a really fun day at the EcoMesse event at Makuhari Messe.  The event is a chance for groups and companies both big and small to highlight their eco-related activities, from gas companies teaching kids (and big kids like us!) about ‘setsuden’ (power saving) through a game of ‘Setsuden Bingo’, through to small university-based groups concerned about insect and amphibian populations around their city habitats, to woodworking classes and can crushing clubs! (we scoffed at the can crushing at first, but this was really fun – they have a world record, based on height and width, for the best can crush of 1.05, if I remember correctly, and I crushed a 1.26!  Was pretty exciting!)

The lovely lady in the green t-shirt is Tomomi Sato, or ‘Ton-chan’.  You can find her blog here and you can find her post about the fun we all had together here.  She writes about running the ‘setsuden bingo’.  She was a great host, super-genki, full of fun and energy.  There were no more seats so we big gaijin had to sit on the ground in the front.  Anyway, this meant a lot of interaction with Ton-chan, and, as she goes on to explain, in the excitement of being on stage and perhaps not using her English skills all that often, she asked us, ‘Do you love me?!’  Cory and I kinda looked at each other, looked back at her.  I can’t remember for sure whether he also called out, ‘Yes!’  Haha.  I think what she meant to say was, ‘Do you love it?’ as in the ‘setsuden bingo’ but yeah…  she realised her mistake pretty much straight away and it gave us all a good laugh.  We continued that laugh when we found her again outside later in the afternoon, where, as she writes, we helped enliven the little cooking stall they had going on.  She was a really bright spark – perfect lady for that line of work and helped make the event a lot more fun.  She told us about her blog and asked if we could take a picture together and I asked her to put it on the blog and well, here we go…

This was a cool event and helped teach me a bit about the work Chiba prefecture is doing in relation to recycling and green industries.  Chiba is known for having the huge industrial belt running around the eastern edge of Tokyo Bay.  In recent years, that industry has been joined by some big recycling operations, some independent and others a part of those established industrial giants.  An example is the recycling of plastic that can then be used along with coke in the firing process for making steel.  Some of these big industrial operations can be visited as part of Chiba’s Industrial Sightseeing promotion.  One day I’m gonna go see that big steel factory!

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Posted by: deliciousirony | November 10, 2012

Rido + music

Just a note on some of the ways the little bear cub and I have been enjoying music together over the past few weeks:

1. Watching Rido struggle through the last of his bottle, eyes rolling back in his head, drunk on formula, I remembered the Dead Kennedy’s tune I’d scrolled past in my playlist earlier that day, and rechristened it ‘Too Drunk to Suck.’

2. Learning how to ‘play’ (that may overstate its musicality -‘make a good noise’) with the little wooden bird I bought for Rido in Nikko. Babies at this stage love sound and movement together. This has a little mouth that moves when you blow through it. The man has been making and selling them in that spot for 57 years!

3. Building a wee list of ‘Rido’s songs’.  So far we’ve got Drop It Like Its Hot for when he poops and So Fresh, So Clean for when he comes out of the bath.  I’ve also got Peaches little ditty, Fuck the Pain Away, with that great first line, ‘Suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me..’  I just kinda sing this one to myself though…

4.  Making up new words for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  God, there really is very little to that nursery rhyme!  A recent re-wording came in the form of:

          Twinkle twinkle little Rido
          Will you be the next Beatle?

Another:
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are

          What goes on inside your head
          When you’re awake and you’re in bed

Or:
 Trucks outside go rolling past
           But you’re asleep, sound at last

5. Being put to sleep by the likes of Shapeshifter’s Long White Cloud and Subfocus’ Future Bass mix for Mixmag (which if you haven’t heard, you should definitely heard it!)  That’s my boy!

Posted by: deliciousirony | October 25, 2012

A Japanese Christening – お宮参り (omiya mairi)

We joined the line snaking around the courtyard of the shrine, waiting for well over 30 minutes.  We were then ushered into the waiting room, ready to be a part of the next group of 50 or so to have their children’s milestones acknowledged.  In our case, birth and the first meeting with the gods.  Others were there to celebrate this also.  While others were there for their child’s third, fifth or seventh year as is the custom in Japan.  While we waited, I read the sign board (well, probably more so looked at the pictures) describing how to present yourself properly to the gods – bow twice, clap twice, bow one more time.  I asked M again, ‘Now, is there anything I have to do when we go in here.’  It was an important occasion and I didn’t want to do anything dumb.  No, she told me, just sit down.  Rido, M’s mother and I sat in the front.  M stood at the back.  Things were progressing nicely until I heard the words, ‘something something daihyou’ – ‘representative’ and saw the priests eyes fall on me.

Let me back up a bit.  Omiya mairi is a Shinto tradition where a newborn baby, around a month after birth, is taken to the local shrine to be introduced to the god residing there, asking for his/her blessing for a healthy (‘genki’) upbringing.  As Rido was born in Saitama, we headed to Hikawa Jinja in Omiya city (there is a bit of a play on words here – omiya mairi – お宮 and 大宮 – Oomiya, lit. big shrine).  It’s a pretty shrine with big red gates and a red bridge crossing a pond with carp, turtles and a waterfall.

 

It was a very busy day and traffic was not only heavy getting to the shrine but also once we got there, too.  Inside the gates was a line that snaked from the ticket box, down back to the gate and back around half way up through the courtyard.

 

We waited for around a half an hour, taking photos, and then another 15 minutes or so inside the waiting room (where I was reading the ‘how to pray’ signboard) and Rido, the good little ‘oriko’ (well – behaved child) that he is, chilled and slept the whole time.  Right through the ceremony, too.  Phew!  He looked beautifully androgynous in his little white dress.

So, coming back to my responsibility as ‘daihyou’.  It was indicated that I should approach the platform where the priests were standing.  Thankfully I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘gaijin da!’ (it’s a foreigner!) cos that would have made me even more nervous, although M told me later she heard it at the back of the room.  I was given a branch which I was meant to present to the god of the shrine.  At first I had it the wrong way around, but the priest guided me as to its right way and had me place it on a small altar.  I then took a step back, bowed twice, clapped twice and bowed once more.  And that was it.  Each child’s name was called by the priest so the gods knew who they were dealing with, we were given a small gift and we were back out into the sunshine that had come out that afternoon.

Afterwards, we took a bunch more photos, both at the shrine and back at M’s mother’s place, of which I will let you peruse below.

Rido and M are back home now, have been for a little over a fortnight now.  It’s wonderful having them here.  Seeing Rido every day, picking him up, playing with him, playing music and dancing with him, is just awesome.  Right now, I have a bit of a cold so I haven’t been able to pick him up for a couple of days.  But I got onto the doctor quickly and got some pharmaceuticals, which though I have heard it said are weaker than our counterparts back home (you certainly receive more – I have pills, powders and lozenges!), I have found to be very effective.  Almost 100% again 😀

The Anatomy of Dependence (Amae no Kouzou) – Takeo Doi

It’s a little hard to get your head around at first – the idea that, in a culture where people tread so carefully in relying on someone, indulgently relying on others is, in fact, the central defining personality characteristic of the Japanese.  But it is exactly this multi – layered maze of customs and linguistic expressions dedicated to said act that make it so.  As the threads came together and the concept made more sense, I realized prominent psychologist, Takeo Doi’s The Anatomy of Dependence provides an interesting and revealing perspective that will deepen readers’ understanding of the Japanese and the culture here.

Doi uses the lens of language for the most part to expound his theory that language and its usage is key to understanding peoples’ psychology.  Quoting linguist Benjamin Whorf:

‘… every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness.’

Doi’s book looks at many words familiar to most people who have spent some time in Japan – enryo, sumimasen, ki, for example, and introduces many more that constitute the conceptual world of the Japanese.  His research work included comparative linguistic analysis; looking at the use of these words and concepts in Japanese as opposed to other languages.  The book will enlighten the reader wondering about Japanese thinking regarding giri (social obligation, duty) and ninjou (humanity, human nature, empathy).  Also, the oft-mentioned, yet rarely well-understood centrality of the group also gets a digging over for the reader’s intellectual consideration.

In translating the Japanese title of the book Amae no Kouzou (甘えの構造), amae, the book’s central concept, has received the English word ‘dependence’.  The book features defining phrases for amae throughout:

–       ‘to lean on a person’s goodwill’ (72)

–       ‘the right to presume on them (i.e. relations) or harbor emotional resentment just as they like’ (16)

Or more fully, in translator John Bester’s foreword:

–       ‘It is the behavior of the child who desires spiritually to ‘snuggle up’ to the mother, to be enveloped in an indulgent love, that is referred to in Japanese as amaeru (the verb; amae is the noun).  By extension, it refers to the same behavior, whether, unconscious or deliberately adopted, in the adult.  And by extension again, it refers to any situation in which a person assumes that he has another’s goodwill, or takes a – possibly unjustifiably – optimistic view of a particular situation in order to gratify his need to feel at one with, or indulged by, his surroundings.’

The book makes clear though, that a straight translation of ‘dependence’ is not satisfactory.  The term amae carries connotations and cultural weight that are not matched by the term ‘dependence’ in English.  Given the book’s basis in comparative linguistic analyses, I think the reader could expect a somewhat clearer understanding of the difference here.  By the end of the book it is still difficult to get your head around what amae is exactly.  And don’t assume that Japanese all think of it in the same way as Doi!  I’ll illustrate with an example.  Talking with my wife’s mother the other day, I tried to describe the situation we were discussing as one where amae was at play.  Her response was basically, hmm not really.  I was left scratching my head, still unclear exactly as to the centrality of this thing.

So the book is perhaps going to pose more questions than it is going to give answers.  It does both of these things in fairly equal measure however, so as to be thought-provoking, while concurrently deepening your knowledge.  It provides moments of ‘yes, I’ve seen that before’, along with moments of ‘hmm, perhaps future experience will further confirm that…’

So what other words does the book investigate?  Sumimasen (or sumanai, the straight dictionary negative, as Doi uses) is, according to him, a strange term as it encapsulates both gratitude and apology.  As you become more familiar with Japanese society you notice that in a lot of the situations where you would say, ‘arigatou gozaimasu,’ Japanese actually say, ‘sumimasen’.  Doi first compares scholar Yanagida Kunio’s choice of 澄む – to be clear of free from impurities, as the derivation of ‘sumimasen’ with his choice of verb 済む – to finish, to end, to be completed, which he believes is closer to the actual usage of the word.

‘In other words, the matter is ‘not ended’ – something is still left over – because one has not done everything one should have done.  Thus it expresses a strong feeling of apology towards the other person – and it is precisely for this reason that the word sumanai is also used to thank him for his kindness.’

Not only a strong feeling of apology, but also indebtedness.  Surely important when so many people are living so close to each other and surely a part of why Japan is a relatively safe country and so socially cohesive.  Apologizing is something of a stylized art form in Japan.  Not beautiful like ikebana, not calming like shodo, not fearsome like kendo, but a practical art form for smoothing human interactions and holding on to a person’s goodwill.  As Doi writes:

‘The question here … is why the Japanese are not content simply to show gratitude for a kind action but most apologize for the trouble which they imagine it has caused the other person.  The reason is that they fear that unless they apologize the other man will think them impolite with the result that they may lose his good will.  And this, it seems, accounts for the frequency of the word sumanai – the desire not to lose the other’s good will, to be permitted the same degree of self-indulgence indefinitely.’

Through explanations like this covering myriad words, including honorifics and words related to the inability to amaeru, Doi gradually shows the reader the pervasiveness of amae in the Japanese mentality.

‘In Japan, little value is attributed to the individual’s private realm as distinct from the group.’  Doi writes that Japanese life is the domain of inner and outer circles, ‘each with its own, different, standards of behavior, no one feeling the slightest oddity in this discrepancy.’

The power of the group has a part in the ‘serious dearth of the type of public spirit that transcends both individual and group’ in Japanese life, argues Doi.  He also compares the Japanese concepts of the inner and outer to Western concepts of private and public.  It was interesting for me just how clearly he brought home the idea of the prominence of the group in Japan and its power in shaping behavior and character.  It doesn’t get much clearer than that quote opening this paragraph.

Doi’s writing on the words giri (social obligation, duty) and ninjou (humanity, human nature, empathy) makes for very interesting reading.  Their relation to the concept of inner and outer circles is vital.  The further out the circle, the more restraint (enryo suru 遠慮する) is used, i.e. the less you can amaeru.  Because of a ninjou relationship with your family, your innermost circle, you can act enryo shinai (without restraint).

Doi describes ninjou as a set of emotions especially familiar to the Japanese in which amae is the central emotion.

’Nevertheless, it seems almost certain that the things understood as ninjou are apprehended vaguely as a kind of Gestalt, and that it is the ability or failure of foreigners to fall in with this that gives rise to remarks about foreigners understanding or not understanding ninjou.’

Giri and ninjou overlap each other somewhat as Doi describes giri as a relationship where ninjou is brought in artificially as opposed to naturally,’ e.g. at a job, school, friends etc.  So basically, as you become closer to your friends and co-workers you can ‘amaeru on them’ more.  He describes ninjou as ‘welcoming dependence’ whereas giri ‘binds humans in a dependent relationship.’  In other words, ninjou relationships are those of natural dependence whereas giri invites dependence based on duty and social obligation.

Sometimes it happens in the parent-child relationship that giri is the dominating force to the point that the parent-child relationship is damaged.  Anyone watching the new series of Great Teacher Onizuka GTO will have seen examples of this; overworked/neglected kids and domineering, cold mother figures.  The shows really gets me going for some reason.  Pulls on the heartstrings a lot.  And phew, that Ryuji character – do Australians/Kiwis remember that section on Rove, ‘Who would you go gay for?’  Dude…

It can be seen through these two words that there is a sense that, whereas the historical drive in Western society has been towards freedom, individuality, privacy etc., in Japanese society that drive has been directed more towards dependence, the group and duty.  Doi describes how the post-war ‘removal of ideological restrictions’ (i.e. those imposed by the Emperor system and family system and the introduction of American/Western concepts of freedom etc.) didn’t directly serve the cause of individualism, ‘but by destroying the traditional channels of amae had contributed, if anything, to the spiritual and social confusion.’

An interesting insight into the Japanese perspective on freedom comes in the word ‘jiyuu’.   When the Japanese needed a word for the Western concept this is the one they choose.  Traditionally, Doi argues, this word has meant freedom in the sense of ‘free to amaeru.’  It’s usage was within the context of the group.  In the Western sense, freedom has served as the basis for asserting the individual over the group, ‘in which respect again it affords a marked contrast with the Japanese idea of jiyuu.’  So while, for Japanese, this word contains its positive Western connotations, and its positive Japanese connotations, there is also a conflict which produces a negative side where jiyuu becomes seen as the right to do what one pleases – wagamama – being selfish.  Wondered why Japanese think we’re kinda selfish sometimes?

‘The idea of Personality, which, in the form of Freedom, determines everything in the morality of conscience, and in the form of Object, everything in the ethic of values – this idea is, after all, a Western belief, unknown in our sense to the Far East, and pre-eminently and peculiarly the destiny of us Europeans.’

I want to finish with one of the most incisive parts of the book, again related to freedom.  Doi argues correctly, that the West still behaves on the assumption the individual is free.  Just check out our advertising.  He then illustrates the cracks that the 19th and 20th centuries have created in that assumption: Marx’s analyses of dehumanising capitalism, Nietzsche’s proclamation of Christian morality as a slave morality (although surely Nietzsche’s ubermen affirms freedom) and the psychoanalysis of Freud, ‘who emphasized the control of the spiritual life by the unconscious’.  Some thinkers, he claims, such as Sartre, have held onto the idea of human freedom as the only absolute in the face of a superstructure in the process of collapse.  He finishes the point with this:

‘Yet where does this type of freedom lead?  Ultimately, it can only mean – if not the simple gratification of individual desires – solidarity with others through participation, in which the Western idea of freedom becomes ultimately something not so different from the Japanese.’

For anyone interested in really deepening their understand of the Japanese psychology and society, The Anatomy of Dependence is a very good waypoint.  Sometimes dense and a little obscure, it still manages to edify on its topic while informing quite widely around it also, for an overall satisfying, thought-provoking experience.

Posted by: deliciousirony | October 3, 2012

Tako takes 1st place at Katori English Speech Comp!

Despite no individual first places (a 2nd, two 3rd’s and a 4th), Tako came out the overall champ last Wednesday.

While an individual 1st would be great, after my first year, where every kid got 2nd place (!), I feel, for the most part, satisfied now.

And besides that, the kids were great to work with over the summer. We had a lot of laughs. And I think they got something from the process English-wise, speech-wise and personally, too. (Thanks for reminding me part way through that it’s not just about winning, Brennan!)

Congrats, girls!!

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Posted by: deliciousirony | September 29, 2012

Putting my garden to the radiation test

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Around three months ago my Japanese teacher sent a soil sample from my ‘hatake’ – garden (畑), into the local town office for me.   It had a reading of 221.99 becquerel per kg (Bg/kg), a bit high.  It was time for another measurement.  This occasion I took the test subjects in myself.  I had three things measured – soil from the same spot, some eggplant and the compost that had been stewing away at the back of the garden.

The  test results are measured in becquerel.  The sample should be a minimum of 400 grams.  As becquerel measures isotope decay over time, the test takes about 30 minutes (the 1800 you can see in the photo – number of seconds).

So how did the results come in?  The soil sample taken from the same location – 92.00 Bg/kg.  Great improvement!  The eggplants have been very productive and I had enough available at one time for the 400g needed for the test.  They came back ND – ‘not detected’.  Hurrah!  I should have enough basil to do this too, whose results I will also post.

The compost, however, which, over a period of my inattention, has turned itself into some really nice looking plant food, has a reading of 539.41 Bg/Kg.  It can’t be used.  The Japanese government safety recommendation is under 400 Bg/kg for compost.  Sigh.  Oh well.  Perhaps the reason for the high number is the large amount of fallen leaves, collected from around the school, I put on the pile.  Leaves accumulate radioactive particles very heavily, so I’ve been told.

For those who are wondering, M doesn’t eat out of this garden (well, the odd lettuce leaf).  In fact, she stays away from Chiba/Ibaraki area produce as much as possible.  She is eating a lot of her grandma’s produce now, who has her Saitama garden checked once a week.  So my garden doesn’t feed my family, unfortunately.  It is really just a large research garden right now.  Actually though, it has done me pretty well over the summer for tomatoes, cucumber, beans, eggplants, capsicum and basil for making pesto!

A good collection of information regarding the nuclear situation can be found at factsanddetails.com, albeit not updated since March 2012.

Posted by: deliciousirony | September 24, 2012

Introducing Rido Mori

My old buddy and partner in crime, Kate Caldwell, perhaps put it most eloquently when she wrote, ‘Michael did a baby.’  And within only moments of his being born, I could see indeed that I had.  I could see myself in him very clearly (the bloodiness, the conehead…) right from the get go.  Nurses laid him out on the table and cleaned him up.  They stuck tubes up his nose and down his throat, put a little oxygen mask over his face.  He was ‘genki’ 元気 – full of energy and life, though.  I was on duty taking as many pictures as I could.  And in between, just staring at him, in elation.  And with this growing sense of looking at a part of myself.

It’s been three weeks now since Rido was born.  The leaves are beginning to fall at school, the mornings and evenings aren’t quite as hot anymore and gradually an autumn breeze becomes deliciously more frequent.  It’s raining more, too.  Turns out I love thunder and lightening!

When M headed off to Okinawa for three months, the last thing either of us expected was that in two weeks she would be back in Tokyo.  She called me on Christmas Day and called me again the next day to confirm after the doctor’s trip and we had her on a plane back here on New Year’s Eve.  I picked her up from the airport and we returned to Saitama before going down to Omiya’s Hikawa Shrine, to pray and celebrate.  Was it that night three weeks earlier when we went to see The Lion King and visited Tokyo Tower for her birthday?

M moved in around the 10th of March, and we got married on the 23rd after waiting a month for a document from Births, Deaths and Marriages in New Zealand.  Monthly, then bi-weekly and then weekly she would trip back to Saitama for doctor’s visits and time with her family.  And in late July, she returned to her grandparent’s home, for what is known as ‘satogaeri’ – 里帰り – the kanji meaning ‘hometown’ and ‘going home’.

And so, just like the seasons, things gradually progressed.  M prepared for her coming child.  She ate well and read widely.  She, bit by bit, bought or was given, pieces of clothing, toys, baby accessories etc.  Again, bit by bit, we prepared the house for our coming child.  We got rid of a big black leather couch (cheers, Reuben!), our kitchen cabinets – bought a new low white cupboard.  M put it together.  In my second run-in with this style of Japanese home and garden furniture, the box told her, “60min for men, 90min for women”!  The work continues even now though as I make final little tidy-ups to the house.  And I finish our new kitchen table.  Maybe 85% there now.  It’s gonna be awesome!

Along the way we have both learned a lot.  One of the final learning experiences was going to a parenting class at the hospital M would give birth at.  These were two two hour sessions; one in the morning and one in the afternoon, which culminated in bathing a plastic baby.  I bathed the baby and felt a little more confident  (The real life bathing is a little more difficult.  I look forward to just plopping him in the bath with me).  Following along in Japanese all day was difficult but I was able to take most of it in.  It was a good experience.  I’ve learned about breastfeeding, nappies, bathing, teaching values, birth itself, nutrition, health, child development, insurance, water server machines, radiation measurements…

So you want me to get to the birth?  Well, ok then.  He was right on time, ‘yoteibi’ = 予定日 – the due date.  It was one of the first days back at school from summer vacation (where the children still come to school nearly everyday; it’s just that they don’t have classes).  The summer days were at their most intense – long, hot and very humid.  I’m still amazed at the human body’s capacity to sweat after this summer.  It was lunchtime and I was in the middle of speech competition practice with a 2nd year student.  It was very exciting to get that call.  The calmness I had experienced about the whole thing up until that moment was jolted heartily by realness.  I told this student what was happening, rushed around the school, packing up and telling the necessary people (H san and H san in the office = most important!), and then headed home.  The next bus was after 3pm, over an hour and a half way as for some silly reason there is a stupid big gap in the timetable in the middle of the day.  So I hopped my bike to Shibayama Chiyoda station and rode the next train out of there.

I got to the hospital a little after 4.30pm with the gracious help of her mother, giving me a ride from the final station.  I was lucky I didn’t wait because in three hours I would have a son.

Prepare yourself.  From there, there was a lot of anus pushing and either pushing or rubbing of M’s back.    I was gradually introduced by M and the nurses and then left to fill the role.   Yes, that’s right.  When your partner is about to give birth, crouched on all fours, experiencing increasingly painful, increasingly frequent contractions, your role is to sit beside or behind her and when those contractions come, push down hard on her lower back with one arm and push her anus on the other.  And in between, chat with her mother who is sitting there, too.

By around 6.30pm M was moved to the birthing area, first to a bed and sometime around 7 to the actual room where the birth would take place.  My role was to stand at her shoulder, supporting her, holding her hand and saying nice things.  When the contractions came I was to push her up off her shoulders, so to increase her pushing power.  This was hard work, too!  I was tired too, when he came only 50 minutes later.  That fatigue was forgotten, for both of us, however, once he was a free citizen of the world.  There was a sense of wonder and elation shared by both M and I.  She did an incredible job.  With no painkillers, she bore us a perfect little ‘blue moon’ baby.  Thank you, Mana!

As previously mentioned, the nurses cleaned him up and laid him on Mama’s chest for an all-too-quick cuddle.  We had a few minutes together before the staff took him away for more tests and to give him some extra oxygen.  The birth had been a little stressful, they told us and while Rido was fine, he just needed a little help getting going.  While for the most part I thought the birth had gone pretty well (it was fast!), the final stages were a little shocking.  A little stool was propped next to the birthing bed/table.  The main nurse stood on top of it and pushed down HARD on M’s stomach, five or six times, like she was performing CPR on someone.  This was the quite literal last push needed to help bring Rido into the wide world at 7:53pm on August 31st, with a blue moon hanging in the night sky (think ‘Once in a blue moon).

Rido weighed in at 3180 or so grams at birth and was 52 cm long (long gaijin legs!).  He was kept in an intensive care unit for four or five days.  The first night (two nights?) he spent in an incubator.  Visiting times were from 1pm till 7pm and were limited to three people, presenting an awkward situation when her mother and father and I all came together; one of us had to wait outside.  All good though.  The care in the unit was excellent.  The nurses were on top of it and happy to answer your questions.  We had a couple that we particularly liked.  I think M liked the nurse who pushed on her stomach.  I liked this other nurse who always had a great manner with both the baby and with us.

Going in each time to hold him was always really exciting.  We would hang out for a couple of hours, give him a break and then come back for another hour or two.  Going in each time required removing any jewelry and scrubbing up to your elbows, along with antibacterial spray.  I think M and her mother were still confused about navigating this place when we left.  He was a really chilled little baby.  Just slept, didn’t cry much, sometimes woke up for some stimulation.  Was beautiful to hold.  A precious lump of life curled up in the crook between your elbow and your wrist.  Gradually the tubes and the like came out of him; first the one in the nose and a couple of days later, the ‘tenteki’ - 点滴 – the IV drip, was taken out.   And it became a lot easier to take him out of the crib.  M started breastfeeding around this time and things have continued well there.  Rido’s now waking her up in the night for feeds, so that’s a good sign.  Gotta have a good appetite!  Just as M was about to leave the hospital he was removed from the care units to the general nursing station.  M could have him just hang out with her in her room.  She went home on the Wednesday, visiting Rido the next day and then taking him home on Friday.

Home until early October is M’s grandmother’s house in Omiya, Saitama prefecture.  It’s around 2 – 3 hours by train, depending on connections, from Tako.  M and Rido have a room to themselves where I can crash down when I stay as well.  Rido sleeps on a little futon between us.  It’s really cute, actually.  I can’t wait to go back next weekend.  Her grandmother is fantastic.  She makes me feel very welcome and at home.  She provides everything I need and many things I don’t.  We have our moments, but it’s generally a lot of fun.  That probably sums M and I up pretty well too, actually!  So I am travelling back and forth when I can to see Rido.  I’ll be on a train in a few hours actually.  I wish I could see him more, but I know that this is the Japanese way of doing things and I can respect that.  He and M will be home Oct 10th and we can spend as much time together then as I want.  Well, nearly.  I’ll be able to take some time off work, a few days at a time.

Rido’s condition now is good.  As I said above he is feeding well.  He is slowly putting on weight.  His eyes are still very dark and it is hard to see which way they will go at the moment.  He has far more hair on his head than I did at that time.  Visiting him yesterday, it was surprising how much stronger and more able his little arms and legs have become.  He can put out a good little bit of pushing pressure with those legs now.  He’s crying a lot more.  And has become a much hungrier little boy,too.  Generally, he has become a much more active baby than those first couple of weeks.  Perhaps his personality is starting to show.

See any similarity?  He looks just like me, so I keep being told.  Damn, look at that dome head.  Thankfully he doesn’t have that.  Moreover, is that a sign of things to come for me?

Anyway… So M and I will continue learning: about babies, raising children and each other as we voyage on this journey together.  Right now, I have big books on bilingualism at school (thanks, Megan!) and I just finished taking a bunch of notes (which I’m happy to share) from Dorothy Law Nolte’s great book, Children Learn What They Live.  Questions of how to raise this child the best I can are constantly with me.  Of course, a much more physical learning will come in simply getting familiar with bathing and feeding the lil’ man.  I already feel reasonably familiar with diaper changes! (nobody says nappy up here… it’s slipping out the side door of my vocabulary – sorry, home folk!).  Although, just when I thought I knew what it was all about we bonded again yesterday and the colour of this thing was incredible – full on radioactive green.  My God…

Anyway…

M and I will have to work together to share this learning with each other.  Leaving behind the sweltering summer, the cooler temperatures of the autumn going into winter, along with the love of a new baby to share will hopefully keep things cool between M and I.  In that space, we can build a strong family, listening to each other and learning from each other, sharing our cultures and perspectives for the benefit of this curious little bean.

Posted by: deliciousirony | September 18, 2012

Anti-nuke protest in Funabashi

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While pottering around today I came across, well, first of all, a shit load of police. But then, a protest, I’d say 500 strong or so, of various ages and shades of the political spectrum calling for the govt to shut down the ‘unnecessary nuclear power plants’.

Now how a country can have over 50 nuclear power plants and these be ‘unnecessary’ I don’t understand, but truth is, the country was running without any of these plants until recently (possibly still so actually; I’m not sure plans to bring a reactor back online went through) as all plants were shut for safety testing.

So seemingly it’s doable. I don’t know of anywhere that has been seriously affected by summer blackouts (the result of heavy air con use in combination with those downed reactors). Sure we had a couple points where the lights went out briefly at school but that’s bout it.

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But I can’t help feeling there is some naivety on the part of these ppl in the face of the likes of climate change. Perhaps thats unfair; the threat of having your food poisoned and your children harmed is a scary one. But instead of protesting for the shutdown of the reactors, why not protest for their proper regulation, safety oversight and to not to build them in places where fuckin’ tsunami can hit them just cos the land’s cheap?

T’was a little worrying at first. The crowd initially was quite elderly. It did not bode well that this was the vanguard of change in Japanese society, but eventually a younger contingent including family and children and a hip hop group on the back of a truck came through.

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For a while there have been protest vigils outside the Prime Minister’s residence every Friday night. My Japanese friend doesn’t think they’ll last. Today gave me a sign that maybe they’ll go on a little longer than he thinks.

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Posted by: deliciousirony | September 17, 2012

The summer that was…

How coincidental – it’s been exactly two months today since I last posted.  I have three or four things lined up for the next wee while so, back into it!

I know you probably all want to read about babies… Just hold on a bit, will ya?  I’m getting there…  I’m actually finding it quite difficult to write.  Of course I want to do my son rhetorical justice.  There is also the consideration of how much heart I wear on my sleeve…  Anyway, along with a bunch more photos, my impressions on becoming a father are coming!

Tonight though, I just want to get back into things with a simple photo log.  Here is the summer that was, ‘012. (you know, oh twelve… like we did back in ’02 – oh two.)

Posted by: deliciousirony | July 16, 2012

Lucky brother

I mentioned recently on Facebook what a lucky man I am having had both of my sisters come and visit me in Japan; firstly, Nicola in November last year and then Shelley on her way through on a three week mission around Europe just last weekend.

Shelley and I had a full on whirlwind of a time.  Straight off the plane she was quite literally immersed in Japanese culture.  We lockered her bag at the airport (where we would be coming back through to get to little Tako) and went to Yamato Onsen just outside of Narita.  I remembered what an experience it was being in China, knowing nothing of the language, so for Shelley to arrive and jump into such a situation was very open-minded I thought.  One elderly lady tried to talk to her but gave up when Shelley replied in a stream of English.

Saturday, Sunday and Monday were spent exploring Tokyo.  We went nearly everywhere – Ueno, Akihabara, the Museum of Modern Art, Asakusa, Shinjuku, Shibuya and for the night, on to Ageha for the Bass Night event there.  The gig featured DJ Krush, Foreign Beggars, DJ Kentaro, Hifana and DJ Aki.  It was a ridiculous line up.  We had a great time, staying out till 4.30ish when we headed back to our capsule hotel with enough time for me to catch some rest before the JLPT that afternoon.  Shell succeeded in making her way back to Ueno and enjoying the zoo.  We then meet up and Shell had the chance to experience an izakaya dinner before heading to a movie theatre near our hotel and catching the new Snow White flick (damn good fun, in my opinion) before finally enjoying the hotel’s bath and sauna facilities and crashing.  If you are looking for a capsule hotel experience I definitely recommend the Tokyo Kiba Hotel.

On Monday we hired a couple of bicycles from the Mujirushi Ryouhin next to Yurakucho station.  From there we biked through Ginza and on to Tsukiji where we had a sashimi lunch.  Shelley enjoyed the maguro (tuna) sashimi and she loved the atmosphere of the restaurant, particularly all of the chefs calling out to us as we entered and left.  We continued around the island of Tsukishima heading to its tip for a view of the Rainbow bridge.  We returned the bikes around 3.30 and jumped on the train over to the Omotesando and Harajuku.  At Design Festa gallery we enjoyed a beer, and then headed on to the Tokyo Metropolitan Tower so that Shelley could get her first view of Tokyo from up high (as she’d been too afraid to ride the Space Shot at Hanayashiki).  Time was starting to get tight so we only had 15 minutes or so to stand in front of the big windows up on the 45th floor gazing out at the seemingly endless metropolis.

Shell’s final day we went to Tako JHS together so she could get a taste of Japanese school life and Japanese kids.  I think she enjoyed herself but was having trouble embracing her inner rock star.  I realised this takes some time to become accustomed to, perhaps.  The other idea I had is it fits my ego just nicely.  We had a busy schedule visiting a first, second and third year class, watching sewing class, seminars with local elderly people and helping kids prepare for the EIKEN tests.

We had a great time together, only getting on each other’s nerves two or three times.. 😉  I’m just so happy that both of my sisters were able to come and have a Japanese experience while I am here.  My parents come in late October and without a doubt will suffer the most culture shock.  Will keep it a bit more tame for them.  Won’t be taking Dad to Kabuki-cho, that’s for sure.

Posted by: deliciousirony | July 7, 2012

Surprise Surprise

An independent Diet commission has concluded that the events at Fukushima were largely man-made, the result of regulatory systems run on collusion between the various parties.

This paragraph from Tokyo University professor, Kiyoshi Kurokawa is highly revealing:

“What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan… Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

It’s interesting that the banking industry around the world is currently facing similar issues of corruption and regulatory systems not doing their job and that the causes could be said to largely be the same.  The maintenance and profit of the group and the individuals within it, whether it be TEPCO or Barclays, is put ahead of fairness, honesty, safety and citizenship.  The one thing left off that list above is an unhealthy level of self interest, as is demonstrated in this quote: “From Tepco’s perspective, new regulations would have interfered with plant operations and weakened their stance in potential lawsuits. That was enough motivation for Tepco to aggressively oppose new safety regulations.”

That self interest is such that in both cases it has left huge numbers of people significantly worse off in their quality of life.

The article has already fallen off the main page of The Japan Times.  No editorial or opinion pieces have surfaced on the site to dig deeper into the finding’s conclusions, the implications and where to go from here.  Is this report just to be buried in Japan’s bureaucratic back closet?  Or can something actually come of this?  I suspect there is perhaps more hope in the groups protesting outside the Prime Minister’s residence each Friday night…

The article can be found at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120706a1.html

Posted by: deliciousirony | June 15, 2012

Pendulum @06S, Womb

Hold Your Colour still ranks as my favourite drum & bass album, bar none.  Different songs would just hook me for about six weeks at a time.  Unfortunately, it’s been a disappointing progression from there.  Their second and third albums never gripped like the first, with their movement towards a more rock band style of drum & bass.  Ironically, the first time I got to see them was after they dropped the second album by which time they were already a mix of dnb and rock that I didn’t really like.  The classicness of the R1 Essential Mix, Jungle Sound and the above mentioned album was past.  It was the third time I’d stumped up to see Pendulum.  The last time was also in Japan at a big convention centre gig called Womb Adventure.  Just one of the original three worked the decks and slammed out a set of classics interwoven with the rockier sound of the second and third albums.  An enjoyable enough but thoroughly unexciting set.  I was curious to know what would happen with the change to club land.  It was a very similar ride to the big convention centre gig though.   The place went batshit but in a way that was more rock concert than dnb gig.  It was weird inside this club.  Definitely intense, the place was humming.  The floor swarmed with tall gaijin men on the prowl, particularly the front half – madness up there.  Well, Japanese madness.  But, crowd surfing at a dnb gig in a club – crazy, man.

OK, a few pics:

Aki’s set slowed the pace down just right with a set swinging back and forth through dubstep to the darker side of dnb.  Numbers in the club thinned out just right and the vibe stayed nice until 5.30ish.  A very appreciative crowd gave a warm round of applause as Aki stood on the dj booth and danced out the last tune.

The insistence in touring sets that are like the greatest hits played at a rock concert is somewhat understandable.  Particularly when their old tracks are so killer.  But there is not only a vitality missing in doing this, there is the rock.  The rock influence in Pendulum’s brand of drum & bass takes the drop and turns it into something more like a head banging riff.  Something that upsets the very essence of dnb.

Anyway, still a very enjoyable night!

And another big one in a couple of weeks – better make the most of it, this won’t be happening too often in the near future!  But my sister is coming to Tokyo.  That night, Bass Camp @ Ageha with DJ Kentaro, Hifana, Aki and DJ Krush.  Woop!

Posted by: deliciousirony | May 19, 2012

Baby’s sex, lost birthday presents found and Johnny Depp…

If you read that as ‘baby sex’, (several of my friends, I’m looking at you) shame on you!

Pretty sweet Saturday – last Saturday this is, bit slow on it, sorry.  In the morning, M finally relented on the secret she’d held since the night before and told me the baby’s sex.  [SPOILER ALERT – FOR THOSE WHO DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE BABY’S SEX – skip to the next paragraph!] – as the doctor had previously hinted at, it’s a boy.  Still haven’t received any better ultrasound pics than the one from way back in February.  Bigger the baby gets, the less human it appears to be.

After that, I headed to Narita Airport to meet up with somebody around 11ish.  Heading into Terminal 1 there was a big line of people outside.  I didn’t ask anyone what was going on, just carried on with my business.  Coming out an hour or so later though I saw that all these people were still there but now inside Terminal 1.  I decided to pop in and ask what was going on.  I asked a security guard, ‘Who are they waiting for?’ and he replied in a Japanese accent, ‘Johnny Depp.’

I’m definitely not much of a fan of celebrity culture but Johnny (we’re on a first name basis now) is probably my favorite actor – not really for his acting per se, but for the choice and quality of the films he is in, his enduring and continually original collaborations with Tim Burton (checked out Sweeney Todd for the first time the other day – brilliant!  Can’t wait to see Dark Shadows) and just his general integrity – how many other American actors actually live outside the United States, in the south of France, no less!

He was very gracious with his fans, taking the time to shake many peoples’ hands and to sign autographs.  One girl who came with a Johnny Depp book got a little stoke under the chin (where, were she not Japanese, she would probably never wash again).  My parents saw Johnny filming The Tourist when they were tourists in Venice and took a couple of blurry photos from a distance.  My mum was the first person I emailed a photo too – ‘Guess who I just met – haha, shits all over your holiday pics, eh!?’    Certainly none of the pics are perfect, all a little blurry but I still feel pretty lucky for getting that close and for the pics I did get.  See, I’m a little embarrassed to say this has turned me into a rabid ‘oh my god!’ kinda person… shame on me…

Finally that day, I found the tie clip my parents gave me for my birthday that week (the 9th for all those still guessing).  I wore it to school that day and by the end of the day it had disappeared somewhere.  I was gutted (although I received two tie clips that day; the second, my dead grandfathers which he used to wear flying.  Luckily I didn’t wear that one!  And I’m a little paranoid about doing son now)  I had a good idea it was between my bike’s parking spot and my new little garden down behind the school soccer field.  I searched and searched for it.  The next day I swept up and down between those two spots again but still couldn’t find it.  I had checked the compost heap, digging through the pile of grass I had applied that day..  Come Saturday I am about to turn the compost heap when I spy the tie pin attached to the top of the wire frame – front and centre.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it earlier!

Happy days!  Right time for lunch then off to the garden again 🙂  Sans tie clip.

Posted by: deliciousirony | May 13, 2012

Debunking Japanese toothpaste mysteries

This is charcoal toothpaste. I’ve used this. It’s actually not bad. Strange as it is brushing your teeth with something black…

My NZ toothpaste supply ran out a while ago.  I was at a loss when I went to the supermarket so I picked one that ‘looked good’.  Turns out it is kinda crunchy and incredibly sweet so that when you’re cleaning your teeth it feels like you are doing so with a pastefull of sugar.  Surely not, right..?  But yeah, still not what I’m looking for in a toothpaste.

So this time, I decided I’d do a little research into a recommended toothpaste before I went to the supermarket.  First page I came across was this one debunking the myth that Japanese toothpaste is lacking in key ingredients, particularly fluoride.  It also provides some Japanese to help you in your toothpaste purchasing adventure.  Happily, it also recommends the toothpaste I use at school, Aquafresh.

Ok Aquafresh, here I come.

Posted by: deliciousirony | May 2, 2012

I got it! See how I scored a garden!

Hey hey,

I’ve managed to score a ‘hatake’ (basically ‘vegie garden’ in Japanese) just down the hill a little from my school.  If you’d like to read about what I’ve been up to in the garden lately, have a look at my gardening journal at MyFolia.com, a great site if you’re a gardener and looking to chronicle what you do, learn more about plants and processes or peek in on other peoples’ gardening adventures.

Cheers!

Posted by: deliciousirony | April 29, 2012

Lost in Tokyo – Mark Bramley

Beautiful, inspiring video from Mr Mark Bramley.  Makes me wanna go out learn how to shoot/edit something like this!

Posted by: deliciousirony | April 22, 2012

Just sticking with toys for now…

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Because I don’t really know anything about baby clothes yet! Saw these cute lil fellas at the Tako Nanohana Festival and had to scoop them up. They double as little zip-up carry bags too! かわいい!

This video really is pretty much on the money (although my kids are not quite as ‘namaiki’ – cheeky – as this) and it cracks me up every time.

I want to give you my impression of Japanese children after a year and a half here.  Take this with a grain of salt as I work in only one school in the countryside just out of Tokyo so my viewpoint is obviously limited.  Kids in Japan and their behaviour, vary just as they do in New Zealand, America etc.  In describing the kids, I can’t help talking about some of the routines etc.  that help shape them so this post should also give you something of an intro to Japanese school life as well.

On the whole, the students at Tako Chuu are pretty sweet.  They fulfill some of the stereotypes that Westerners have of Japanese children – they are obedient, they are shy, they all have black hair.  On my first day,  being introduced to everyone, I walked into the gym and remember being quite struck by the sea of black hair.  But of course, stereotypes help us understand very little.  Nearly two years here and I still feel like I understand very little.  What I do know still feels far to informed by stereotypes and what I’ve read in books.  The all-over-the-place nature of this piece of writing is a good signal of that!

Another stereotype that Westerners have of Japanese – actually, of Asians in general, and one that I can quickly dispel,  is that they are all smart and that they are all good students.  Within classes there is a wide range of ability levels.  Japanese classes aren’t streamed to the same degree that New Zealand classes are but I’m not sure if there is really a higher expectation on brighter students to help lower ability students catch up.  If there is, I haven’t really seen anything specifically encouraging it.  In saying this though, the Japanese school system encourages peer learning implicitly through its emphasis on pairing students and on groups.  Every class at Tako Chuu features 6 rows, put together in three sets of pairs.  Each pair has a boy and a girl sitting together (or occasionally the same sex when numbers require it).   The teaching and learning system is very focused on rote learning.  As I said though, there is an implicit sense of students working together in these pairs.  Students will often help each other, keep each other on track (nani yatten no?  – what are you doing?!), look at and share each others’ answers.

Sometimes when I eat with the class,a student will bring my lunch up for me. One day, three boys did!

This is reinforced by grouping as well.  I can’t remember ever walking past a class and seeing the tables moved into groups (except the science lab and at lunchtime where it happens everyday) but there are set groups and these groups work together on things like cleaning and serving lunch when it is their turn and so act implicitly as guiding forces for students’ behaviour and learning.  If not so much their academic learning, certainly their social learning.  In fact it may be the pressure to be a part of the group, rather than grouping itself, that encourages peer teaching/learning.  A couple of quotes from Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons The Fall of Modern Japan illustrate this idea of social learning:

‘Facts memorised for exams are only the by-product, for the real purpose of education in Japan is not education but the habit of obedience to a group…’

‘The American Ray Eberts relates the following exchange with his friend Mr Uchimura:

”If Japan’s schools are so very good, why do you have to spend so much money for extra education?”

”The children do not learn what they need to know to pass the exams for university in public schools.”

”Well, what are they doing in school, then?”

”They are learning to be Japanese.”

Getting back to the ability thing, students’ projections and reactions to their ability are also similar to Western societies’ but probably in every way somewhat toned down.  Intelligent kids for the most part are very quiet but there are those who are more precocious and the odd one to the level that they are annoying and disrespectful (a couple of particular kids come to mind…).  Students of lower ability present similar behaviours (do I sound like a psychologist!?) but significantly toned down compared to New Zealand kids.  One of the most intriguing things about Japanese kids is that when they are off task, they are generally off task very quietly!  In a New Zealand classroom when kids are off task they are usually taking other kids off task too or they are doing something else to annoy the piss out of you.  Japanese kids often sleep, read a book or manga, do juku (after school ‘cram schools’) homework or if distracting others, at least do it very quietly (note passing is quite common, and teachers’ reactions generally much slighter than their Western counterparts).

I really wish I didn't have to do that to their faces... sorry 😦

These behaviours (both students and teachers) can perhaps be traced to the ingrained cultural emphasis on harmony – maintaining harmony in a situation is paramount in Japanese society (perhaps a part of why M so often tells me ‘shoganai’ – there’s nothing that can be done about it; often when I can very clearly see something that can or could be done about it).  The need for harmony is part of why Japanese are known for talking very obscurely.  According to Boye Lafeyette DeMente, this even permits lying.  When students are off task at Tako Chuu, they usually don’t disrupt the rest of the class.  This could also be tied to the emphasis on being part of a group in Japan.  The saying, ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered down’ is a classic Japanese ‘kotowaza’ (proverb).  Western kids, on the other hand are, in my experience, much more attention-grabbing when they are not engaged in classroom learning.  They are highly individualistic and try to assert that individuality, their ‘coolness’.  They shout across the class, they stand up and walk around, they actively try to disrupt what the class is doing.

So the question that naturally arises is, does this quietness, this lack of acting out, equal children who are in any way more self – aware, more comfortable with themselves than Western children.  Well, to be honest, I don’t know.  The desire to draw the attention of others while detracting from the environment’s target (i.e. students’ education) seems to me to be very negative behaviour, indicative of personality traits including a lack of self-awareness and foresight, early narcissism and a untempered disrespect for authority.

On the other end of the scale though, there are children at Tako Chuu that are painfully quiet and shy, particularly with foreigners.  One of the most interesting things (and sometimes kinda distressing) is the reaction that some kids have to me.  If they turn around and see me walking towards them, standing near them, or about to talk to them, they nearly shit their pants.  They draw away like I’m something horrifying.  Japanese xenophobia is something I’ve read a fair amount about but the reaction is still startling.  With girls, in particular, their reactions can include pulling their body away from you, jaw dropping and eyes opening wide, through to actually backing away from you, arms crossing their body or their face (‘muri muri muri!’ – I can’t!  No!  It’s impossible!).   Of course it has something to do with being shy.  Of course it has something to do with the unfamiliar but for the Japanese this goes to a whole ‘nother level.  Shikata, or exact ways of doing things, have long been a keystone in Japanese society and being presented with someone who doesn’t know these ways and who acts outside of them, is perhaps more than some kids can handle (some adults too!).

Of course there are a bunch of kids whose reaction to me is just delightful.  Japanese kids seem to do pure joy much more so than Kiwi kids.  Some kids faces just light up when they see you, they’ll give you a big wave and throw out their most enthusiastic ‘hello’!  It’s something you don’t see very often in kids back home, at least not after six or seven years old.  There are your kids who are just ‘genki’ – happy, bright little things but in some kids there is a purity and naivety that is something quite beautiful to see in 12, 13 and 14 year olds.  I remember one girl in particular; she’s a bit gawky, maybe gets picked on a bit.  I commented on her work one day in class and the smile I was rewarded with was one of the purest brilliance.  Jesus couldn’t smile like this child did.  I was deeply touched.    Another very touching moment was when I first arrived at school and was presented with a hundred cranes made by an incredibly ‘genki’ 2nd year girl.

This post is really jumping around all over the place (thank God for the editing process!)

Returning to my lack of understanding of Japanese kids’ psychological well being, I restate the fact that I have experience with only one set of kids in one school.  You could equally find a New Zealand school where the children largely don’t act out.  I have heard some horror stories from other schools – pretty direct, aggressive challenging of teachers, bullying, unruly classes.  Japanese movies like Confessions paint a very dark picture of Japanese youth.  And books like Dogs and Demons and Japan Unmasked both have chapters dedicated to how horrific the Japanese school system is and how much students hate it… but none of these really match my experience.  In saying that, and in opposition to what I said about purity above, there are definitely some students in whom I sense a vein of darkness that does seem quantitatively different to something you might sense in Western children (nothing to the extent of Confessions though!).

I haven’t really seen any major cases of bullying.  Of course it is very difficult for me to catch kids in the act – kids are sneaky enough about bullying but when you add a foreign language into the mix, there has really only been one or two instances where I have directly heard kids saying nasty shit about each other.  Bullying often takes such subtle forms too.   Being ostracized from the group is the big one.  As Kerr writes, ‘Ijime is a national problem, and it results in several much publicised suicides of schoolchildren every year.  With a girl, it starts with being called kusai (smelly) or baikin (bacteria), and eventually takes the psychologically crushing form of not being talked to, or being shunned when she approaches.’  De Mente cites a Toyo University study measuring compassion and public conscience of junior and senior high school students from six different countries.  Japanese students scored the lowest.

This doesn’t suprise me given the attitudes I have encountered from various adults recently.  All, to varying degrees, placed the blame on the student who is being bullied.  Yes, the blame also lies with the bully, they say, but the focus always came back to the bullied who had ‘failed to make good relationships’ or whose parents ‘hadn’t changed his behaviour’ (never mind that bullying often has little to do with changeable behaviour!).  This really hit home for me all the fuss made in books about ‘group culture’.  Masao Miyazaki, quoted in Kerr’s book, puts it best: ‘…the concept of harmony means an acceptance of differences, but when the Japanese talk about harmony it means a denial of differences and an embrace of sameness.  Sameness in interpersonal relationships means a reflection of the other, the basic concept of which derives from narcissism.’ (I have Dr. Miyamoto’s book on order from the library and I can’t wait to read it!  You can be sure there will be a review!)

Another area where Japanese kids really exhibit pure emotions is in sports.  Japanese kids love sports and they love competing against each other, perhaps at no time more than the school ‘taiikusai’ (sports festival).  The preparations for it are elaborate.  As they are for most Japanese school events.  Sometimes this seems over-the-top to me but there is something to be said for the ritual that is a part of these events.  They are major events through the school year and the emphasis placed on them makes them feel like that.  New Zealand school events don’t have this emphasis to anywhere near the same degree.  Much is made about rituals that symbolize a child’s movement through the stages of childhood and the importance of these psychologically and I feel this is something Japan does much better than Western countries (that isn’t to say there aren’t criticisms though).  Practice for the taiikusai starts a week to ten days before the event.  When I first heard this, I thought this entailed a lot of practice for the events but that is not the case at all.  In fact, they are the least essential part of the practice regiment.  It is the ceremony and the group bonding that occurs through songs and cheering routines that are the emphasis of practice.  The ceremony includes marching around the track, salutations to each team and to the school principal and separate performances by the boys and girls.  The cheering routines are led by 3rd year students and culminate in a performance, points from which are added to each team’s overall score for the day.  Winning and losing is a big thing and tears will flow at the end of the day.  Have you ever seen kids cry at an athletics day back home?  And no, sprained ankles don’t count.  I’d be very surprised if anyone said yes.  It’s enough just getting kids to compete (I know, my friends and I were just the same in high school).

Boy's performance - 'kumi taiso' - umm, lit. boys group physical exercises, I guess...

Japanese students exhibit a purity seldom seen in New Zealand in the way they touch each other.  Girls at school hold hands a lot and, more surprisingly, boys often throw their arms around each other, jump on each others’ backs and can even be seen sitting on each others’ knees.  Boys in New Zealand don’t really touch each other very often, unless to hit each other, and Japanese boys certainly do that as well, but there is much less of the homophobia and machismo attached to physical contact that we have back home.  A favourite tease of Japanese boys is the ‘kanchou’ which literally means ‘enema’, where they put their hands together, index fingers pointing out and pock each other in the ringhole.  I have experienced the ‘kanchou’ but in my case, it was a teacher who liked to do this!

What I think I’m getting at is there is less cynicism generally in Japanese children.  Many New Zealand kid’s take everything with a dose of cynicism and irony, like they’ve ‘been there, done that’ all before.  With Japanese kids many things are approached with earnestness and enthusiasm.  This doesn’t apply to everything – cleaning time is, for most students, ‘do the minimal and then piss around’ time.  At Tako Chuu, the attitude towards English also, is pretty lax.  I guess for a lot of students they see English as having little relevance to their future.  The fact that English is treated largely as just another ‘pass the exam’ subject doesn’t help.  The paradoxical flip-side to this is that we ALT’s are told the goal of junior high school English is to ‘make English fun’ for students when the formulaic nature of most lessons and lack of focus on ‘real communication’ do anything but that.  There are large parts of teaching in Japan that a NZ teacher could do with their eyes closed such is the nature of the curriculum (teach to the textbook, no assignment work or essay-style exams and hence very light marking loads).

Have you ever see any Kiwi boys doing this...?

Soo… yeah… what a mess…  I’m not really that happy with this piece.  It’s a real jumble of things and there isn’t really any thread pulling it all together.  If I can pull anything out of it… Psychologically, there are certainly differences between Japanese and New Zealand children but what I’ve also figured out writing this is that humans, from country to country are really the same.  We present the same behaviours, albeit slightly different given our cultural milieu.  That cultural milieu I’m still far from understanding, particularly parenting in Japan but I guess I’m in for a crash course on it in the near future!

What else can I pull out of this… given what I just wrote, I guess I can say Japanese kids are no more comfortable with themselves or self-aware.  If they are, it is because their society features so little pluralism – there is one really strongly presented way of being and doing things that has been handed down for so long.  The negative natural conclusions of this are two fold though – 1. a lack of reflexive and critical thinking and 2. severe issues (noted in Japan’s high suicide rate and new phenomenons such as hikkomori) for those who don’t fit the mold.

Finally, there does seem to be a paradox here and that is, for all the pressure that is on Japanese kids to conform and to succeed, there is this lack of cynicism that I mentioned… a purity that you would think couldn’t exist in such a society.  I think I’ll make it my mission to look for this in students everyday.  And to help develop it in my own child.

Posted by: deliciousirony | April 19, 2012

Hiking Amagi-san

See the photos from the trip here.

Saturday we headed out of Chiba city after a huge feed at I Luv Pizza – probably the tastiest pizza dough I’ve ever eaten.  Watching the owner flip the pizzas out the back probably added to the tastiness, quantitatively and qualitatively.

We arrived just slightly late for the last bus (after receiving directions from some nice local high school lads) and so had to take the car over to Ito (the plan was to have the car in place so we could catch the bus from the end of the hike and then jump straight into the car, but didn’t quite work that way…).

The hostel we stayed in was fantastic!  It’s called K’s House, Ito and I can’t recommend it enough.  If you have friends/family coming to Japan and you want to take them somewhere, beautiful, traditional and friendly, this is it.  The building is over 100 years old, recently renovated, with a onsen in the basement and full of beautiful timber and touches of Japanese style.  Price-wise too, it did the job too – 4400 yen each.

Looking through the dining area and out toward the river

We parked the car, took in a cheap Chinese dinner and had a wander around Ito, coming across one of its less savory establishments – ピンク座.   After a relaxing onsen back at the hostel, we readied for bed and the next day.

Catching the 7.55am bus from bay no.3 at the station (the next bus ain’t until 10 so if you’re planning on doing this hike, I recommend staying at K’s and then getting that first bus), we made our way to Amagi Kogen Golf Course, the last stop.  Here’s how to do it.  Follow the other hikers to the start of the track and from there, the signs to Mt. Banjirodake, a 45 min or so uphill, nothing too difficult and about the worst you’ll face all day.

A very happy Japanese-American man.

As you can see, the mist was fairly heavy that early part of the day, making for some great horror movie forest effects.  From Mt Banjirodake the path undulates for another hour or so to the highest point of the Amagi-san ridgeline, Mt. Banzaburo-dake, where we, pre-occupied with eating, forgot to take any photos!  We made it, really, I swear!

Another 6km or so of easy walking gets you to Hacho Pond, a peaceful little clearing surrounded by beech trees.  On the way you’ll pass the Snake Beech, a beech tree bent more in the shape of a snail than a snake.  At least, we thought so.  You’ll also see some nice alpine grasslands and plenty of fallen trees, roots splayed, baring all.

The last couple of hours of the hike see you heading slowly downhill crossing some wasabi beds (dunno if this is the right word…?) along the way.  With about 15 minutes to go, you reach a junction pointing down to the old Amagi Tunnel.  This is the end of the track and another sign will point you down to the bus stop.  We managed to make the 3.44 with about one minute to spare.

Despite our logistical problems, it was a great weekend.  Cheers to Kate for letting me crash once again on the way back!

Posted by: deliciousirony | April 4, 2012

I shoulda been a skinhead…

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Agree?

Posted by: deliciousirony | April 4, 2012

Husband and wife creating things together

On Saturday night M and I went to observe a pottery class at the community plaza.  As the picture attests, simply observe we did not.  The people there were super friendly, the teacher fantastic and we spent two and a half hours each making a coffee cup.  They now sit in that same room drying before heading into the kiln.  The classes are on a Wednesday and a Saturday but the Saturday classes are actually a bunch of people preparing work for a competition so that will probably be the last Saturday night we attend for a while.  And unfortunately for me, Wednesday nights I have Tako English Club so until August at least (when the competition is over and done with) that’ll be the last pottery class for me.  Damn, I enjoyed it so much… creating something….

Anyway, I’m rambling because yes, that title does say husband and wife.  Manami and I got married at the local town hall on March 22nd.  No muss, no fuss.  No money for a mussin’ and a fussin’ as we have a little bundle of joy on the way come the end of August.  Manami was creating two things that night.  I was compensating for my desire to create like her (according to a book I’m reading).  I do have the desire to make something coursing through my blood though.  I’m constantly thinking about gardening, woodworking, the clay (now) and building a home on a little patch of land.

So would we otherwise be married now if Manami wasn’t four months pregnant?  No, probably not, but I am very happy.  I’m looking forward to being a father.  We’re hoping for a girl.  Manami is a strong, crazy women, someone who will work the kinks out of me (probably create a few new ones at the same time) and help me become a fuller human being.

And that seems like a good place to finish.  For now.

Posted by: deliciousirony | March 18, 2012

A Little Tokyo Photo Essay

It’s 5.30 on Sunday evening.  I woke up an hour ago.  I got home at 8.30 after leaving a club in Roppongi, Tokyo at 4.15, walking an hour and a half to Tokyo Station, riding the train to Nippori and then another on out to Narita airport, sitting watching CNN there for 40 minutes (while being questioned by a plain clothes) and then riding the bus out to Tako.

The long walk took me all the way down Roppongi-doori, following the expressways running above my head.  I then wandered through the government building area learning the Japanese for Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Internal Affairs and so on.  Greeting the policeman and security guards starting their day.  Next I wandered through the edges of the Imperial Gardens and then through the financial district (SMBC Securities…  why do I have no idea what the hell they do…? is this why I’ll never be rich…?) leading me to Tokyo Station.

On my long walk I took a few photos.  This is them.

And this is a video I shot.

I was looking for a book that could help explain why M and I fight the way we do.  I spent a good hour in the Kinokuniya bookstore, the eight floor behemoth not far from the north east exit of Shinjuku station.  But relationship advice was only one of the reasons I was looking for a book on Japanese culture.  I had for a while been wanting to read something that could help me get a better idea of what was really happening in this society.  I was looking for a book that could help me reflect on my experiences here so far.  I was looking for a book that would deepen my understanding and help me to appreciate how the Japanese do things and why they are done that way.

I didn’t really get it in Boyé Lafeyette De Mente’s Japan Unmasked.

The book felt flat, uninteresting and became quite boring a lot of the time.  Despite a lifetime of experience with Japan, De Mente tells little in the way of stories, provides little in the way of interesting characters, players in the field, resources, references or depth.  What we are given instead feels as light and dry as a sembei cracker.

The book is divided into 38 short chapters.  The short chapters, while making for variety, were insufficient in depth to be really stimulating.  Certainly, some of the history sections and tales of old Japan were very interesting (the beginnings of the yakuza being one particular tale) but the information on the picture today isn’t deep enough.  In the chapter on bureaucracy, for instance, there is no look at the bureaucratic structure of any Ministry or any serious cases of bureaucratic incompetence.  Thus, the bureaucracy of Japan remains this amorphous group of Japanese salarymen whose processes and actual level of inefficiency I still know little about.

That said, I did find out what Japanese bureaucrats apparently spend most of their time doing – writing the question and answers, the script, essentially, for the members of the Diet, Japan’s parliament.  That’s when they are not entertaining people of import by enjoying the company of high priced ‘hostesses’; part of the way business is done here.  Welcome to Japan.

DeMente’s central idea is that Japan’s unique culture is primarily derived from the kata-ization of everything that went on from about the 7th century onwards.  Starting in the Heian court, very specific ways of  ‘correctly’ doing things slowly filtered down through the ranks of society, from the Imperial Court to the samurai, to the merchants and artisans and finally, to the farmers.  These prescribed methods (think wet rice farming, court etiquette, kanji stroke order, the tea ceremony, the making of arts and crafts etc. as some basic examples) became the standard and served to homogenize the Japanese severely.

These kata gave the Japanese distinct advantages and disadvantages.  The ability to work in groups for a well defined goal, dexterity with small objects (as a result of learning kanji), a desire to do their best and an emphasis on quality mark some of the advantages.  But the kata also promoted groupthink, where change becomes highly undesirable and people are  highly reluctant to show originality or take responsibility.  The kata’s design, to promote and maintain harmony, also made it so that interactions became very indirect and could even permit lying to maintain said harmony.   These disadvantages are at the heart of the challenges facing Japan right now.

The book presents these sort of insights largely through a business discourse which wasn’t the angle that I wanted to come at this from.  For someone with little knowledge of Japanese culture the book probably provides a wide perspective on where the Japanese have come from and where they are at now.  For me though, it meant covering a lot of things which I already knew very superficially, adding little in terms of new knowledge, complexity or depth.

The kata concept, I must admit, is very interesting and I do want to know more about the ”hundreds” of kata that made up Japanese life, pre-WWII.  Perhaps DeMente’s other books, such as KATA – The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese (although that sounds suspiciously ‘businessman – targeted’ as well) and, more promisingly, Japan’s Cultural Code Words (I looked seriously at this one in the bookstore) provide some of that knowledge and depth that was lacking in Japan Unmasked.

It must also be said that the book introduced me to some interesting new concepts that I look forward to finding out more about, such as shinjinrui – very literally meaning, new breed of peoplea term used by traditionalists to describe  the Japanese born post-World War II, their values and lifestyle being so different from that of the old.

So did the book help me in understanding why M and I kenka suru (fight) the way we do?  Yeah, bits and pieces did throw a little light on the cultural differences and why we argue the way we do.  Are we still fighting though?  You bet!

Posted by: deliciousirony | February 29, 2012

So I got kicked out of the swimming pool last night…

Japan’s reasonably well known aversion to tattoo’s greeted me as I was about to get into the pool last night.  A women from the SANMU GENKIKAN came out as I was stretching at the poolside.  She accused me of being talked to about this a couple of weeks earlier.  I had been to the pool a couple of weeks earlier but no one had said anything to me.  I had enjoyed their sauna with the tv in it after a swim.

Now, when I am in the pool I wear a rashtop to cover my tattoo.  There is no option for some kind of bandage here.  However, when I go into the ofuro (bath) I get naked.  I don’t  get into the pools but I do use the sauna.  I dunno if someone in the sauna said something or if a staff member noticed and blah blah blah… who cares…

I listened to the first lady who talked to me and she outlined how it was ‘Nihon bunka’ and a few other things I didn’t properly understand.  The second lot of people as I collected my shoe locker key I didn’t even bother trying to understand their very fast, very polite Japanese; I just brusquely said, ‘Wakarimashita’ (I get it).  Being hacked off and kinda indignant I just wasn’t really interested in hearing the message, something I regret somewhat now.

Well, I still have the pool over the back of Yokaichiba.  Its about a 15 km ride on the freshly retreaded bike.  That’s right, I give my car back in a week or so in an effort to save some dosh.  It’s gonna be too cold for another month or so at least I think.  But Yokaichiba’s pool is cheaper, closer.  And it is a fun ride on the bike.  I just hope I can get them to up the temp on their sauna! Haha!

Posted by: deliciousirony | February 23, 2012

Ueno’s Winter Valentines gift

Was greeted by these pretty sights in Tokyo’s Ueno Park the other night while returning home from M’s.  There was even a couple of Japanese couples making out around the place!!

Posted by: deliciousirony | February 17, 2012

So little snow even a woman could do it..

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I was gonna add a photo of last night’s snowfall but well the shot I got ain’t all that impressive and anyway, the stupid WordPress app only let’s me uploaded one at a time.

As for the title of this little post; well, I came across this (i.e. the photo) the other day looking for vinyl greenhouses (or ‘onshitsu’, lit. ‘warm room’) for my balcony. The highlighted Japanese basically says, ‘so easy to construct, even women can do it’.

I couldn’t believe it at first; the idea of reading something like this in a western advertisement is so foreign.

My first reaction was to burst out laughing. I pointed it out to a young female colleague. She was in a hurry out the door and didnt really say much. Did she not get it because of that or did she just not get it?

Well, I introduced the page to the school office ladies (sorry, school office people… folk… workers… professionals?) last friday and they had no idea what I was talking about. ‘futsuu no hyougen, deshou’ (‘it’s an ordinary expression’), I was told. I explained how that was perceived in the West and showed them a couple of old advertising pics.

Obviously, there are things that are ‘otoko no tokui’ and ‘onna no tokui’ (men’s specialties and women’s specialties).  To what degree this is natural or is culturally conditioned is a question I do not have the answer to.  Perhaps, in one sense, the Japanese are more honest and realistic about these roles.    But as I tried to explain to the office ladies, it’s more about the ‘idea’ in the West.  The idea that making certain spheres primarily ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ is inhibiting to both sexes.  The idea that a women (or increasingly, a man) should not be looked at as strange or different because they are capable at something that is typically the other sex’s domain.  Finally, the idea that a woman should not be inhibited from doing something she enjoys because she will be perceived as ‘masculine’.  I use the word ‘idea’ but perhaps the word ‘ideal’ is more apt – as the oven cleaning ad linked to above suggests, we still have a long way to go before we are past the idea of a gendered division of labour.  Lampooning it only shows how prevelant it still is, but it is a step in the right direction, I believe.   A step along the way towards a new reality we are creating. 

Japan, as a nation and a culture, has for a very long time, had incredibly entrenched ideas about roles.  This I was aware of.  Still, this provided quite an interesting new insight into how entrenched what we would call very old fashioned ideas about women’s roles still are in Japan. Also, it is interesting to compare with what’s going on in America’s military right now.

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Turns out I can add another photo. The things men can do!

I had a great time in Japan, Michael was a great tour guide. I arrived on the Friday night and as soon as I got there it was all go. I dropped off my suitcase at his place, packed my bag and we headed into Tokyo, where we stayed for 3 nights with his girlfriend Manami. The next morning I got a traditional Japanese breakfast which was rice, fish, pumpkin and some potato salad which was really yum!!  I really enjoyed (most) of the food in Japan especially the raw fish (salmon, squid) and I think most of it was relatively healthy which was a bonus.

Nic enjoying a dirty little ramen joint :)

The next night we went out to a club, it was huge.  It was an old building with about 4 floors, all below ground.  There were people everywhere but I didn’t see any security staff around the building at all.  It was very smoky inside as you can mostly smoke anywhere in Japan. We were in the huge main room where the dj was playing and the sound was amazing and so were all the visuals, nothing like I had heard before. That was a great night but my jet lag was catching up on me a bit so I was quite tired.

Jet lagged

We went out for Halloween and we went to the big zoo in Tokyo, that was cool.  Seen a big Panda, it looked really dopey.  There were heaps of strange animals I had never seen before like long haired monkeys and wild cats.

Not the big dopey panda at Ueno Zoo

Michael took me to a cat café.  You may have seen the photos of the cats on my Facebook. It’s just a wee shop you go into, they give you a hot drink and there are heaps of cats that you can play with . The cats were lazy and liked to sleep but a few got up and chased feathers. We also went to a maid café where girls serve you dressed up as maids.  That was an experience but I think to people in Japan its normal, not seen as anything wrong at all, Michael liked it (he likes the Japanese girls).  I really didn’t see many hot Japanese guys at all, there are a lot more pretty Japanese girls. Everyone is really nice there and the service is excellent.

Love from the maids of Akiba - moe moe kyuuuun!

The shopping over there is crazy.  There are lots of shops that come out on to the street. The clothes there are really nice but the girls there are tiny!!! So the clothes are really small. I didn’t do much shopping as we didn’t really have time.  I came home with a nice top and skirt.  We went to the Hello Kitty store which was fun, so much stuff everywhere. Mike’s girlfriend got me a nice Hello Kitty watch.

Hello Kitty in the flesh

I went to Mike’s school with him for a few days.  The schools are not too different from here, they were all really friendly. Was hard because I couldn’t talk Japanese so there were quite a lot of blank looks, I think they are very curious about white people, ha. The kids are better behaved than home and they get these really good school lunches that get delivered with rice, fish, soup etc. One girl did grab my tit and said I have a good size chest (yes, very curious).

We did lots of hiking.  We went to a place called Hakone where we climbed Mount Kintoki which was beautiful and the weather was really nice for it. From the top there was a wee hut with an old lady who sometimes lives up there.  She told us some really interesting stories, she has been coming up and down the mountain for 65 years!!!! You could see Mount Fuji from the top I got some good photos of that. We stayed in a youth hostel that was traditional Japanese style so we slept on the floor, was good to experience that. Had an onsen (hot pool) there where you get naked and bath in a big hot spring, very relaxing.  Later in the trip when we were in a place called Kobe I had an onsen with lots of other naked women, that was an experience!!

We went to a big hot pool park in Hakone.  There were lots of different hot pools (coffee, green tea, red wine, sake) and there was a water slide and lots of different relaxing pools. Michael and I weren’t allowed in the outside onsen (naked bit) as we had tattoos which I think are perceived as a gang related thing so in a public place you can’t have them shown. I don’t think I saw anyone with a tattoo over there.

Stayed in an internet café in Shinjuku where you pay to sleep in a little box for the night if you live far away or have missed the train or just need somewhere to stay. Was quite cramped and the bright lights stayed on all night so I had to cover my face but surprisingly feel asleep quite easily.

We went on a camping trip with some of Mike’s friends to a place called Yamanashi. We hiked the Nishizawa Valley, the autumn colours were beautiful. There were lots of really pretty waterfalls along the walk as well. We stayed in a cabin and cooked a huge bbq outside and I discovered I have a new favourite drink, black Russian.

Nishizawa Valley

We all went to the rollercoaster park called Fuji-Q Highland.  God it was scary but so much fun. The first one we went on was by far the scariest.  You go up really high then you just drop and it goes so fast I couldn’t even put my arms up I was so scared. The second one you got fully strapped in, we had to wait quite a long time as the lines were really big so I just kept getting more and more nervous.  I thought this one was going to be really scary as it looked really hardout but it wasn’t as bad as the first one but man, they go fast. Went on a water ride where Mike got soaked and another one which is like the Tower of Terror with how it shoots out really fast then it goes up and over a big rise. I met a nice boy on the camping trip but he couldn’t really talk English so there was no way that would have worked ha.

We took trains all the time, the train stations in Japan are huge and they are run so well the trains are run right down to the second. We went on the bullet train to Hiroshima which is a huge train called the Skinkansen, they go very fast.

Hiroshima was a beautiful city.  We hired bikes that were motorised and toured around the city. We went to the big peace memorial site where the atomic bomb was dropped and looked all around the area and in the museum, this was one of my favourite bits of the trip, really interesting.

We went on a ferry over to Miyajima Island where there was a huge shrine out in the water called Itsukushima. It is a big orange coloured statue, it is a world heritage site and when the tide went out we got to walk out to it and throw coins up on to it. We climbed Mount Misen on the island which was probably my favourite hike.  It was just a really nice climb and there were deer all over the island they were really tame but they did try to steal your food!!!!! I ate some different food, I had eel which is a delicacy over there, it was alright. I liked octopus balls (takoyaki), the onigiri was really nice which was rice that had chicken and mayo in it wrapped in seaweed. I had them for lunch lots as they were easy and cheap. There were nice puff pastry balls filled with meat called nikuman.  I would say they would be the Japanese equivalent to a NZ pie. Also they make savoury pancakes with cabbage and egg they were gooooooooood. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the food in Japan. Except I didn’t like tofu, natto (fermented soybean) or the green tea noodles (cold and slimey.)

We went on a nice hike around a wee moat village in a city called Nara, where there were lots of yummy nice fruit growing on all the trees, big mandarins, grapefruit, apples, eggplant, capsicum and persimmon. The persimmon was really nice and refreshing it looked like an orange tomato. In the village there were lots of temples and there were some emperor’s tombs that were interesting but we didn’t know if they were actually buried under the big lumps of ground or not. That night we went out to a small club in Osaka where lots of different djs were playing, I noticed they just free pour their spirits there, they don’t measure them. That was a good night of dancing.

There are temples everywhere in Japan, they are just in between all the big high buildings, they sell lots of good luck charms in Japan to do with marriage, pregnancy and love. We went to a gold castle called Kinkaku Temple, that was beautiful. There are always people everywhere at all the touristy places but I never felt like it was too crowded except on the trains were you are just all squished together.

Five storey pagoda on Miyajima

I had such a great holiday! Before I go back again I want to learn some basic Japanese. Mike’s Japanese is really good I think if he stays there for another couple of years which he thinks he is going to, he will be fluent by then. I am very glad that I went. I can’t wait to go travelling again!

Woop! Japan!


Posted by: deliciousirony | February 9, 2012

The Joyful Conspiracy

Someone doesn’t want me visiting Tomisato’s ジョイフル (Joyful).  Or perhaps the 神様 (Gods) have something against it..  maybe they’ve just got something against me.

Context.  ジョイフル is a big box homeware store about 30 minutes drive from where I live in god-awful looking Tomisato.  I heard it was the place to go for the random assortment of homeware items I needed.  The first trip I took on Monday.  I found the place eventually.  Half of it is currently wrapped in black undergoing some sort of renovations.  Probably making the place even bigger.  If someone had just told me, head to the two gaudy 6 or 7 storey love hotels, its just in front of those, I would have had an easier time.  No worries, 7.38pm I park my car, plenty of time…  What kind of big box store closes at 7pm?!?!?   So I headed home, stopping along the way to sit with the young Japanese men at Matsuya’s counter, talking to no one, and eating a cheap, shitty gyuudon (beef on top of rice) .

The next night I tried again.  My car needed an oil change.  This went as planned and I set out at 4.47pm, plenty of time.  And I arrived with plenty of time.  But arrive only just, did I.  A couple of corners before ジョイフル my iPhone, running through the car stereo, starts cutting out.  Then my battery light comes on…  I take the iPhone out, turn off the window wipers and drive along past ジョイフル in the hopes of recharging the battery.  No such luck.  My lights start getting dim.  People start flashing their headlights at me and eventually the car simply dies.  I manage to pull off the road with no problems and start walking to an open garage I saw down the street.
‘Sumimasen, chotto mondai ga arun desukedo… boku no kuruma wa, 100 metoru gurai, acchi (points in the direction of the car), batteri ga nakunachatta…’ (Excuse, I have a bit of a problem.   The battery in my car has died about 100 metres down the street).

The young fella at the shop was very helpful.  He had a nice smile but fucked up teeth and he laughed at my 神様 (Gods) line.  He told me he could change the battey and it would sting me about 12,000 yen.  When I told him it was a rental car things became slightly more difficult.  I had to find the number for the rental company.
‘Sumimasen, chotto onegai shitain desuga, denwa de nihongo wa mada muzukashii desu… renta ka ya san ni denwa kaketekuremasuka…?’ (Umm.. Japanese on the telephone is still really difficult for me… could you do me a favour and ring the rental car company for me…?).  He did me this favour and the owner of the rental car shop told him to swap the battery and make sure I took away a receipt.

Tests on the battery revealed the car’s alternator was also rooted.  That’s why I now have no car for three days.  No major worries, I’m planning to give it up at the end of the month anyway.  The friendly mechanic with the bad teeth but nice smile told me, ‘noranaide’, which, although it doesn’t fit my current understanding of the word, I took to mean drive straight home, don’t stop on the way.  Also, I had to take the car to the rental car place first thing the next day.  I was hungry but I couldn’t stop,  I was a little cold but I couldn’t turn on the heater, it was a little rainy but I couldn’t… no, I did use the window wipers, I’m not crazy.

I decided to grab dinner at an izakaya (Japanese style pub) about 300 metres from my house.  If the car wouldn’t start again I could easily walk home.  I had been to this little joint for only the second time the previous week.  Last week I couldn’t drink but this week, no problem, and I certainly had a good excuse.  I ordered up oyakodon (chicken and egg on rice – oya means parent, ko means child) and a big bottle of beer.  The ‘jyouren’ (locals, regulars), my friend and I discovered last week, are very friendly.  The friendliest, Tada-san arrived half way through my meal.  He bought me another bottle of beer, got his own huge bottle of shochu (Japanese liquor) from the shelf and started chatting away.  He poured me a little shochu and from there it was all over..  Japanese hospitality took control.  Tada-san’s chatting became singing; the local high school song, which he still remembers perfectly from some 40 odd years ago).  I arrived about 7.30.  Before I knew it, it was quarter to ten.  When I left, it was well after 11.  ‘Don’t worry, shochu doesn’t give you a hangover’ (futsukayoi in Japanese – literally ‘two days drunk’).  Haha.  I certainly felt pretty crook this morning.

And that’s my story.  Maybe next week I will manage to make it to Joyful and buy the bits and bobs I’m after.  Gods, give me a sign.

Posted by: deliciousirony | February 7, 2012

Japanese Girls – for anyone who likes a bit of indie pop rock!

In a fit of reliving 90’s rock a week ago on Sunday I played this little ditty for M.

Somehow this one didn’t get stuck in my head like The Offspring’s Bad Habit and Self Esteem, and Green Day’s classic, Basketcase.  A few straight hours of dirty drum n bass the other night seems to have finally dealt to them though.

The pondering about a 90’s rock karaoke night still lives on though…

Posted by: deliciousirony | January 8, 2012

Drum & bass @Womb

A few shots from the O6S drum n bass night at Womb in Shibuya, 7 Jan.  Sweet beats.

Posted by: deliciousirony | December 29, 2011

Don’t hate me cos I’m beautiful…

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A shot from the day after I had my wisdom teeth removed, three days ago. Left hand side only, obviously.

Wonderful Japanese health system – I organized the appt two weeks ago and it’s already done. The cost – a mere 6,300 yen (bout $100 bucks) including the pharmacy prescription!

The only annoying bit (beside the pain itself) is the incredibly insufficient amount of painkillers I was given. So today I’ll be on the phone with my dealer.. I mean, my dentist for some more.

Otherwise, seem to be recovering well. Read Slaughterhouse 5 and now onto Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (I couldn’t find a copy of 1Q84 out in Narita before the op).  Watching plenty of Gundam Wing and Boardwalk Empire.  As I fear my eyes are really gonna go square, today’s gonna be a little more productive.

I posted this, didn’t I? 😉

Posted by: deliciousirony | December 25, 2011

Choushi sightseeing

 

Had my school bounenkai (end of year party) in Choushi on Thursday night.  Choushi is a small city (about 70,000 people) on the far eastern tip of Chiba prefecture.  The party was held at the Keisei Hotel, right on the tip of Cape Inubo, near the famous lighthouse there.

It was my first time to visit, so the following day, after starting with an outdoor onsen watching the ocean and the sunrise, I did some sightseeing.  Firstly, I took in the lighthouse.  No pictures of it but several pictures from it.  Along the way I took in the Horizon clifftop, where slightly elevated, you can see the rounding of the horizon.  I also cruised past the Port, checking out the fishing industry.  And incidentally the local skate park.

I briefly took in a temple to Kannon in the middle of Choushi.  I don’t know what the name of it was but it had cool bonzai surrounding the main building, barbed wire surrounding the pagoda and I had what started as a very loose but turned into a very deep prayer there.

I crossed the bridge into Ibaraki ken determined to find the industrial plants I could see clouding the sky from the lighthouse.  These were further away than what I thought.  I crisscrossed little backroads on this narrow strip of land between the Tone River and the Pacific Ocean.  Finally I ended up back on the main highway where I realised I was still a good 5 or 10 kilometres away from these plants.  Getting closer I noticeably sensed a change in my breathing.  It was so foreign seeing these giant stacks pouring steam (and I hope only steam) out the top.  I thought about how much of our modern lives come from places like this and yet how unfamiliar I am with the sight of them.  How little land, even in Japan, we dedicate to them relative to agriculture, retail, housing etc.

I cruised back into Choushi and picked up a couple of ALT friends for lunch.  They took me to a little cafe called Curaccho Cafe that specialises in bagels.  The salmon cream cheese bagel was awesome.  The coffee art even better.  I also ordered the blueberry cheese cake which came with little jam filled love hearts embossed into it and plenty of cream – great place.

They then took me to a supermarket called Yamaya that has a lot of foreign brand goods.  There were a lot of quality items that I recognised from home like pasta sauces, delicious beers and couscous.  I bought a few things that I will need after my wisdom teeth surgery on Monday – soups, juices etc.

It was at this point that I parted ways with my friends and with Choushi, bidding the giant wind turbines farewell on my way out the 126.

Posted by: deliciousirony | December 20, 2011

The strange things students asked me to watch today…

Today I was asked to look at a digital singing star named Hatsune Miku

and a cartoon called Capelito (カペリート in Japanese).

The latter is seemingly of Spanish origin.  Simply, it’s a claymation about a mushroom whose top changes at the squeeze of his nose.  Some third year girls were doing this weird thing squeezing their noses and this is what they directed me to watch.  The former I was introduced to by a second year girl in a note she wrote and put in my ‘mail box’.  The singer is a projection.  The vocals are fully digitalised, created on software called Vocaloid (the name given to these types of singers also… sinister sounding, right…?  so Blade Runner… since arriving, I haven’t really came in to much contact with this tech-future fetish the Japanese, through anime and manga, so clearly express… cool..), that was put together by Yamaha and a Spanish university.

Look at that, a link to our little  カペリート above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: deliciousirony | December 19, 2011

Today’s lunch

Look what we got for lunch today! It was so delicious, I then accosted students for theirs (every interaction is a learning experience, right? Sometimes the kids learn something too!).

Whereas we dig on fruit cake for Xmas, the Japanese usually eat sponge cake, one of the little differences in their adaptation of the holiday.

I’ve spent the past few lessons doing various Christmas related lessons with the students. In the course of these I’ve found out a few things about Santa and Christmas.

One, where does Santa live? Ask Kiwi kids and the answer unanimously would be the North Pole. Ask Japanese kids and the answer can vary from Finland to NZ to my house.

Two, how many Santas are there? (the red underline when I pluralize ‘Santa’ adds a meta level to this question!) Despite the issue of department store Santas the answer almost unanimously would be one, right? In Japan the best answer is probably いっぱい – ‘a lot’.

Three, how does Santa get in the house. Actually the majority of the kids answered ‘entotsu’ meaning chimney. But barely any Japanese homes have chimneys.. I said to them. ‘Through the window’ was another popular answer (like a common thief!). ‘With the key’ I thought was the most original!

Four, how many presents do Japanese kids get? The majority get one. But, for New Year the average Japanese kid receives about $400 in cash, so kinda balances out.

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Posted by: deliciousirony | December 18, 2011

A holiday message from the Odakyu Line

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If you are drinking alcohol at your ‘bounenkai’ (lit. forget the year party) or ‘shinnenkai’ (new year party) please be extra careful in the train station.

Don’t cause トラブル (trouble) in the train. It’s bad to fall on the rails too.

Thanks,

The Odakyu Line

Posted by: deliciousirony | October 25, 2011

Look what I brought today…

The world's most entertainingly named biscuits!

I too frequently see interesting Japanese takes on English but it hadn’t occurred to me that they might do it with French as well. Whether or not the French works, its the phonetic arrangement in English that made me chuckle. And of course, I took a box home.

I have been rather neglectful of my blog of late. A glut of television watching, Japanese study, an online course I’m doing and hanging out with M. are to blame. I do plan to do something more in that series of things I have seen in a year here. Although my sister arrives at the end of this week, staying until mid November, so don’t expect anything else too soon!

Posted by: deliciousirony | September 7, 2011

What I know one year in, Pt. 2 – Raw horse is pretty good! (Food)

Japanese food is internationally renowned.  Whether for it’s refinement.  Or for it’s oddities. Everybody has heard of sushi.  Most people know about those plates of plastic food they have in restaurant windows (yes, they do often look good enough to eat!).  Tokyo is the best place in the world to eat out – it boasts more Michelin stars than any other city in the world.  Across the world, Japanese restaurants are everywhere.  Even ol’ Invers, the antithesis of style and cosmopolitanism, can boast maybe three Japanese restaurants (OK, I can think of at least one sushi bar and a pretty decent little restaurant).  My university town, a couple hundred kilometres up the road can boast a half a dozen places easily, all the ones I sampled being pretty decent.

Food in Japan is something of an obsession.  As the Japanese have cultivated a very unique culture in their island isolation, so they have cultivated a very unique cuisine.  There are places to eat literally everywhere.  Omiyage (gift giving after you go on a trip) mostly centres around food.  Each prefecture is nigh represented by the food it is famous for.  You come back from a trip (or tell people about an upcoming trip) and you can bet they will know what food that place is famous for (check out this site for a bit of a list).  Rice, fish and ritual, of course, abound.

I’m sure many examples of Japanese cuisine have similar dishes on the continent, in Korea and China.  I don’t yet know enough to tell you, but certainly the Chinese and Korean food in Japan is very different.  Anyway, Japan, being an island country, I’m sure, has a cuisine that is unique to itself.  My favourite Japanese food so far? (as good a place to start as any).  I’m still telling people it’s takoyaki, small deep-fried balls of octopus, popular at matsuri (festivals)… but I’m starting to doubt the truth of this.  It works well because I live in Tako-machi (sometimes people will joke and call it octopus town but the kanji actually stand for ‘many old things’)  I think I’m more in love with takoyaki sauce than anything else…

I’m very tempted to say okonomiyaki, a thick savoury pancake usually filled with cabbage and seafood, but it has a sauce that is very similar to takoyaki.  I’ve recently started to make this at home though and first time I did it, I forgot the sauce and it was still pretty awesome…  For straight freshness and flavour, you can’t beat a really good slice of maguro (tuna) sashimi.  That may currently be my favourite…  Then again the garlic pepper ‘big chicken’ from Lawsons has rocked my world a couple of times lately.

Okonomiyaki

As the sheep is to New Zealand, so rice is to Japan.  Even paddock and paddies share the first four letters.  My apartment is surrounded by rice paddies, but also, unfortunately, by a busy state highway on one side – microcosmic Japan.  I believe last year’s rice harvest was 8.6 million tonnes.  It is just coming up harvest time now.  The rice is starting to turn brown.  The machines are being brought out to pull it up and day by day more and more paddies will lose their lush green to be reduced to brown nubs.  At some point that will be burnt off, returning that nutrition to the soil and all around me will be a filthy brown until the spring comes.

Rice, my house (top floor, far left) and a dirty empty field

My local town is famous for rice – Tako Mai they call it.  I can’t remember its properties off the top of my head.  That’s right, different types of rice have different properties.  It’s a bit like that thing where Eskimos (is that the right word now?) have 30+ words for snow.  I guess we have all manner of different types of potato… And if you’ve ever made sushi, you know you use a particular type of rice… But anyway, some rice is better for cooking, some is better for making mochi, a sticky paste made from pounding the rice and which is eaten in soups and as a confectionary, even as ice cream.

That brings me quite nicely to Japanese confectionary – known as wagashi.  If food is an obsession, sweets/candy/lollies, whatever you call them, is an artform here.  Japanese sweets are typically less sweet than their Western counterparts.  The most common ingredients are an, a paste made from red beans and mochi.  Various flavours are added, such as sakura (cherry blossoms) and yuzu (a type of citrus fruit).  You can check out some examples here.  And I encourage a Google Image Search!

Sakura ankoh - beautiful, ne?!

Of course there are many Western style confectionaries in Japan.  The chocolate selection mostly consists of Japanese brands – Ghana, Meiji, but thankfully, Snickers seems to be the most common foreign bar for sale in konbinis.  Yes, the konbini.  Here, you can pick up all manner of on-the-run goods.  Starting with confectionary – chocolate, ice-cream, various hard boiled things, maybe some kind of gum-drops; I’m not sure, I’ve never bought them, puddings (pronounced ‘purin’); small plastic tubs of various flavoured custard-like puddings, bakery style sweets; i.e. shit with cream in it!  Yum!  Umm… what have I missed… I think that covers most things.

I’ve already mentioned the wonderful garlic pepper big chicken – a rather delicious variety of yakitori (fried meat on a skewer, a Japanese favourite, particularly at izakaya and matsuri).  You can also pick up nikuman, a large Chinese dumpling – doughy on the outside, full of flavoured meat on the inside.  Nothing compared to Yokohama Chinatown but still pretty good.  All the drinks under the sun, including alcohol, are at your fingertips.  I particularly like the Mt Rainiers iced coffee and the apple juices.  The 8% chuhai’s (500ml of course – do the math on how many beers that is) are a good starter for a night out.  There are a bunch of different bentos (ready-made meals) you can buy – pastas, salads, rice and meat, fried chicken, which are handy for a cheap meal when you’re out or a quick meal when you can’t be bothered.  The onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed, containing chicken, fish, salmons eggs etc.) are a great cheap lunch.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the konbini – cos right now, it’s just sounding a lot like a Night ‘n’ Day back home, right? – is the ubiquity of them.  There are about four or five competing major brands – Lawsons, 7-11, Mini-Stop, Family Mart, Daily Yamazaki – and they are everywhere.  Within one kilometre of my house, I have a 7 – 11, a Lawsons and a Mini Stop.  Oh, before I forget, the Lawsons sell gig tickets as well.  Its about the only way I’ve bought tickets to anything in Japan – they’ve got it locked down and it’s so easy!  Back on topic, out of city centres, they have huge carparks (well, compared to a convenience store back home where you generally park on the road or the little carpark tucked in the back; they’re still nothing compared to the pachinko parlour carparks!) and are totally geared to car culture.  It’s often really hard to find a rubbish bin in Japan but you are always guaranteed to find one outside a konbini because people pull up, dump their rubbish from yesterday’s mid-commute konbini visit and go in and buy the next day’s cheap food.  It isn’t just major highways though, konbini’s are everywhere.  On a little country backroad suddenly a sign pops up for a 7 – 11, it’s weird.  The thing here, at least in heavily populated Chiba, is that the country is never the country.

Oh, I forgot to mention, you can pay your bills at most konbini, all have a photocopier and most have an ATM (don’t get me started on Japanese ATMs though..).

We’ve been to the rice paddy.  To the konbini.  Where shall we go next?  How about to school?  The school lunches here go by the name kyuushoku.  What this means is that at most schools, the children don’t actually bring their lunch to school, nor do they buy it at school.  Rather, a local company makes all the lunches and trucks it into the school each day.  Parents are billed monthly.  My lunch for a month costs me 4700 yen, about NZ$70 dollars.  Not bad if you think about how much you probably spend on lunch for a month.  And this is a biiiig lunch.  So big, my eyes flutter shut on a far too regular basis on steamy Japanese summer arvos.  The deliveries are organised based on class.  Each class will have a large stainless trolley that is put in the elevator (most Japanese schools are three or four stories high) and then wheeled in front of the class where it is unloaded by that week’s assigned students and served to the class.  I really haven’t asked anyone yet why the Japanese use this system.  Should probably do that.  Westerners would probably quickly ascribe ideas like, ‘as everyone is eating the same thing and the class stays seated together, it reinforces the idea of the group’ and this may be true, but at the moment, I honestly don’t know.  I do know that its efficient (the kyuushoku centre is less than a kilometre from the school), every kid is guaranteed a nutritious lunch (cos not one kid brings their lunch to school) and it works.  And yeah, I could complain about some things on the menu (the quality of the vegetables sometimes, the gelantinous fish cake things) but generally its pretty good.  My favourite is curry rice.  The Japanese idea of curry is a little different to what we’re generally used too.  It’s probably full of preservatives, but it’s pretty damn tasty.

Sometimes when I eat with the class,a student will bring my lunch up for me. One day, three boys did!

I’m now going to segue on to whales.  Some of you are probably wondering about whales.  How am I going to segue from kyuushoku to whales you ask? Well, our journey continues in a little town called Wada, down the east coast of Chiba, where, so a friend told me last weekend, the local BOE/kyuushoku centre will sometimes serve up a bit of whale for the kid’s lunch.  Apparently the locals still drag in a whale from time to time and you can go and see it being brought in and cut up.  M and I were going to try some passing through there on Sunday, but meal times and swimming time all kinda conflicted and well, we just didn’t do it.  Maybe next time.

In terms of the Japanese eating whale, it is not a very popular dish.  You would be hard pressed to find a place with it on the menu.  It has a pretty bad image with young Japanese for two reasons.  The first is the obvious one; whale is really the international protest flavour of the month.  That sounds cynical but was actually meant to be a play on flavour, whale etc.  Anyway… the second reason is that post WWII the Japanese ate a lot of whale as a source of cheap food when the country was very poor, struggling and people were starving.  That image hangs on.

What does it taste like?  Well, as I’ve mentioned, I can’t tell you from personal experience, but opinions have ranged from ‘not very nice, quite chewy’, to ‘mmm, oishii yo‘ (mmm, it’s delicious!).

So now are journey continues to a little izakaya visited as the second (read: getting drunken) half of one of the first enkais I had here.  This segue comes courtesy of moving from one strange food to another.  What’s the strangest thing I have eaten in Japan you ask?  That would have to be basashi.  What is basashi you ask?  Horse sashimi.  In other words, small cuts of raw horse meat.  That’s right.  And it was pretty good.

The next one is not quite so strange, but still a little out there – unagi, eel – damn, it’s good!  Usually it comes on a bed of rice, it’s kinda expensive but it tastes amazing!  Nicola, get ready, you’re definitely gonna get a taste of this come November!  In fact, fish in general, I’m discovering all kinds of new and tasty fish and I feel so healthy doing so!  Buri (Japanese amberjack), hokke (umm… dunno, hokke… ohh, actually, the Arabesque greenling or Okhotsk Atka mackerel, so my dictionary tells me), saba (plain ‘ol mackerel, but esp. the chub mackerel, according to Kotoba), which is usually cooked in miso paste and has a really strong flavour but is delicious with white rice.  Another kyuushoku favourite!

Buri with a little soy and some daikon radish on top

‘How about vegetables?’ some people may be asking.  Japan has some amazing vegetables.  I tried okura here for the first time.  Yum!  Great in salads.  Idamame beans are an izakaya favourite – boiled in salt, they go down delish with a beer.  Renkon is the root of the lotus plant and it tastes amazing but I am still trying to recapture that first taste, probably because that came courtesy of a Japanese woman and now its just me cooking it.  And doing it wrong.  There are a plethora of mushrooms here, not just the famous shiitake, or brown and white buttons like most NZ supermarkets.  Some of them look a little weird but all pretty tasty.

I mentioned the enkai above.  These are work parties.  Usually you will take up the large ‘party’ room of a restaurant, sitting on the floor.  There will be a designated place for you to sit.  The food is amazing – unagi, tempura prawns, sashimi, soba (cold buckwheat noodles), fish etc. etc.  Karaoke will often be sung, drinking will be done according to the wonderful Japanese custom of always filling others’ glasses, never your own, people let themselves go a bit and general goodness ensues.

What other rituals are there when it comes to food?  One of the most important is the saying of ‘itadakimasu‘ (lit. ‘I humbly receive’) before eating.  The closest equivalent in the West is grace but it lacks the religious connotations of that ritual.  It is simply an act of thanks for the food, and one of the things I really love about Japan; that humble thankfulness that is still embodied in a ritual that is nearly universal in the society.  A sort of civility we have largely lost in the West. Another ritual includes not standing your chopsticks up in the rice, as this is only done at services for the dead.  It’s impolite to point your chopsticks at someone and you should lift your bowl of rice to your mouth when eating it.  Slurping is ok.  I haven’t asked about that one yet.  One of the good things about writing these blogs is I figure out all the questions that I really should just go ahead and ask.

Well, that’s really about it.  The eating experience here in Japan is one of the most sense-satisfying and interesting parts of the overall experience of living here.  And I know there is still so much to discover!  Still haven’t been to Gonpatchi, the inspiration for Kill Bill’s restaurant fight scene (eh, M-chan, ne?!).  Still haven’t eaten sukiyaki or Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.  Still so many things to try.

Right, my dinner is waiting for me.  The rice is cooked.  Just gotta make the salad, heat the corn, put the sashimi on the plate and decide whether I’m gonna eat that tofu that’s in the fridge as well…

Posted by: deliciousirony | September 6, 2011

On the pathway to fluency..

That’s right!  I’ve acquired a formally acknowledged ‘basic’ level of Japanese proficiency.  This was awaiting me in the post box this morning after a long two month wait.  I only had time to grab it, stuff it in my bag and head to school, where I got a few small things sorted before giving myself some small moments of peace to open it.  I didn’t want to open it in front of the office ladies because I still wasn’t sure that I had passed.  I was leaning on the side of Yeah, (put it this way, it would have been really disappointing to fail) but I wasn’t sure yet.

But anyway, 119 out of 180.  Participants need 90 out of 180 to pass, but you must meet a certain minimum in each section.  In the listening it’s 19 out of 60.  In the Language Knowledge (Vocabulary/Grammar) and Reading section, you need 38 out of 120.  Sounds low, right?  If you scrape by with these scores though, it doesn’t mean you’ve passed because you haven’t achieved an overall mark of 50%.  What it does mean is, if you score 100 out of 120 in the Language Knowledge/Reading section and 18/60 in the Listening, you fail.  Oh the A A A means that I scored above 67% in each of those categories!  Yeah, that’s right..! 😉

As I said above, I have achieved a ‘basic’ level of Japanese.  As of a couple of years ago, there are 5 levels (up from 4); N5 being the easiest and N1 being ‘able to understand Japanese in a variety of situations’.  Yes, I’ve been here a year but N1 is still a long way off folks!  Yeah, I am becoming able to express myself better and I  can understand some Japanese in a variety of situations – work, at the post office, socialising – but only in quite a surface way.  I am a long way from being capable in variety of situations – e.g. I still don’t understand 80% of the morning meetings at school, for example.  And the kids routinely laugh at my Japanese.

So I received various congratulations from my co-workers today along with several comments about looking like a criminal in my picture.  It is a terrible picture!

A nice marker for a little over a year in Japan.  The plan now is to sit the N3 next July.  That’s another 400 or so kanji to learn, plus Lord knows what grammar.  Hopefully, something useful!  Good thing I don’t mind hitting the books… (nerd alert…)

頑張ります!

 

 

Posted by: deliciousirony | August 26, 2011

Look what I made!

 

The other day I received these lovely boxes of vegies from a local lady.  And tonight I set about making the pumpkin recipe she had told me about…

Cube your pumpkin and put into a pot
Add around 200 ml of water (so the pumpkin won’t burn, but it’s not covered)
2 tbsp of soy sauce
2.5 tbsp of sugar
1 tbsp of mirin (optional)

Softly boil the pumpkin for about  tens, drain and serve.

Along with my pumpkin I had tuna and salmon sashimi (the first time I’d eaten sashimi at home), tofu (first time I’d had tofu at home), some beautiful corn and a ‘big boy’ bottle of Kirin to wash it all down.  おいしかった! (It was delicious!)

M described it as ‘like what a Japanese boy would eat for dinner’.

That song, ‘I think I’m turning Japanese’ has been stuck in my head most of the day…

I sit down to write this post a little over one year after arriving in Japan (one year and one week, in fact) and its striking me how little I know about Japanese culture…  I’m brainstorming what to write and yeah, I’ve got some things but well, they don’t seem good enough…  I don’t feel as though I have really got that far below the stereotypical surface, but perhaps if I write, hopefully I’ll see that I know a little more than I think…

I’m going to pick five things and concentrate on those…

1.  The thing with taking off the shoes (Ritual) – Japan, being a country with a much longer history than that of New Zealand (even including that of the Maori), has all sorts of rituals which make up daily and annual life.  Taking off your shoes when entering a person’s home is one of the more well – known ones.  I’ll go into this particularly when I talk about schools, where it is also done.

Entering a person’s home, there is an area called the genkan (げんかん、玄関)where you take your shoes off.  This is also where you’d say, “Ojama shimasu” (おじゃまします), literally ‘Excuse me for intruding’.  This is also accompanied by “Ojama shimashita” (past tense) when leaving.  English also has these ritual sayings; all languages do, but their usage seems more regular and deeply formalised in Japanese.  Other examples include, “yoroshiku onegai shimasu” (よろしくおねがいします)which I think can be translated as, ‘Thank you for your future effort,’ or ‘I look forward to working with you’.  It’s used often in the business and school environment.  Others used at school include, “otsukaresama desu” (おつかれさまです) and “osaki ni shitsurei shimasu” (おさきにしつれいします)- ‘thank you for your hard work’, and ‘excuse me for leaving before you’, respectively.  These are used much more ritualistically in Japanese than their equivalents are in English.  My hairdresser says ‘otsukaresama desu‘ after I’ve been sitting in the chair for an hour!  Kinda a ‘thank you for your patronage thing’ but something that is still hard for me to get my head around.  After all, he was doing the work!  Equally, at home, the phrases, “ittekimasu/tadaima”, (‘I’m going out’/’I’m back’ “itterasshai/okaeri” (Google Translate says ‘Bon Voyage’ (lol)/Welcome back/home’) are the set standards for leaving the house/seeing someone off.  It’s just what you say.  I’m pretty sure my Mum didn’t say ‘Welcome home’ each time I came back in the door (why not, Mum?  Why not?)

Japan’s rituals derive from several sources as far as I can tell.  Buddhism and Shinto are an important source.   The seasons and their relation to food production and the human condition is another.  A section on ritual isn’t really complete without some discussion of religion now, is it?  Shinto is the ‘native’ religion of Japan.  People, particularly Western people, seem to like to fight over whether it is a religion or not… I don’t fully understand the basis of this argument… I think it has something to do with the diversity of beliefs and the fact Shinto is seen as a way to live rather than about worshipping of Gods… but there are Gods… so I don’t really know ;p  What’s the difference between spirituality and religion.  The answer is in that question.  後で (‘Later’)

Shinto has at its basis, ancestor worship and nature worship.  Ancestor worship is still a major part of Japanese society today.  The Obon festival in August is a three – four day period of remembering the dead where families gather together.  For many families this will be only one of two times in the year where the family comes together from whatever parts of Japan they have spread to.  Families will visit shrines and leave offerings for the dead of food and drinks (including cup sake!  more about that in the food section), reflecting the Shinto beliefs of the dead and the living occupying the same spiritual space.  That is, the dead walk among us, carrying on their lives.  You can see this reflected in many anime; Bleach comes to mind, for example.

Ancestor worship has also played its part in Japan having such a long, unbroken line of Emperors.  While the political history of Japan has been tumultuous in terms of warring states, attempted Mongolian invasions and various openings and closings to foreign influence, from the time of recorded history onwards the same family has always occupied the seat of Emperor.  Japanese mythology tells that the Emperor’s family line is descended directly from Amatarasu, the Sun God.  From the book, The Japanese Spirit, the message is pretty much this – the warring daimyo and the Shogun  knew that, if you wanted to keep any measure of social cohesion, the Emperor was not to be fucked with.

Nature worship is seen in many facets of Japanese life.  Many Japanese are still deeply connected to the changing of the seasons.  The autumn season is revered for the beautiful foliage that develops in October and November.  This is truly stunning and is why it is, so far, my favourite part of the year here (the respite from summer whilst still being all go for hiking is a big part of it too!).  In the spring, Japanese enjoy hanami (はなみ、花見), literally, flowering watching, where groups gather under cherry trees, enjoying the blossoms, eating and drinking and being merry.  My hiking guide book has warnings about visiting particular areas at particular times, particularly places with plenty of pretty flowers, because of the volumes of people become pretty annoying.  How’s that for nature worship?  Ok, that probably says more about Japan’s staggering population.  Still, the mountains, thought of as gods, hold a very special, very spiritual place in the Japanese psyche and climbing them is hugely popular.  Princess Mononoke provides many glimpses into the Japanese attitude toward nature.

Another example of the Japanese relation to nature is the Setusbun celebration.  This comes early in February and is a celebration welcoming the spring (when it definitely still feels too cold to be spring, and I have a feeling celestially its not quite there either…).  This is done by throwing beans from the inside of your house to the outside.  Sometimes your father or one of your school teachers will dress up as a devil and you can throw the beans at him.  Accompanying the throwing are shouts of ‘Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi‘ (鬼は外、福は内、I think that Kanji is right…), meaning ‘Out devils! Come in good luck!’

Many of the matsuri (祭) – festivals – also relate to aspects of nature, particularly asking the gods for a good growing season for rice or a good catch out on the seas.  One of these is the Ohara Hadaka Matsuri – Ohara Naked Festival, which is actually in Chiba but which I didn’t see last year.  Definitely this year!   One of the festivals in my little town, Tako, is the Ajisai Matsuri.  This celebrates the coming of the hydrangea flower (not a flower or a plant I had found particularly pretty until this year)  but also harks back to before the start of the 20th century when rice was dedicated to the Emperor each year. Rice barrels (these things used to weigh 60kilos each when they did this old school style, full of rice and not paper) are put on carriers which are hoisted onto the shoulders of locals, many of them from the junior high school where I work, and are then carried through the town to a site where locals, playing the parts of the emperor and other dignitaries, still go through the dedication of the rice.  The matsuri are a huge part of life in Japan.  People come out and line the streets strolling around and enjoying matsuri food, music, fireworks and performances.  New Zealand has absolutely nothing like it.  Some of these are designated as National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Assets, an attempt by the Japanese government to recognise and preserve these rituals.

Is that preservation happening…?  Well, I’m not entirely sure yet.  The festivals are enthusiastically attended.  They are often structured in such a way that everyone can participate.  For example, the Tako Matsuri has small children helping to manoeuvre the dashi, the large wooden parade floats, through the town.  Their young mothers can be seen helping, initiating the children into the festival and also initiating themselves into a new phase of life, motherhood.   The junior high school students play a large part in the Ajisai Matsuri, so much so that Sunday (matsuri day) became a school day and we got Monday off!

Smaller aspects of culture which I’ve talked about with my Japanese teacher, I do remember him saying, ‘but the younger generation aren’t doing that so much these days. ‘  I wish I could be more specific, but I can’t remember what those aspects are…  Good thing I had another chat with him today!  Unfortunately, I didn’t ask him about those aspects we’d talked about, but we did talk about family connections and the duties (legally binding duties, that is) of children to take care of their parents in their old age.  In Japanese culture, similar to Maori and Pacific Island cultures, it is very common for three generations to live together on the same property (although I have noticed that quite often the elderly family member will have their own separate little building on the property).  He said it is becoming more and more common in Japan for elderly parents to no longer live with their children but instead to live in nursing homes.  Perhaps because mother and daughter-in-law don’t get along, he sited as one potential reason).

Are young Japanese losing their connection to nature? Well, while you do see a lot of young people climbing mountains, particularly the easily accessible, popular ones, previously on this blog, and I still stand by it, I’ve put the average age of hikers at 55 years old.  Are they less concerned about their family, ancestors and the walking dead?  See the above point.  Are they more worried about Western-style individualism, consumerism and hedonism?  Perhaps, I’m not really sure yet.  Although, I had a conversation with M a while ago. There is a concern in Japanese society about the decline of masculinity and the bushido spirit in Japanese men.  She put it down to the changing roles of the sexes in the 20th century and the fact that Japanese men have not coped well with these changes.   I queried if it could have to do with a generation raised in the relative ‘softness’ of the past 30 – 40 years…

I have only scratched the surface of a real knowledge about any of these issues.

Also, I’m always weary of these type of questions because its impossible to tell objectively from one generation to the next whether there has been more or less “loss of culture”.  Or more commonly, whether one generation is worse than the next.  It seems to be inbuilt into us to consider the next generation more degenerate than our own.  It doesn’t seem entirely rational; more like a product of rose-tinted glasses.  If someone would just tie the correct crime statistics and correctly biased qualitative images and stories together to convince me!  (Hold on, I could probably do that… or I could search Google and find someone has already done it!  This would be handy also for an understanding of the current UK riots) It also seems inbuilt to see society as on a downwards slope.  This quote from the Wikipedia article on Gangs in the United Kingdom (unrelated research) is enlightening – “Dr Michael Macilwee of Liverpool John Moores University and author of The Gangs of Liverpool states, “You can learn lessons from the past and it’s fascinating to compare the newspaper headlines of today with those from the late 1800s. The issues are exactly the same. People were worried about rising youth crime and the influence of ‘penny dreadfuls’ on people’s behaviour. Like today, some commentators demanded longer prison sentences and even flogging while others called for better education and more youth clubs.”  As some people look at Christians, some others (sometimes the same people) look at society similarly – only focusing on the negative aspects.  Our social milieu includes incredible achievements on the small and large scale – medical, scientific, artistic, ethical, economical – I mean, look at the amount of debt we’ve managed to rack up.  Incredible achievements.  (Full disclosure: In spite of saying this above, I personally see society on a downwards slope – the future ain’t looking bright and sunny)

Culture can’t really be lost, it only changes.   A culture can be less though for the loss or change of aspects of itself.  Do I have an example to back that up…?  Maoridom’s loss of te reo, in part, through laws prohibiting its use at school. An example where a culture wasn’t subjugated by another?  Well, that’s a little harder because cultures don’t typically tend to throw out long standing rituals and customs… they just gradually fall by the wayside, society carries on, changed, but overall, less for that loss…?  Hmm.. now I don’t know… I’m rambling and unsure… agh…  For Japan to lose the Bushido ethos would suck.  M made it a masculinity thing but bushido isn’t really about masculinity.  The core precepts of bushido – loyalty, courage, benevolence, veracity, honor, a sense of justice – are not, by definition, male-only qualities.  It is just that they are historical linked to samurai, who were male.  Samurai wives, samurai children also exhibited these precepts.  People, male and female, of all social classes, exhibit these precepts.  That’s why I see it as being about more than just males struggling to cope with the more public role of females.  What exactly the cause is, is impossible to know, but I can tell you the result will not be good.

I didn’t really get to talking about Buddhism.  And this post is getting really long.  Longer than I ever want to make them.  I don’t have too much in particular to say on the subject in terms of specific rituals.  Buddhism is the religion ‘of night and gloomy death’- the mourning and the rituals involved with death – compared to Shinto, the ‘cult… of daylight and the living dead’. Buddhism, with its core idea of achieving nirvana – the realise from worldly desires – was taken on by the Japanese and used very practically as a way to remove oneself from not only the desires but the turmoils of everyday life.  To face things stoically, in other words.  The stoicism people saw from the Japanese during and after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami – put that down to Buddhism.

So, that’s ritual.  I said in the beginning I was going to talk about five things.  I’ve now decided this will become the first in a series of posts.  Part 2 coming soon.  As I speculated at the start, I do know a bit more than I initially thought about ritual in Japanese culture but it still feels like very surface knowledge.  I need to ask some deeper questions.  The kinda questions that will probably be answered by, ‘Cos we just do.’  But you never know…

Inane piece of Japanese culture – Drugs are bad, right?  In Japan, as in many other Asian countries, drugs are really bad.  The Japanese justice system doesn’t make any distinction between soft and hard drugs.  If its illegal, its illegal.  Marijuana may as well be meth.  Sentences are, by Western standards, harsh (although I think if you are a Westerner, you are often talking simply being deported) and Japanese jails from what I hear, are not pleasant.  Cannabis use is incredibly low – 0.1% of the population smoke annually.

And yet… nearly everyday I’ll see a car with a big fat cannabis leaf air freshener hanging in the front window!?!  I’ve seen a teacher’s car with a big fat cannabis leaf hanging in the front window!  Now you could never do that as a teacher in NZ!  I’ve been told its simply a fashion thing.  In NZ it’d be a ‘get your car repeatedly pulled over’ thing.

Also, go down to the cheap fashion shop down the street and you can find some stunning cannabis flavoured (pun intended) tracksuits.  That’s another thing… the Japanese can be so stylish… and then they can wear tracksuits like they are some chav from a Liverpool housing estate…  Weird…

Posted by: deliciousirony | July 22, 2011

Secret magic little spots

It’s hard to be alone in Japan.  Even my little country town has a city of 40,000 ten minutes up the road, another of 125,000 just twenty minutes west and south west about thirty minutes drive another of 175,000 people.  The countryside doesn’t really  have open space.  There are always houses dotted around in little village clumps, surrounded by their little patch of rice paddies.  You can drive on roads with a speed limit of 50km/h for miles and miles and miles…

So to find a spot like that pictured above, is a true rarity here.  This little gem is tucked away under  the  Tanagawa-dake ropeway, just out of Minakami in Gunma prefecture.  M and I took off for the weekend to what is probably my favourite little place in Japan.  This was my first time taking the rental car on a really long trip (oh yeah, I got a rental car for the summer!).  To avoid a huge motorway toll I took a route where it was about 80 km before we got on the motorway.  That took us three hours (see what I said above about driving on 50km/h roads for miles and miles..).  Next time I’ll just pay the motorway toll.  After that though I got to drive on Tokyo’s motorways!  Awesome!  I told M how cool I felt.  She told me it wasn’t that cool 😦 Driving along at 100km/h propped up on a road that is running parallel with the 6 or 7th floor of the buildings beside it, for a little Kiwi boy like me, made me feel pretty worldly, and thus, pretty cool.

We stayed in a really nicely done little camping ground, tucked well away from the main part of the town.  On the Sunday we climbed Tanagawa dake, taking the ropeway up to about 1300 metres and then hiking the remaining 600 metres to the summit.  The views were beautiful, although the clouds came in from the west, obscuring the view and killing a lot of good photo snapping opportunities.  I have posted some of the pics on Facebook.   The number of people got on my nerves a bit (M is really pointing out to me what an impatient person I am – I hate waiting for people… and traffic on motorways!) but that thinned out a lot once we got to the second summit as many people head back and take the ropeway down.

Riding the ropeway up I spotted this waterfall again.  I had seen it before on a previous trip to this mountain.  About 3o minutes into the walk uphill, drenched in sweat, I became determined that we were going to make it to that waterfall the next day.

Early Monday, M and I got packed up at our camp site and headed to the ropeway carpark.  I estimated a half hour walk up the track underneath the ropeway.  I was about right.  I had kept an eye on the landmarks around the day before and when I found these we jumped off the ford across the stream and started boulder hopping upstream.  After about 200 metres of this we came to a small pool that took some getting around, leading to a little gully and out into the space pictured above.

We spent the majority of the day here swimming, eating and jumping off the boulders.  The wind off the waterfall was a bit cool at first but we seemed to get used to it.  The only thing spoiling your privacy is the ropeway coming overhead but as I said, here in Japan, if that’s the only other person around, well, that’s nothing really.

Next weekend I’ll climb Fuji-san (or Mt Fuji for us Westerners) on Saturday night, hiking through the night for the sunrise at about 4.30pm.  Then hop a bus back to Tokyo and a shinkansen (or bullet train for us Westerners) the hour and a half up to Niigata prefecture for Fuji Rock!  It’s a full on Fuji weekend!  Gonna be huge – Cake, Chemical Brothers, The Black Angels and DJ Nu-Mark, not to mention a host of other fun stuffs!  WOOP!)  Will report that one soon.

Right, gotta go, have a shower and then off for a haircut.  Long time readers know how much I love those!  Head massage time!  And then its off to Tokyo for Tokyo Electro Fest!

Posted by: deliciousirony | June 30, 2011

My new friends…

This little dude was riding the very back of my scooter when I got home today.  Cute, eh?  He has his buddy up on the other end too and then 14 other friends between my parking spot and my door.  OK, it was 13 but I went back to count one more, I’m a bit superstitious like that.

Then the other day at school I met another snake.  My first encounter soon after arriving in Tako involved running over this black one that looked like a big leaf in the middle of the road.  Hold on, I thought… that felt like it had a vertebrae… sure enough, something was squiggling in my rear vision mirror.  This time I inflicted no pain, just watching from a distance and taking snaps. 蛇が大好きよ! (I love snakes!)

The mosquitos were vicious the other night.  See what they did to me…  Blood sucking bastards…  There are some other bugs invading my apartment also.  They come out at night (‘we only come out at night’ – putting that one on right now…).  These are little black things and they congregate near my rubbish bin, under the bright fluorescent in my kitchen.  I can’t tell if its the light they like or the delicious remnants of foods spilled in the cooking process…  These little guys are my girlfriend, M’s new friends.

And then this morning I got into my car.  It was parked under a big tree.  As I sat down I saw one of the biggest beetles I’ve ever seen, coloured like he’d been taken to with a can of gold spray paint, hanging out in my lap.  I got out of the car, mildly panicked and gave him a good flick.  He came off with that flick but not without a minimal tearing sound from my clothing.  Luckily, no damage was done.  Bugs here are way bigger than back home…  In the Japanese summer, they’re gettin’ towards tropical size.  Oh, there was a little praying mantis hanging out on my car when I left school too 🙂

I haven’t written in a long time (over a month).  My excuses are threefold.  One, spending a lot of time with M.  Two, studying a lot for the upcoming JLPT test.  That’s this weekend.  It’s a bit fingers crossed as to whether I’ll pass but with a bit of luck (part of why I recounted those frogs!)…  いっしょうけんめい, がんばろう – I’ll do my best, Fight!.  Three, I just haven’t really wanted to, obviously.  After this test, I imagine I’ll get back into it a bit more.  I want to get into writing more generally over the holiday period.  Definitely slide back the Japanese study a notch or three… haha.  It’s coming up a year here as well, time to reflect and consider how little I know so far.

Ok, dinners pretty much cooked, put the rice on before I leave, and I’m off to the pool for a swim…  And. Click. “Post!”

Posted by: deliciousirony | May 12, 2011

Sodden sub-tropical adventures in Yakushima

Japan’s a crazy place.  Japan, during Golden Week, is supposedly a mental place.  Golden Week is the week-to-10days at the end of April/beginning of May over which four public holidays fall.  Depending on how they fall it can be 6 or 7 days off for Japanese, about as long a holiday as many of them ever take it seems, and so they go in for it big time and travelling within the country becomes hectic (and flying out of the country – pricey).  This year, with the weekends, it meant two three day holidays but as a gaijin who is not so duty-bound, a couple of days of nenkyu (paid leave) took this up to ten days.  Woop!   Because of the whispers of madness we had heard, my friend D and I started planning a couple of months in advance.  A Facebook thread was started, the group grew to a total of 5, the thread grew, people didn’t read it and hence asked stupid questions, and preparations were made!  It was on!  I took care of the travel arrangements, D took care of the accomodation and car rental on the island.  Oh, the island, that’s right, I should tell you where we went.  We sloughed ourselves to the not-so-fair (hmm.. more about that later..) subtropical climes of Yakushima, a World Heritage classified island off the bottom of Kyushu.

Every place in Japan is famous for something.  For example, my town, Tako, is famous for rice (how can you be famous for rice you ask?  Yeah, I’m still figuring that one out).  Yakushima is most noticeably well-known for 1000+ year old giant cedar trees.  The most famous of these is Jomon Sugi (or Somon Jugi or whatever you called it, S), a tree that is put at between 2,400 years (scientific core sample) and 7000 years old (going by size, which I guess, means people’s guesses…but maybe they’re ‘experts’ guesses).

It’s definitely older than any other trees we came across because the bark has an entirely different look to it, as if the tree is somewhat human and its ‘skin’ has taken on all the wrinkles, creases and character of old age.

Our trip began out of Tokyo with D, T and myself meeting up on the Thursday night to catch the overnight bus down to Kyoto, where we would meet up with S, staying a couple of nights at his dubstep-hatin’ pigeon war-pad (the neighbours are on an anti-bass crusade and the pigeons are shitting all over his porch).  We also met up with M, who came down from Tokyo a couple of days later than the rest of us (by comfy and quick shinkansen no less… bitch).  On the Sunday evening we sailed out of Osaka on the Sunflower Satsuma ferry for Shibushi, a small port town at the very south east tip of Kyushu.  From there, we rode a shuttle bus the two and a half hours into Kagoshima, a city of about 600,000 where we were to catch the hydrofoil over to Yakushima.  As you can tell, it was a logistical exercise getting all this together and I have to give a huge shoutout to my office ladies (yes, they are MY office ladies, I’m usin’ the possessive pronoun, that’s right!) for all their help.  I now feel much more confident about making bookings over the internet in Japanese… and somewhat more comfortable about making reservations by phone!  Haha.

We had a great couple of days in Kyoto/Osaka.  Around 3 or 4 hours after arriving on an overnight bus on which we obtained very little sleep (approx. 1 hour for me) we were off to the Nagisa Music Festival, somewhere out in the docklands of Osaka city.  It was strange being in a city where I had no idea of where I was.  The festival was relatively small.  I’m guessing around 5000 people.  There were a half a dozen stages, including a couple of bigger ones.

Straight away we were grooving with the locals to some nice beats in the sun.  The highlights of the day for me came later on with DJ Krush playing a set that very quickly moved into drum n bass and continued solely in that direction. Mmm 😀  The finale of the day was Hifana, a Japanese breaks/scratching kamikaze duo, who just rocked the place.  They looked a bit like this:

From there we carried on to the afterparty and en route met the first character of the trip.  His name was Shaun or Shane, not sure which.  He was very strange…  somewhat awkward.  And possibly a pedophile.  He wanted to smoke something synthetic with us.  He also told us that he’d had ’12 year olds givin’ him back on the train’.  We tried to lose him in the subway system but he was persistent.  We managed it when we came above ground again but then made the stupid decision of eating on the street from a ramen shop.  We were found again.  Some kind words from some of us and looking at the ground from others of us finally gave him the hint and he disappeared into the night.  Ah… Shane/Shaun… what are you doing now…?  Is some young girl rubbing up against you…?  I hope not…

The afterparty was in a club called Partita built into an old warehouse building.  There were a couple of rooms in the front building, another dj playing outside which led you on under an old steel framework into a little alley selling food, where four more tiny dj booths were set up and on to the last room of the place, the main stage.  It was a pretty impressive place, in size, layout and industrial-ness.  Quite the opposite of Ageha in Tokyo, the big ass club I’m most familiar with there.  Kinda dingy and low key, it had a cool vibe about it.  There was even a pile of rubble!  I managed to lift a new poster for my Japanese Hip-hop poster collection.

The poster features Japanese naaastieeest gangbanger, the infamous D.O.  Check that guy out – the tats, the slicked back hair, the teeth, the snarl, the glasses and the popped suit collar, this guy is GANGSTA!!  Getting caught woulda been worth it just for this fulla.  If you want a laugh, copy and paste this – マザファッカ – (the word underneath his name) into Google Translate and see what you get.  We cranked until the sun came up and then headed back to Kyoto and crashed for a few hours.

In the afternoon we arose and went for a little trip around Kyoto, checking out the Kiyomizu Temple.  This was a very cool place but very crowded and hence difficult to feel anything all that spiritual.  Kinda cooler was the walk up the hill to the temple and the 墓地 (bochi – cemetery) we passed through.

We wandered the streets a bit after that, had a beer by the riverside and then went to an izakaya for dinner.  We got ourselves home at the decent hour of 1am to prepare ourselves for our travels beginning the next day.

We left S’s place early, giving him and his lady a little bit of privacy and headed out to see some more of Kyoto’s famed sites.  Kyoto was Japan’s capital for over 1000 years and is pretty much THE place to go for a Japanese history buff (T, I’m looking at you).  Time was not really our friend and thus we got half way up the hill covered by the Inari Gates before we decided to come back down and move on to the Imperial Palace.  The Palace is open only on select days of the year so our view was pretty much of the impressive walls surrounding it only.  Serene garden to walk through though.

From here we headed into Osaka and met up with S and M (see what I did there!).  M informed us correctly that we were actually heading to the wrong terminal for the ferry we were to catch, the only hitch in my transportation organisation.  The ferry was a blast.  The ride was 15 hours overnight and we had booked the cheapest class – 10,930 yen (about $160 dollars) so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Were we to just find space to sleep where we could?  We had sleeping bags and bed rolls with us…  As it turned out we were put in a large room with about 50 other people and provided a futon, pillow, sheets and a blanket.  It was perfect!

We brought some bentos on the boat with us for dinner and a couple of bottles of whiskey for the evening.  Vending machines provided us with beer when we felt like a change and cheap, greasy food for breakfast in the morning.  There was an onsen that we didn’t get around to using on the way down but we made sure we used it on the way back.  It was pretty amazing getting in there at 6.30 am as the day lightened and we re-approached Osaka, watching the ocean, the mountains in the background and planes running parallel to us coming in to Kansai International Aiport.  The onsen also provided the gayest moment of the trip (it’s a bunch of naked men, of course it did, you say), as D and S splashed each other with water from the cold tap.  It was a beautiful thing.

On the way back we also meet the other character of the trip – a very drunken young Japanese mother who, with child in tow, pretty much assaulted each of us in her attempts to take us to bed (or the toilets, boat deck, right there, I don’t know that she really had a plan…).  Each of us was hugged viciously as she recited the title lyrics to Elvis Presley’s I Want You, I Need You, I Love You; D was kissed on the neck, I was grabbed by the hips and bit on the back of the neck and S was fully laid out upon.  It was a morality test but it was ultimately concluded that to take advantage of this when her child was tugging on her sleeve saying ‘Mama, neru yo’ (‘Mum, its bed time’), among other things, was contemptible.

Arrival in Shibushi, Kyushu, the ferry’s birthing port, was followed by a two and a half hour bus ride to Kagoshima.  For some of us this was our first look at Kyushu and it was very nice indeed.  Largely rural and somewhat more tropical in vegetation than Chiba with tea plantations instead of rice paddies.  We made it to Kagoshima, did our food shopping for the couple of days hiking ahead, rode a tram to the hydrofoil port and shot our way across to the island.  OK, if you’ve been keeping track, you’ll know that the group has now travelled by: bus, train, Shinkansen (OK, M only, but I’m still counting it), subway, ferry, tram, hydrofoil and taxi.  Not bad.

It was as we were about to board the hydrofoil that the news came through about the death of Bin Laden, raising T’s usual patriotic fervour to a patriotic furore.  You couldn’t wipe the grin off his face.

Service on the island was incredible.  We were picked up at the small port in Anbo, the town we were staying in the first night, by the hostel folk.  They took us to a little place out of the town centre secluded in the bush; a house that had been converted into a hostel.  They also took us to a restaurant for dinner (this was a bit cartel-like in nature though) where we ate two types of とびうお (tobiuo – flying fish) amongst other things, snuck sips of the giant bottle of shochu we’d brought in with us, and simultaneously entertained/were entertained by two impertinent little girls dressed in pink.  They were very funny and very non-Japanese – cheeky and in your face.  Because I don’t take photos of little girls I can’t show them to you, but D took some shots before one little girl said (in Japanese, of course), ‘Stop taking photos of us and just play with us’.  Hilarious.  Actually, they’d have to be the third character of the trip.  We then caught up with a friend who happened to be on the island at the same time.  We sat next to the river running through Anbo at a funky little cafe/bar and supped away a bottle of Mitake.  Very civilised, even if I’m sure the conversation wasn’t.  Upon return to the hostel we met some lovely Japanese girls who T and I sat up until 2:30am chatting too, much to the annoyance of S particularly, who was pretty much a part of the conversation as he was trying to sleep on the couch where we were congregating.

The next morning saw us out the door before 9am to catch the bus up to ヤクスギランド (Yakusugiland) to the head of the hiking trail.  The weather was foreboding, with the sky a heavy grey and light rain falling on us.  We managed to catch the right bus, largely thanks to T, and started winding up into the mountains.  The ride was about 40 mins with a 20 min walk at the end to the start of the trail.  After a woman tried to sell us a portable toilet thing (I have read about these; because of the large numbers of trampers in the Japanese wilderness, they want you to defecate into a bag and carry it out with you!  Pretty shit, eh?! Hahaha), we got to it.  An hour or two in we came to a small rock outcropping and began to realise how little we were going to see in terms of views on this trip.  The precipitation hung heavy over the mountains, reducing visibility to the immediate area around you.  This was probably the biggest disappointment of the trip.  Our view from Mt Miyanoura, the highest point south of Honshu, was basically nothing.  This, our first deer sighting, will give you an idea.

These deer were so tame.  You could come within two or three metres of them and they would still go about their business.  Yakushima is famous for two animals – Yakushika – deer and Yakuzaru – monkeys, both of which we saw in abundance.  Once we arrived at the hut that night, I wandered in the dark down to the stream to get some water.  I was watching my footing carefully as it was very wet and there were logs and roots and a couple of little drops to negotiate.  Next thing I know a couple of deer eyes a metre or two in front of me are reflecting the piercing white light of my head torch. びっくりした!(lit.’I was surprised!’  I got a fright)

We arrived at the hut soaking wet.  We had heard from a Japanese guy earlier in the day that the hut wasn’t very busy.  He’s a damn liar.  It was definitely busy when we got there.  We managed to find space for four of us in the hut and I decided to be stoic and pitch my tent in spite of the pleas of my friends that there would be space somewhere.  There probably was, but it wasn’t going to be much space.  Thankfully the rain had abated at this point.  I found a spot that wasn’t too sodden and got my gears out.  My sleeping bag was fairly wet so I opened it up, hoping it would dry a bit before I crashed out for the night.  This was around 6pm.  D and I started to cook some dinner and got into the couple of bottles of wine we’d lugged up the hill.  I was getting cold cooking dinner so went back to the tent and changed into some dry clothes (I’d been smart enough to have a pack liner for my gears, not smart enough to wrap my sleeping bag in even a plastic bag in the bottom compartment of my pack), after which I felt a lot better.  The wine probably helped too.  It was about 9pm when we headed to bed and my sleeping bag was still wet so I laid out still fully dressed and went to sleep.  I woke up at some point feeling kinda cold.  Thankfully the sleeping bag had dried out a lot by this stage and I was able to throw it over me and actually got a fairly comfortable nights sleep.  Until the helicopter arrived.  It was about 6.30am.  There was construction going on around the camp and I just presumed that this chopper was here to drop off or pick up construction equipment so I stuck my head out for one tiny look and then tried to go back to sleep for a bit.  Turned out it was actually airlifting a lady out of the bush as she had hurt her leg.  I missed all the action but the others caught it.  D has some pictures posted here.

The weather held overnight and the day started quite nice on that front (pun intended).  We were about 50 minutes away from Jomon Sugi.  On a different front, because of the famous tree, the number of people on the track dramatically increased from here.  At points it felt like you were walking down the Omotesando (Tokyo’s Champs-Élyseés).  Not exactly my favourite hiking conditions.  I think I counted the number of cute girls we passed at 115.  The famed tree itself… well, not really too much to say.  I’ve already mentioned its wrinkly skin.  Another description – it kinda looked like the Blob – like it could go amorphous at any moment, collapse on itself and crush all of us standing on the platform built to protect it from us.

Far more impressive was Wilson’s Stump, in my opinion.  The remains of a tree logged at some time in the past, the circumference of this bad boy is a whopping 32 metres.  The inside is hollow and inside there is a small shrine.  You can wander around inside, looking up through the gaping hole at the canopy above you.

The visibility was slightly better that day but we didn’t have the majestic vantage points that we had been up on the day before.  There was a lot more roaring water this day too with several awe-inspiring bridge crossings.

The track eventually came to some old train lines which the hiking trail followed.  At some point along these we were meant to turn off to the north but somehow we missed the turnoff.  There is only one spot I remember where it could’ve happened and the signs here was very old and decrepit.  This I guess was the other disappointment of the trip.  It meant we missed the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine… should I Google Image search it now…  Curiosity will kill me if not… chotto matte kudasai… (hold on a minute)… phew, I didn’t find anything that filled me with too much regret, although most of these pics were taken on clear days including one with a beautiful blue sky and a great view down to the coastline… bastards…  Missing the turnoff meant we came out an hour or two earlier than expected at the Arakawa dam.  There were a lot of people round.  A couple of buses came 30 minutes later and took us on the return journey into Anbo (not where we wanted to go; two more buses later we made it back to Miyanoura on the island’s north coast).

Our hostel that night, it was as if they knew we were coming sopping and tired.  The washing machine and dryer was right next to our room.  We had a small kitchen area in our room.  D cooked up a pasta dish in the rice cooker using the leftover tuna we had amongst some other things from the supermarket.  ‘Twas a glorious meal, accompanied by some beers and Yakushima’s finest, the Mitake shochu.

The following day was probably the best of the trip. We managed to rent a car, thanks to T’s international driver’s licence, he being the only person who remembered to bring it.  Thank God.  We started out from Miyanoura and headed west with the plan of circumnavigating the whole coast of the island.  The weather was much as the day before starting out but just as we reached the beautiful Inakahama Beach, the rain stopped, the clouds parted (well, no that’s a step too far) and the wind died down, and we were able to do a little subtropical skinnydipping.  Swimming in the ocean, along with the hiking was what I really wanted to do here.  It’s nearly summer, we’re half way to Okinawa on a beautiful island, we have to get in the ocean!  The previous couple of days had dampened my hopes so the fact that this came off made my day.  T wasn’t down for it, and M wasn’t felling too well so she stayed in the car, but D,S and myself stripped down and spent a glorious 30 mins or so in the water splashing around like a bunch of seals.  Various Japanese people wandered onto the beach.  T proceeded to tell them we were naked much to their delight, particularly two old ladies.  The young girls (we’re talking 20’s here I guess) that were with them apparently left the beach realising we weren’t going to get out until they did so and then proceeded to watch us from the carpark up the top of the beach.  Sneaky bitches…

We carried on from here towards Ohko no taki, the island’s most famous waterfall.  Along the way the road ducked through the forest where we encountered monkeys for the first time.  Lots of monkeys.  Apparently you’re not meant to look these bad boys in the eyes.  We had no probs but I did imagine what a monkey rampage might be like.  I reckon they would FUCK you up.

The waterfall was spectacular and very powerful.  There’s something about the neverending flow of water that I find incredibly beautiful, whether its a trickle or a torrent.  There was a rock outcrop you could climb above the splash pool which made for some great photos.  Getting down right by the pool’s edge the spray and the force of the wind was impressive.  Here we met a man who couldn’t quite be classified as a character but his teeth sure could, all three of those long ass mofo’s precariously hanging on to his lower gumline.  The wooden charms he was selling smelled wonderful and so we all snapped one up.

Continuing around the coast we got to the Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, a small onsen charging only 100 yen to relax in their pools right beside the ocean.  The hostel worker in the morning had told us 11.30 – 2.00  were the times that the tide would permit us to use the pools today.  We showed up nearer 2.3o and things were definitely still all good!  Everyone was stoked.  We stripped down for the second time that day and joined the few old men enjoying the hot water in the pools.  M came and dipped her feet in with us but wasn’t game enough to strip it off with the boys.  She took some pictures though.  A Japanese couple then came along and the woman, who spoke good English, asked if we’d take a naked photo with her man.  Of course we would.

The rest of the day pasted in a restful haze as the onsen did its magic and the weather deteriorated on the east side of the island.  We searched briefly for something describe on the map as the ‘Pillow-shaped Lava Field’ but alas didn’t find it.  We took some backroads and came across a magnificient sunset.

That evening we cooked in the hostel again, eager to save a bit of coin.  We then had a couple of drinks at the izakaya down the road.  From there we climbed the steel staircase of a couple of silos probably eight or 10 stories up in the air for a beautiful view of the harbour and lights of Miyanoura.  Thankfully no one saw us and called the cops.

The next morning we began the return journey to Osaka.  10am – hydrofoil. 2.45pm – shuttle bus.  5.50pm – ferry.  8am the next day – arrive in Osaka.  We were all fairly exhausted by this stage, perhaps a little sick of each other but I think most of all, for us Tokyo boys, keen to see our respective Tokyo girls, so we looked into changing our bus to an earlier one but to no avail.  This meant 12 hours hanging out in Osaka trying to spend as little money as possible.  We achieved this quite admirably I feel.  A bit of breakfast in a small city park, after which we met some friendly foreign skaters; Tokyoites, doing a little filming tour of Nagoya and Osaka.  We hung out with them for a bit, catching sunrays and encouraging one guy trying to tailslide up a ramp edge and 360 flip out.  He came close but didn’t quite nail it before the piled into their van and continued on their way.

From there, we went on the hunt for a frisbee.  Coca-Cola blessed me with a free watch from one of their vending machines (as my watch is buggered, I’m wearing it right now).  Our frisbee hunt produced no fruit but we wandered through a loooong covered arcade which took us to a fun little video arcade and the coolest grocery store on the planet.  My sunnies broke at some point along the way but thankfully they clung to my face for the day with just one temple (this is the name opticians use for that side part of glasses – I had to Google search ‘what do you call the part of glasses that hangs over your ears’ to find that out – I found this website).

S departed from us at this point.  Our trip was nearing its end.  D, T and I hunted around for a spot for dinner after venturing into Namco Town, one of the craziest game centres I’ve yet been to in Japan.  We found an izakaya type place with small circular tables and tall stools, different to your usual izakaya setting.  Our simultaneous ‘Doumo!’s to the waitresses got old pretty quickly I think so we took our leave and headed to the bus stop, arriving in plenty of time.  Along the way we discovered this place.

The bus back to Tokyo was a lot more comfy than the one to Osaka and I managed a good few hours sleep.  D and I got off in Shinjuku leaving T to ride the final few kilometres to Tokyo on his own.  D and I shared a train as far as Ikebukuro before parting ways without a word (he thought I was getting off too, turned out I wasn’t and there was no moving back through that crowded carriage).  I ended up at the wrong station which added 15 mins to my 15 min walk to M’s place.  I got there before she shot off to work though, surprising her in the shower (haha).  She introduced me to her Grandmother who lives downstairs and who chucked my washing in the machine for me.  After getting it back and hanging it I crashed into bed for a few hours.  Later on I did some Japanese study and fiddled around with a guitar I found in M’s wardrobe.  In the late afternoon I indulged my new favourite hobby and went for a walk through the small back streets of the neighbourhoods around M’s apartment (with the iPhone I never get lost!).  D gave me a call and helped me with the recipe for poached peaches.  Finally I arrived at the supermarket and bought some things for dinner.

M and I ate dinner and drank and talked into the small hours of the morning.  With two or three hours sleep I arose at 4.30am to jump the trains and buses I’d need to get back to Tako in time for work.  I didn’t get back in time for work.  I arrived 20 mins late.  No worries though, but still not something I’m going to make a habit of.

It’s a bit of a cliche but ‘epic’ really is the word that describes this trip.  Nearly 60 hours spent in transit on various modes of transport, more drinking than I’ve perhaps ever done (I never got shitfaced, I just mean the drinking was steadily continuous, if that makes sense), climbing another of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains,  getting wet… a lot, getting naked… a lot, all nighters in Osaka, deer and monkeys and helicopters,  good friends, good times and a lot of laughs.  I can’t wait for the next long haul!

Posted by: deliciousirony | April 22, 2011

A shoutout

I just wanted to throw a shoutout to the place we stayed in Hakone a few weeks back – Hakone Sengokuhara Youth Hostel.  Lovely little place, great staff (English and Japanese), indoor and outdoor onsen, convenient to the buses and reasonably priced.

So for the best part of a month (since my last post really) my life has been somewhat taken over by Bleach, the anime series that all my friends watched about 5 years ago.  At Episode 108, I’m saying, ‘No more!  I want my life back!’  Yeah, I’ve enjoyed it, I’m still enjoying it, although that enjoyment has waned at points particularly when battles stretch out over four or five episodes.  It’s easy to watch.  But, well, there’s simply better things I can be doing with my time.  Play guitar, work on my Japanese, read more, write more, blog more… The advancement of the story and characters is so slow, the show labours over points repeatedly and the continual movement from battle to battle with a little bit of character development at the end of each story arc is really just boring.  I chuck it on in the evening to blob out to cos I’m usually fuckin’ knackered (despite my days not exactly being demanding) but now I’m saying no more!

I’m actually developing this theory that my hair is currently stealing my ‘vitality’, my essential life force, my day to day energy reserves, whatever you want to call it.  Cos man, these locks have a springy mind of their own at the moment.  I can’t wait to get the pampering treatment at D’Art again on Thursday.  And I just seem to be tired all the time!  ‘Cept when I go out in Tokyo and crank the whole night (by myself too cos everyone piked on me) and right through the next day!  Woop!  Hit some drum n bass (twas meant to be Goldie, but his wife made him stay home after the earthquake etc… kinda pathetic… Another Brit, Silkie stepped in in his place), got my skank on, I’m talking about dancing here, but I did also met a really nice girl, then went to Kamakura and checked out some horseback archery, so… great weekend.  That was last weekend.  So despite the Bleachathon I have still been out there and doing things.  Rather a lot of things really.

I hit up Hakone for the first time a few weeks ago.  Hakone is a resort town about 90 mins south of Tokyo (south, away from the radiation, ya’ll).  It was great.  Admittedly, not at its best in what was really still the tail end of winter though.  Japan really is a country of four seasons.  Whereas in NZ you can hike in winter and the mountainsides are still resplendent in green, Japanese mountainsides become a sea of light grey.  Still, we had a great hike on the Saturday.  Best view of Fuji I’ve enjoyed so far (no. 5 and counting I think).  We checked out Odawara Castle (I fantasized about owning an authentic Japanese sword or set of samurai armour one day… when I’m a millionaire…), enjoyed great food, stayed at a really cool little youth hostel with its own indoor and outdoor onsen, and rode a ye olde European style ship across Lake Ashinoko.  I’m not going to spend too much time writing about it because my friend Jaimie who I went with has done it for me.  She has done it in two parts… and I’m wondering if there is a third part (i.e. the final day) in the works.  I want to add one or two little details and clear up a couple of inaccuracies, mostly to do with time…

1.  That rest stop she mentions was after less than an hour hiking, not the 1 hour 45 mins she puts it at!!    Also, coming down was more like an hour – hour and a half, not the 2 and a half hours she’ll tell you it was!  Haha.  Did the effort warp your sense of time a bit, Jaimie? 😉  And, don’t worry, I had no qualms about your pace…  remember, I’m Kiwi, baby – laidback, nothing’s a problem, sweet as etc. etc.

2.  The temple we spent time loitering around is called Daiyuzan Saijo-ji and it is the most beautiful, most peaceful temple I have yet been to in Japan.  Perhaps Nikko is a little more spectacular but this place was so quiet.  It was 9am on a Saturday morning and there were no more than a handful of people walking around the place, not the hundreds you usually find, well, anywhere in Japan.  In fact, the hiking trail also was relatively quiet.  There were perhaps 15 or 20 people on the top with us.  Not bad for such an accessible place.

3.  The old couple we met were indeed lovely.  It was really cool hiking with them throughout the day.  Jaimie really impressed me (i.e. made me jealous) with her Japanese ability here too.  She scored the more friendly old man for most of the way downhill, leaving me with the less talkative old lady.  And the look on that old lady’s face when Jaimie hugged her was priceless.

4.  Oh, Jaimie and I wrote some little VISA Priceless ads about Japan while there… might discuss with her a bit more before putting those up on here… haha.  Also review them with the aid of a little time for offensiveness, perhaps…

Pics have been up on Facebook for a bit here.

The following weekend I went to Shanghai.  After the earthquake all my plans fell through, so I decided to check what a near-future flight to see Jared would cost me.  Fairly reasonable, so I booked it all up, hooked up the visa, sorted the paid leave (did that last – haha) and on the Thursday night I was off!  Again, I’m going to report to you secondhand – this time from an email description I sent to my Mum –

China was great.  Was really good catching up with Jared.  He’s still going through puberty I think, cos he’s got a shitload bigger!  He’s just got himself the cutest little dog called Scruffy D.  His sister Pip lives there too and she is great fun.  She bought Scruffy D a little outfit for Jared’s birthday.  Absolutely hilarious.  ‘Adidog’ in a light blue with little red shoes.  We went out for dinner on the last night to a nice restaurant, got a double on Jared’s new bicycle!  Ordered so much food – half a Peking duck, a spicy tofu dish, vegie dish, a fish dish, beans… it was great.  Cost $120, a reasonably expensive meal there.  We ate 5 of us at another place on the fri night and that cost 200yuan total – about 45 bucks.  You could buy big bottles of beer in little shops for 4yuan – about $1.  Awesome! The food was delicious – I think my favourite things were these flat breads that we bought off the street – so yummy!   We had a big barbecue on Saturday night at Jared’s uncle’s house.  He lives in this beautiful old place in the French Concession, an area of Shanghai built in European style by the French 100 years or so ago.  Lamb chops, prawns, chicken wings, salads, breads, pork…  lots of cheap beer… 😉  Actually one of the best things about Shanghai was the shopping (and you know I don’t really dig shopping… although I do love a bargain…) – I bought a really nice oriental scroll with a Chinese mountain scene (170yuan), I bought a cool chess set (100 yuan) and I bought a beautiful, large folding screen (700 yuan) that is still in Shanghai.  I’m looking into getting it shipped back here.  Things were just so cheap – I could never afford to buy these things in Japan.  Jared and I bought a bike on the Friday (450 yuan – around 100 bucks) and I spent friday afternoon cruising around in the crazy Shanghai traffic on that.  I’ll post some vids on youtube and pics on facebook sometime soon.  Shanghai was cool cos there was such amazing energy on the streets.  Things were so interesting.  Whereas Tokyo is all suits and heels going about their business, in Shanghai there were street vendors everywhere, bicycles and motorbikes with goods piled on the back of them, people eating and playing cards on the street, street markets.  It was just so interesting.  And the way the old and the new are smack bang up against each other was interesting too.  Unlike the steel and concrete decay of Japanese cities, the decay of Shanghai is that of old brick and wooden buildings and is beautiful.  Rode the maglev train to the airport on Monday morning – 430km/h – woop!

So there you have it.  You can see the pics here.  I spent some of that time on the bike taking videos (including a couple being doubled) and you can see them here.

So really, with my trip to Hakone, Shanghai, and my powerhouse weekend, you are largely up to date.  Oh, I spent the previous week’s evenings helping a young Japanese/Korean guy with his English before he headed off to Canada on Saturday.  That was great fun too.  An hour or so lesson, a big feed of delicious food and then drinking and chatting with the family until well after 10pm each evening.  Really lovely people.  Is really nice to have such people so close by, i.e. actually in Tako-machi.  Looking forward to joining the mother and daughter for a few drinks in Narita one night!

Now that I am free of the distraction that is Bleach I will hopefully post a little more often.  I still want to write about Japanese school kids, my favourite katakana words (English words Japanized) and the most interesting aspects of Japanese culture I have experienced so far, so keep an eye out for those scribble sometime hopefully soon!

(Oh a quick update on the earthquake – I’m at 1600 words nearly now, so I mean quick…  Last week we had some strong aftershocks but it seems to have calmed down again.  Trains seem to all be running on normal schedules… as far as I know.  Keikaku teiden (planned power outages) are still in effect but haven’t hit Tako at all.  Word is they’ll end start of May but crank up again summer time when everyone switches their aircon on.  I know about as much about the nuclear plant as most of you I’d say.  I follow the news as little as possible.  My Japanese teacher is a bit worried I think.  The biggest worry is another strong earthquake fucking things up more.  I just read today though they have got an alternative power line installed now just in case that happens.  Along with the Tako English Club, sent a box of toys etc. up to an emergency shelter in Ishikawa ken… good feeling to do something to help… Umm… yeah, ya’ll have nothing to worry about… relax yo’selves.)

Posted by: deliciousirony | March 16, 2011

地震 Jishin – that’s Japanese for Earthquake

Well, the earthquake… what can I say…?  It’s three days later now and life is and isn’t returning to normal.  I went into school today along with the other teachers and cleaned up.  Our office on the fourth floor was a mess but fairly quickly came back into shape; mostly just books and papers thrown around.  The school, much like the rest of Tako, has suffered no major damage.  A few people have some roofing issues (I saw the blue tarps dotting rooftops from the second floor of the Community Plaza today) and there are a couple of bits of damaged road but even one of these has already been repaired today.

The entrance to my apartment building - sorry, the pic is far from great

As for the day  itself, the school was preparing for graduation ceremony 卒業式 (sotsugyoushiki) the following day.  I was in the school entrance area with a half dozen girls and the two office ladies about to ask for something to do (as I had been wandering aimlessly for the best part of an hour or so) when things started to sway a bit.  We all looked at each other, fairly used to this, waiting for it to stop.  But it didn’t.  It’s one of the most surreal feelings because you kinda feel the seconds draw apart and each one becomes really long like you’re sitting in it, just thinking its gonna stop now, its gonna stop now.  And it doesn’t.  Also, at that strength, you’re not used to it and you start to get frightened and your adrenalin starts to run.  We crouched together in the centre of the entrance area mainly watching the trophy cabinet in front of us… the one we were far enough away from, should it fall, not to be crushed, but probably not to be safe from all the flying glass.  The trophies inside the cabinet started to tip over.  Something less dangerous but still attention – captivating was the pond in the middle of the courtyard, now filled with huge waves.

After what I guessed to be about a minute, the shaking stopped and the vice principal 教頭先生 (kyoutou sensei) came running through the hallway, literally screaming at us to get outside.  And so, we ran, out into the middle of the sports area in front of the school building.  The building emptied quickly and an initial count said five were missing.  Then six ran out of the building.  Go figure.

We assembled here (minus the piggy back racing)

I hung around until about 4:30pm.  Parents were slowly picking students up.  I heard from a teacher today they were there until about 6pm.  I shot up to the fourth floor, gawked at the mess, grabbed my bag and jacket and shot down to the community plaza to check on people there.  I was meant to have a Japanese lesson that afternoon so I shot around to see my teacher.  He wasn’t there but I talked with his wife and discovered they and their house were fine and he was out checking on an (even more) elderly neighbour.  Now, for home.  My scooter took the couple of new bumps in the road no problems.  I also surveyed some upturned pavers on the promenade beside the 栗山川 Kuriyama River.

Kinda artistic, ね?

At home I was greeted by one hell of a mess.  The main cabinet in my kitchen had toppled over and had been caught on a 45° angle by the small table in the middle of my little kitchen area (oh just got another good little shake then…).  The glass doors that made up the centre of the thing were shattered, as were many of the glasses and mugs inside there.

I forgot to take a picture before putting the cabinet back in place and I wasn't going to lean it back over just to take one!

The aftermath at mild 296, apt 205!! Shit, I better put that butter away!

The offending cabinet and the table that caught it, including a glass that did not break

I spent until dark getting tidied up and then popped my head torch on and cooked a dinner of fried rice.  I had no power and no cell coverage but thankfully, I still had water and gas… although whether I should have been using it…  I did and still do have some camping gas…  I still at this point had no idea what was going on other than a 7.9 magnitude earthquake had struck and that the epicentre was somewhere off Miyagi prefecture.  ‘But that’s 300 or so km away,’ I said to my colleague, the implications of which he didn’t understand.  Also at this point, no one outside of Tako had any idea about me and, as I discovered the next day, you were all worried and wondering.  I was very touched by all the messages people left for me on Facebook, by the way.  I had no idea you all cared so much.  Thank you.  About 7:30pm the water conked out and I thought well, might as well catch up on sleep… and so I lay the cabinet back down on the floor in case of aftershocks and went to bed for 15 hours.

How did I sleep that long?  Through aftershocks?  After experiencing a massive natural disaster?  Why am I so kinda blasé about the whole thing?  Well, first of all, here in Tako, it wasn’t that massive.  Sure, it was a strong earthquake, but it was nothing in terms of destruction, injury and death compared to Christchurch and definitely nothing compared to the scene unfolding up north.  When I say I’m blasé, I certainly don’t mean in terms of acknowledging the horrific situation the people of Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwaki and to a lesser extent, Ibaraki, are experiencing.  It looks like hell on earth (before and after sat shots) and I can’t fully imagine what its like to lose so much so quickly.  I think the feeling that I have though is a quite healthy sense of perspective.  I’m here and I’m well and I’m safe.  I’m not going to be paralysed by fear.  And nor are the Japanese people I see around me.  Am I worried about aftershocks?  A little.  But its more adrenalin than fear that kicks in during them.  Have I taken the necessary precautions that I am able to?  Yes.  I have a disaster pack sorted, I’m following the news as well as I can (this site helped), I’m following the directions of the JET Prefectural Advisors (thank you so much Erica – not sure if ppl will be able to see her Facebook page but great update feed and way to keep people calm) and I’m talking with my colleagues.  Am I worried about the nuclear power plant.  Yeah, now that’s a little more scary.  After reading Dogs and Demons, my faith in Japanese technology, expertise and bureaucracy isn’t as rock solid as some other peoples’ seems to be, although the information coming from news site and other analysis (reading way beyond CNN’s hyperbolic headlines here) generally looks positive, including this letter here.  But again, what am I going to do, short of leaving the country, something my mother brought up tonight, shortly before telling me something I know but rarely hear out loud; that she loves me.  She’s worried.  Getting on a plane though is just something I don’t think is necessary and I’m not prepared to do.  If the shit hits the fan, well it hits and I’ll deal with those bridges when I come to them.  Lacking so much fear, I kinda wonder if some part of me wants the shit to hit the fan, if just to test me.  To put me in a situation where its (maybe quite literally) sink or swim.  Where my ability to cope in the situation means the difference between success and failure and, in this case, life and death.  Where if people are in real danger, I can maybe do something to help them.  I feel largely untested as a man in my life and I think I’m slowly discovering this has given me a psychological complex about being weak.  Maybe I just want to be thrilled.  Anyway, you can come up with your own theories as to why I’m not scared.  Maybe I’m just dumb.  You tell me – should I be more scared?

So from here, many prefectures will experience rolling blackouts.  Those scheduled for today, seem to have come to naught, as power usage (demand) has remained below what supply can provide.  Hurry for that!   My Japanese sensei had told me to cook early in case the power was suspended so I flagged the idea of defrosting a piece of fish (no microwave you see) and decided to head to the super, most likely for a cheap and easy bento.  I’m not sure whether it is because of these rolling blackouts but my local supermarket and 24 hour drug store/supermarket were both closed tonight on my way home at 5ish.  The conbini down the road was open so I purchased some tuna and kimchi.  I met a lady I know in the store and she told me she’d seen bread at the other supermarket which just happens to be across the road and happened to be open so I decided to shoot across there, purchase bread if there was any and pancake mix if there wasn’t.  Pancake mix it was!  The last of my bread I had with tuna and kimchi on top for dinner along with a bowl of miso soup.  True disaster food!  I’m assuming stocks are going to soon return to normal but well, we’ll see…  If it helps, send it north.  We can make do.  I mean, shit, I’ve got a sense of humour and pancakes for breakfast – woop!!

Final update – I left this for the night so I could proof it today before posting – The situation has changed a bit today, on a couple of fronts.  First, on the lighter side – the supermarket was still closed and from what I hear it is due to the shelves being bare, not the rolling blackouts (which again came to naught today, a good example of Japan pulling together).  I wouldn’t have really expected this disruption in material goods here in Chiba but it appears it is so.  Food at mine is getting low so gonna have to get a little creative in the next few days…  Also I heard from a colleague today that they had been to multiple petrol stations, all of them closed.  That was when I figured that the barrier at the back entry of the petrol station just down the road from me was mirrored at the main entrance and that the place has been closed for the past two or three days.  I got a half tank in the scooter.  Got my bicycle and school’s the only place I need to go on either of those two things so all good on that front.

Secondly, on the darker side, the news from the nuclear plant continues to get worse.  There has been another explosion today, one which has potentially breached the containment barrier.  Radiation levels have risen significantly in the area around the plant and as far away as Tokyo.  The news is still generally confident though.  There has been nothing from our Embassy beyond advice to listen to the Japanese authorities.  The messages coming from my Advisors are confident also, encouraging people to remain calm and keep the numbers in perspective.  Still, people around me are leaving or considering it.  I have one friend who has gone, another who called tonight telling me she is considering it and who knows of a dozen people who have already fled the country.  We pondered how the Japanese can seemingly remain so calm in the face of this.  I suggested, well, what else can they do?  I came across the CNN Belief blog later, which had what I thought was an interesting quote: “It’s very important in Japanese life to react in a positive way, to be persistent and to clean up in the face of adversity, and their religions would emphasize that,” says University College Cork’s Bocking. “They’ll say we have to develop a powerful, even joyful attitude in the face of adversity.”  I understand the logic in this and I agree with it as a generally positive psychological move… so long as it doesn’t obscure the reality of the seriousness of the situation.  Things look generally good now but what if they go downhill drastically, in a way that isn’t being predicted…  Still, I’m currently standing by yesterday’s call to stay here.  It’s also about solidarity, something akin to the development of that powerful attitude in the face of adversity.

Posted by: deliciousirony | July 6, 2013

Protected: Rido – month 10

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Posted by: deliciousirony | June 3, 2013

Protected: Rido – up to nine months

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Posted by: deliciousirony | November 24, 2012

Was sick of bending over all the time…

No, not what some of you may be thinking (Stefan Pirie, Paul McGibbon, I’m looking at you!).  The kitchen bench in my apartment forced me to bend over like an old lady who’s spent all her years in rice paddies, so I decided to build a new bench over the summer.  M was away, back at her grandmothers for the month before and after the baby was born.  I had:

1. time on my hands with summer holidays (although it took until nearly the end of those holidays before I finally got started in earnest)
2. a long held desire to get into some wordworking
3. absolutely no desire to buy some piece of cut-out shite from Ikea or the like
4. a wordworking room at school (with a whole bunch of machines which I didn’t end up using)

The slow start was partly the fault of planning and buying up the things I would need, and partly the fault of simply not getting stuck in quick enough.  On the planning side though, I had to find a design to work to.  I had to figure out what I wanted in terms of size and features.  Without a car, I had to organise for some help from one of the lovely office ladies at school to buy wood from the hardware store.

Once I got started in earnest, school had pretty much started again and as such I had only an hour in the evenings between the end of speech comp practice and people leaving the building.  I pushed on each day.

Actually, another delay was figuring out how to make square cuts.  I knew from the start this was vitally important if I didn’t want a table that rocked and wobbled all about the place.  I had to go back to the internet and find a way to do this by hand as I didn’t want to bother the woodworking teacher asking for instruction on how to use all those machines in the room (he’s also in charge of timetabling and as such is very busy).  I came across a website about making square cuts by hand using what’s called a ‘bench hook’.  So I made me one of these and what’dya know, it worked!

From there, work progressed relatively smoothly, I guess.  It just took time.  I guess in all, plannning, shopping and building, I spent 50 hours putting everything together.  One interesting event was coming in one day and finding the heat had melted some of the sap in one of the table legs, leaving a long trail running down nearly to the floor.

The key feature was height.  Whereas the previous table was around 75cm high, this one stands 89cm high.  After that, it all gets a bit tech ;).  As the pics show, on the right hand side there is a slot for the chopping board.  No more moving back and forth to where it sat behind the sink.  The second feature, on the left side, is a gladwrap holder (apologies to any American readers – I mean ‘saran wrap’).  Attached to the table is a cutting edge from an old box (a 750 ft Costco box that I’ve had since my predecessor left!).  No more having to pick up a box of plastic wrap and struggle to get it out and cut.  Boom!  Finally, and the feature I am most proud of, is the hole for composting garbage in the back and centre of the table.  I’d seen this once or twice before and had ever since wanted a bench with such a feature.  You cut, slice, peel, whatever and then just push the remains down the hole where it shoots down the tube to the attached bucket, landing with a satisfying ‘thunk’.  You can check out the video here!

I love making things like this.  And my woodworking has definitely come along from the box I made for making biltong a couple of years ago.

I look forward to my next project now with both a bit more experience and confidence under my belt!

Posted by: deliciousirony | October 3, 2012

Tako takes 1st place at Katori English Speech Comp!

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Despite no individual first places (a 2nd, two 3rd’s and a 4th), Tako came out the overall champ last Wednesday.

While an individual 1st would be great, after my first year, where every kid got 2nd place (!), I feel, for the most part, satisfied now.

And besides that, the kids were great to work with over the summer. We had a lot of laughs. And I think they got something from the process English-wise, speech-wise and personally, too. (Thanks for reminding me part way through that it’s not just about winning, Brennan!)

Congrats, girls!!

The words of Liberty Hyde Bailey, a rather interesting-sounding man.  But this is not an educational treatise, just a collection of (not-so) recent sunset photos… This post has been sitting in the half done pile for a while.  The one with the spider – it’s that time of year and the spiders are coming back again.  Time to get a head-full of cobwebs each morning and evening.

Posted by: deliciousirony | March 6, 2011

Belle and Sebastian と Mito Plum Matsuri

Another uber – fun weekend in Japan!  It began straight after work on Friday.  The Belle and Sebastian gig started at 7.00pm in Shin-Kiba, the south east corner of Tokyo.  The earliest I could get in from Tako was 7.08, so, full of a couple of chu-hi’s supped on the train, I legged it to Ageha, the venue.  I got to the door and it was eerily quiet.  I stepped into the bar area and there were perhaps 20 people in there…  I could hear the band playing, I’m a Cuckoo and I thought, what’s going on?  where is everyone? I discovered where they were upon opening the doors into the main room of the venue.  It was packed from wall to wall (the place’s capacity is 2400 I think).  I was looking long ways down the room – on my right was the band playing on stage, in front of me a sea of people and to the left, more people raised on the couple of tiers at the back of the room.  There wasn’t a hope in hell of finding my friends in there so I squeezed in 5 or 6 metres to a spot with a pretty good view and just started enjoying myself.  I was THAT annoying guy, wearing a backpack and bouncing about excitedly in the tightly packed crowd.  Japanese crowds are very gracious and accommodating though thankfully, so nobody gave me any shit.  Everyone was very still, taking in the music.  Particularly at first, it felt as though people were engaged in some kind of academic exercise, scrutinising the band in preparation for a written analysis, but people loosened up (sorta) as the set went on.  A factor in this was perhaps that the first few songs didn’t seem to quite have the zing that they have on the albums.  As a friend described it afterwards, they seemed a bit slow.  This definitely didn’t last though and by the fourth or fifth song in we were in full swing.

Throughout the show, the band was obviously having a good time on stage.  Stuart meandered out into the crowd a couple of times.  People were pulled on stage a couple of times to have a boogie with the band.  The stage banter was fun with Stevie Jackson acting as Murdoch’s ‘translator’ a couple of times.  Jackson also treated us to a little ditty entitled, Let’s be French, the lyrics to which I, sadly, can’t remember, other than vin de rouge and vin de plonk.  Jackson drew the crowd in, asking them to harmonise on my favourite song of the evening, I’m Not Living in the Real World from the band’s latest album, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love.  The set list was, to my great delight, widely varied, fast and slow, old and new, something I wasn’t sure was going to be the case beforehand.  It included, amongst others, The Boy With the Arab Strap, If You’re Feeling Sinister, Sukie in the Graveyard, Piazza, New York Catcher, Sleep the Clock Around, Lord Anthony (the last two being particular highlights for me), and closing their encore with, after an audience request, The Blues Are Still Blue. From the new album, they played I Didn’t See it Coming (the lone song my late entry meant I missed, but one I definitely lament!), Come on Sister, I Want the World to Stop, I’m Not Living in the Real World and album closer Sunday’s Pretty Icon’s. They played for two and a half hours including an encore and even in that time couldn’t play every song I or the rest of the crowd wanted to hear (The State I Am In and Expectations from Tigermilk being a couple of tunes I would have loved to hear).

I still had my drink ticket after the show so downed a quick screwdriver before meeting my friends outside and hoping the train back to K’s place where I was crashing for the night.  We were slightly high, slightly drunk and thus highly obnoxious on the train, talking loudly, playing music, singing and dancing, including wiggling my hips a little too close to some guy’s face, much to his distaste.  According to K,  “He hates you right now.”

The next day I traveled up to Ibaraki prefecture to the Mito Plum Festival which I’d read about in a tourist brochure I picked up at Narita Airport (my second home, my gateway from Tako to the wider world – I will pass through that place more than any other JET in Japan, guaranteed).  We were really lucky with the weather because the previous two days had been bitterly cold but the Saturday had the feel of spring in the air.  The park, Kairakuen, was touted as one of the three most beautiful parks in Japan and I have to say it was a fine sight.  Unfortunately, we were probably about a week early for seeing the place in its full bloom.  As well as being a very hot summer last year (the ‘worst’, if that’s the word you want to use, in 200 years, according to my friend, M), it has also been a very cold winter (of course, I blame the man-made global warming) and thus, though the festival has started, only some of the trees are in bloom.  Still, we had a lot of fun wandering around the stalls, sitting on the grass looking down towards Lake Senba and the city skyline, wandering through the old residence of Tokugawa Nariaki and enjoying a ride on the swan peddle boat out on the lake.  Well, I enjoyed that, M’s fear of birds precluded her full pleasure of the lake.  In saying that, a big ass swan did give me a fright at one point when I discovered it was still at my side, very close to my side, in fact, and this, soon after M told me she had seen them having a go at people’s hands.  Before jumping the train back south we were able to see the opening fireworks and the lighting of all the candles around the park, a really pretty sight.  A long, serene walk in the dark took us along the lake edge into the city centre and the train station.  I must say, Mito looked like a really attractive little city, more so than they often seem in Japan (maybe write more on that another time).  A major highlight of the day was the constant consumption of matsuri food.  A short list goes thus: an onigiri wrapped in bacon, mine topped with kimchi, M’s with ginger, some kind of thick pancake type thing filled with sakura (cherry blossom) and some other flavoured stuff, kumara chips (yesss!), miso dipped mochi (a sticky rice paste sweet thing), a whole grilled fish (I’d been wanting to try one of these for awhile… strange at first, but not bad), a continual picking at of the free samples of what I’m pretty sure is ume mochi – plum flavoured mochi wrapped in ume leaves – super tasty, karage (fried chicken), and omorettofranku (a long sausage on a stick with a thin omelette wrapped around it).  As you can see, I still have some ways to go getting my head around the names, let alone the intricacies of Japanese foods.  Anyway, enjoy some photos.  Apologies the quality of the concert ones isn’t better.

Posted by: deliciousirony | February 19, 2011

Big Buddhas and Chinese buns – A Day in Kamakura and Yokohama

OK, I did say I might try to write this entry in Japanese and I took a shot at it, but after a good 10 minutes I had three sentences and I was really struggling to express myself in the style I like to writing in English.  I also felt that what I was writing was probably making an absolute butchering of the Japanese language… so, it may be best to wait for a while on that front…

Slowly but surely I explore more of the Greater Tokyo Area.  You may wonder when I’m going to get out of this area and see some of the rest of the country.  The next couple of months look as though they will take me through large parts of the southern half of the country.  Last Saturday, along with my friend and language exchange partner, K, I went to Kamakura, a major historical destination about 50km south of Tokyo, and Yokohama, Japan’s second biggest city, and perhaps its most international, given its history as the first port opened by Commodore Perry and his warships.

 

During the previous week, I announced my plans to the office ladies who are always interested in my adventures, particularly when a girl is involved.  H san dropped a gold nugget when she told me about the JR ホリデイパス (Holiday Pass).  This bad boy entitles you to a whole day’s travel around the Greater Tokyo Area for 2300 yen (about 40 bucks).  Considering the trip down to Kamakura alone was going to cost 2000 yen, this was a budgetary Godsend.

I picked one of these up from the JR station at Narita Airport and headed through to Funabashi where I was meeting K.  After a little confusion about gates, we found each other and hopped the train out of Funabashi that luckily ran us all the way down to Kamakura.  We talked about bosses, musicals and taking your Dad’s car out in the snow to pass the time.  On the way we saw the tiniest bit of snow falling.  Unfortunately this never eventuated into much, just a bit of rain later on and a day that was incredibly fuckin’ cold, even with the five layers I had on the top half of my body.

From Kamakura station we headed down the lively Komachi dori (lit. Little Town Street) towards Tsugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine.  The street is filled with restaurants and souvenir shops.  It also had one of the first boutique delis I have seen in Japan.  The souvenir shops were a touch above what I have seen in Tokyo or Narita, some specializing in a particular product such as chopsticks or cotton prints (for bags, handkerchiefs, wall hangings etc.).  Others featured plenty of ‘suka jumpers’ – I dunno what we call these exactly in the West… but I’m presuming the name comes from the fact Americans from nearby Yokusuka Naval Base wore them a lot sometime after WWII.

Tsugaoka Hachiman-gu is a beautiful complex.  It is backed by low hillsides covered in bush.  It features a long central walkway heading to 61 stairs which take you up to the main shrine building.  おかし (okashi – sweets) stalls line either side of the walkway.  On the right of the central walkway is a medium sized pond with かも (kamo – ducks) cruising around.

It was here that I had my first encounter with a りす risu – a squirrel.  Man, those things are fast!  K also gave me a short lesson on the names for some animals in Japanese – the two I’ve already mentioned, along with はと (hato – pigeon), からす (karasu – crow)

Within the main shrine building you can see the みこし (mikoshi – portable shrines) that are carried on the shoulders of the men during Kamakura Festival in the middle of April.  The festival also features やぶさめ (yabusame – horseback archery) – can’t wait for that! You can also see the small boards that people write their wishes on; e.g. for success in an upcoming exam, for the good health of a family member or for general prosperity.  There is an amazing view looking back down the main street of Kamakura, seeing almost all the way to the ocean.  In another month or so this will be flooded with the pink of sakura blossoms, just one excuse to go back (Kamakura Tourist Board, please put the money in my account soon).

After this we wandered back down the Komachi dori and had lunch at a nice little soba restaurant.  My noodles came with chicken and mozzarella cheese on top.  K had duck which looked a little lighter than that which we’d shoot back home.  At this point I told her about going duckshooting (かもうち – kamouchi) with my Dad to which she looked kinda horrified.  We stopped in a few shops, tried some sweets and bought some omiyage.  I quipped that being with a Japanese person had me thinking  about what I could buy for other people, rather than myself, as I usually would.

We took the bus from the station up the road in the opposite direction to the daibutsu, the second largest in Japan, after the one at Nokogiri yama (see earlier post).  Ksenia had told me this one was more impressive than that at Nokogiri and I have to agree.  The main reason for that I think is that it’s free standing.  Whereas the Buddha at Nokogiri yama has the slope of the mountain behind it, this daibutsu stands alone in the middle of the temple complex.  You can also get closer to this daibutsu and I’m not sure whether it’s because of this but there seems to be more expression in his face.  By paying 20 yen (besides stuff that is free, this will be the cheapest thing you do in Japan) you can go inside the buddha’s belly.

 

We ended the day in Kamakura by walking down to the ocean for a look.  The beach here isn’t the most attractive but I’ve heard that others in the area will definitely be worth a visit in summer.  We walked back to the little train line that runs along the coast and rode the few stops back to Kamakura Station, in time to head up to Yokohama for some dinner before the ride north east back to Chiba.

Lovely day, でしょう?

One thing Yokohama is famous for is its Chinatown, (ちゅかがい, chukagai).  I wanted to try nikuman from Chinatown.  I’ve been here six months, these are sold all over, conbini included, yet I still haven’t tried them.  Imagine a large, heavy, flour-based bun filled with yummy meat and spice-filled sauce.  おいしかった! (oishikatta – it was delicious!)

 

All parking buildings should be beautified thus

We walked down to the waterfront and looked out into the murky darkness where we could just make out the bridge across Yokohama Bay.  We looked down towards the city centre and decided to let the cold attack our face and stir up our souls by wandering towards the next station.

We ended up walking all the way into the CBD with stops along the way at Akarengasoko, an old red brick warehouse complex that has been converted into a shopping mall.  This provided one of the highlights of the day when, upon walking into a shop, we were presented with a free, yes free, coffee.  Sure, it was little, but it was free and fuckin’ delicious!  After that, I dunno if it was the coffee itself or the fact it was free and it was just the most ridiculous service, but I was on a high.  We went back into the cold, past the little amusement park marked by the Cosmo Clock 21, a giant ferris wheel, and into Queen’s Square, a shopping mall with a great candy shop and an entrance into the subway which would run us back to Yokohama and our train home.  We gave the shitty weather the middle finger and had a ball in spite of it.  Etched in as a great day.  I will be returning soon!

 

Posted by: deliciousirony | February 15, 2011

January Roundup (brought to you by Monsanto)

January got a bit hectic (no more hectic than February is turning out to be though… and March, April and the beginning of May look to be…) and I never really posted anything about the cool stuff that I did so…

Winter time… time for the Tokyo Snow Club to kick into full gear.  Nearly every weekend for the next couple of months, George, a sane, normal, even awesome Australian (can you believe it?) will be running trips up to the powder.  Thanks George!!

We met up at Shinjuku very early on Saturday morning, the 8th, arriving in Hakuba about 12.30.   Our hotel backed right on to the powder.  Walk out the back door, a few metres up the hill, clip your board in and go.  It was amazing.  The field, Tsugaike Kogen has around a dozen lifts and a gondola that rocks 4km up to the top of the mountain.

The run takes about 25 minutes at my mid level pace to get from top to bottom.  Ridiculous, given the longest run back home is the Big Mama at Porters coming in at a little over 2 km, I believe.  The snow was great.  Saturday daytime was いいてんきね (beautiful weather) and in the evening it started snowing again so that there was nearly a foot of fresh powder the next day.  T and I took to the top of the mountain for the morning and found a nice little under-used run full of deep snow (well, for me) to cut through.  At one point I got stuck just before the lip into this area and so drew on my past gymnastics experience to do a dive roll into the run.  Made it back to my feet but didn’t quite have the balance to get going.  Also, did some night skiing for the first time which was great fun.  Just hung around on the green slopes practising little jumps and 180s under the lift pylons.  The Saturday night we took in some bands at a little club called Club Naughty.  The place was a dingy yet charming establishment with a stage down the far end, a roof with an ellipse of purple lights running around the roof, and a bar which many peoples’ homes would stock a wider variety of liquor.  The Mootekkis are a great band, half gaigin, half Japanese, based in Tokyo.  Hard rocking with a great lead singer (put the money into my account, Mike), they reminded me a bit of a band I caught once or twice in my university days (I pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve used that phrase… oh god…), Thought Creature.  Also saw Byron Space Circus, some friendly American dudes playing a mix of folk and Irish gigging.  Afterwards we kicked off a little afterparty, joining the Japanese DJ on stage with some drums, some dancing and some MCing of varying quality.  We then went upstairs and continued drinking and I managed to roll Trey for 1000 yen playing pool – boo yah!

Biggest difference between NZ and Japanese skifields – their’s have trees!  I kinda felt like I was in a movie at some points.  I liked to imagine Goldeneye, cept Bond is always a skiier, never a boarder; time to update your images, James!

On Saturday 22nd I took in a Japanese legend.  This was my first visit to the sumo and it was awesome!  K’s landlord takes a bunch of people every time they hold a tournament in Tokyo and a space opened up which I happily filled.  We took our seats, our goodie bag arrived, containing beer, juice, sandwiches and yakitori, and the spectacle began.  The one let-down – I forgot my camera, so unfortunately I don’t have any good shots.  Tournaments run for two weeks and we went on the second last day.  The りきし (rikishi – wrestlers) are trying to gain at least 8 wins from the 15 bouts they will fight over the two weeks.  Those who continually win the most bouts move up the ranks to おぜき (Ozeki) status (also the name of cheap by-the-jar sake you can buy here – it’s not bad too 😉 )  and ultimately よこずな (Yokozuna) – the Grand Champion.  The current よこずな is Hakuho and his final battle was fantastic.  Most matches last for a matter of mere seconds so those that go for longer than this very quickly become very exciting.  It is easy for us to laugh but there is really a lot of skill to it as well and I was fascinated.  I will definitely be taking another trip when the next tournament comes up in May.  Unfortunately I’m pretty sure I’ll find myself paying this time and with no goodie bag in sight – *sigh*.  Oh, here’s a video I posted a long time ago.

The 19th and 20th saw a couple of days away from school for the Chiba JET Mid Year Conference.  I wrote about this in my last post and the changes that it helped prompt in what I am doing at school (helped by the fact that the following week the 1st year kids were off school and hence, I had very little to do).  So far these have made me feel much more fulfilled in my job.  I’m playing soccer or basketball with kids a couple of times a week, I’m speaking much less Japanese with the students (and I’m picking and choosing more carefully who needs it and who doesn’t, rather than just using the kids for practice), and I’m dropping in on other classes such as science and art.  And hopefully, soon, the 2nd year ‘make and take care of a baby class’.  Well, that’s just the name I’ve given it; I don’t know that they actually teach the students how to make a baby.  Perhaps I could teach them that…  Anyway, the Conference…  It was great to see everyone again and to become more friendly with a few different people.  We had a great speaker the first morning (he’s the one quoted in the post below) and I got to see some of my friends team teach (Kate! Kate!  You were great!  Gooooo Kate!).  I learned about ALTS – Assistant Language Teacher Signing – a powerful tool for getting kids off the Japanese teat.  A lot of people hate conferences by default.  Sometimes I hate them too.  I gotta say though, this one was pretty good.

Finally, on a language note, I began a conversation exchange with a Japanese girl which is going great.  On Saturday we went down to Kamakura and Yokohama together, my first time to both, and checked out a couple of famous spots there.  I’ll post about that soon (‘soon’ is an appropriately loose term).  Also, a small but very important thing:  わたしはパソコンに日本語をはなしました!! – You could very loosely translate this as, ‘I made my computer speak Japanese!!’  (I think it better translates as ‘I spoke Japanese to my computer’ which is not what I mean! わたしのパソコンは日本語をはなしている – My computer is speaking Japanese).  Perhaps I’ll try writing that next post in Japanese…

PHOTOS!!!

When you go to a country, you must learn how to say two things: how to ask for food, and to tell a woman that you love her. Of these the second is more important, for if you tell a woman you love her she will certainly feed you.
– Louis L’Amour

The two best ways to learn a country’s language are through its women and in its prisons.
– Vicky, random pot grower I met in the Netherlands

Trust a man with the surname ‘L’Amour’ to say something like that.  Still, his advice is simple; I can probably do those two things, so I take some encouragement from that.  I have no desire to see the inside of a Japanese prison.  I know that there I’d do no better, and quite possibly worse than I would in a New Zealand prison.  I’m fairly sure I have zero redeemable qualities for prison.  Well, perhaps one… ahem.

I have wanted to write for a while on my desire, process and progress of learning the Japanese language but the subject keeps getting bigger and hence scarier.  But, here we go.

(Editor’s Note: This effort eventually totalled 4,274 words, not counting the words in this note.  For the readers sanity, I have asked Michael to highlight certain words or phrases so the reader, if they desire, can pick and choose what they want to read.)

We’ll start with a little chronology.  My first experience learning Japanese was in Form 3 at James Hargest with Mrs Van Koton (I think that’s how you spell her name; she married a Dutch guy).  I went with the one term taster, ultimately sticking with French for my first two years of high school.  The only thing I remember from that time is りんご ‘ringo’ – the Japanese for ‘apple’.  And those French lessons… well I spent a good chunk of them darting out to the toilet and sticking my head in Mrs Van Koton’s window to yak with my mate Stefan.

Since then there has been a steady diet of anime which taught me ばか ‘baka’ – ‘idiot’ and 何 ‘nani’ – ‘what?’  Then, for six months before coming to Japan, I got down to some semi-serious study and learned hiragana and katakana along with some basic phrases and vocabulary (トイレはどこですか ‘toire wa doko desu ka’ – ‘where is the toilet?’).

On February 1st I will have been living in Japan for six months.  Wow…

No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, – so helpless and so ridiculous.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thanks, Ralph.  Did you really manage to do this before you toured Europe in 1832?  If so, damn… I’ve come a long way from りんご ‘ringo’ but only realise what an incredibly long way I have to go.  I still barely understand anything that anyone says.  I still often can’t express myself.  And I still couldn’t really flirt with a pretty Japanese girl to save myself.  I have days of frustration, let’s say.  Definitely days where I feel like a ‘great baby’.  Around a month ago, those were quite frequent and I was getting a little bit depressed, but the New Year has begun with fresh vigour and fresh ideas for mastering this biatch.  I’ll come back to those later.

Any time you think some other language is strange, remember that yours is just as strange, you’re just used to it.
from Linguistic Mystic.com

So how are Japanese and English different? Which is more difficult than the other?  Well, the second question is one that is impossible as a native English speaker to answer.  I’ve often heard that English is a very difficult language to learn though and studying Japanese and of course, teaching English to junior high kids has thrown that, quite nicely, into relief.  What I can tell you are what the pros and cons of each language are, as I see them.

There are two major difficulties with English.  The first is that the sounds are in no way uniform.  Think of the word ‘Christ’ and the word ‘chicken’.  Both start with the consonant blend ‘ch’ but make completely different sounds.  Think of ‘Christ’ and ‘crystal’.  They begin with the same sound but different consonant blends.  Think of silent letters in English.  One that came up in class yesterday was the word ‘sign’.  One thing with Japanese is that you can always count on a syllable to sound the same (someone may be able to contradict me on that, but in my experience…).  When you learn a new word, the difficulty in learning to pronounce that word is only in getting your tongue around something so different from an English word.  Fun Japanese words to pronounce – つづける‘tsudzukeru’ – to continue, とどける‘todokeru’ – to deliver, つとめる ‘tsutomeru’ – to hold a postion, to work (even more fun as a present participle which is pretty much how you always use it – つとめている ‘tsutometeiru’).

The second major difficulty with English is the irregularity of verbs.  In Japanese the conjugation of verbs is very uniform.  There are only two irregular verbs – 来る ‘kuru’ – to come and する ‘suru’ – to do.  In English there are at least 200 irregular verbs in common usage.  Japanese may have a couple of different verb forms and myriad ways of conjugating them to create different syntactical structures but at least they are UNIFORM.  When you learn a verb, you don’t have to learn its present tense, past tense and past participle.  In English the most simple verbs can also change due to plurality.  Take this, for example, lifted from Wikipedia:

  • Beam, you are, he is, we are, they are; in addition, the preterite forms are irregular: was, you were, he was, we were, they were. Its subjunctive mood is also irregular: the past form is always were, and the present form is always be.
  • Do (and compounds such as “undo” and “redo”): I do, you do, he does, we do, they do where “does” is pronounced dəz in contrast to du, the pronunciation of the infinitive and the other present tense forms.
  • HaveI have, you have, he has, we have, they have.
  • SayI say, you say, he says, we say, they say

The most obvious difficulty with Japanese is kanji.  There are some 3000+ characters derived from the Chinese pictograph system.  My understanding and knowledge of kanji is still quite limited because so far it has only been a real sideline area of study for me.  I have been focussing on vocabulary and grammar – the necessaries for communicating orally with people.  I guess so far I know around 50 or so perhaps… I may even be overestimating.  The kanji are made up of what are called radicals.  Wikipedia, can define better than I.       “Wikipedia, please define radical.”
(Imagine a HAL-like voice): “Definition of Radical: A Chinese radical (from the Latin radix, meaning “root”) is a basic component of every Chinese character. Used in Chinese dictionaries (Chinese: 部首; pinyin: bùshǒu), radicals form the basis of an indexing system that has classified Chinese characters throughout the ages, from ancient Shouwen Jiezi characters to their modern successors.”

As kanji are derived from Chinese characters, this also applies to them. Funny thing is, before I looked up that definition, I was thinking about how to define a radical, and I would have said they are kinda like root words.  As vocabulary becomes more complex, multiple kanji are joined together, the meanings of each kanji giving some understanding as to the concept.  A really basic example – 今日- ‘kyou’, meaning ‘today’, combines the kanji for ‘now’ and for ‘day’.  I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that there are around 215 radicals.  Know these building blocks and you basically know how to write kanji.  At the moment each new kanji I learn is so much fun to struggle over and master that remembering them seems fairly easy.  I doubt I’ll be able to say that when I know 300, 400 or 500 and they are all starting to blur together into the same thing…  I can proudly say I know a 13 stroke kanji – 新meaning ‘new’ but some kanji can have 25 or 30 strokes that make them up) so I do foresee a confusing nightmare.

Another thing I find difficult are particles.  We would, in many cases,