June: A Retrospective

JNGR2017In the month and a half since my last post, things have happened. Obviously. However, none of those things really had enough to be said about them to justify a post in themselves, so I took advantage of the opportunity to not anthologise my life or look through any photos I’d taken while I studied for JLPT N3 Round 2: Jack’s Revenge. Now, with the exam behind me, I can take stock a little.

My last post detailed the the weekend of utter chaos and sleep deprivation that was BitSummit. ‘What’s happened since then?’ I pretend to hear you ask. Well, since I pretended you did,

 

My Mother Came to Visit

Late May saw my mother’s second visit to see me since I arrived on JET. A year without seeing me held significant symbolic value, so this way the intervals are kept to a few months at a time. Friend of the show (and my mother) Sarah coordinated her own debut trip to Japan with this visit, and the three of us were able to join Jaz in a jolly tour round Kanazawa. I almost feel as though I am equally qualified to show people round the city.

No doubt tired by such extravagances as ‘public transport,’ ‘pavements’ and ‘fish,’ Mum and I returned to Yamagata and Nanyo on Tuesday. Sadly, this meant back to work for me, though we were able to make a formal visitation to one of my schools on Friday, as well as watching the city-wide elementary school sports day for a time. Both went about as well as might be imagined, which is to say I spent a lot of time translating compliments about my mother’s youthful beauty and even more time correcting the students who were cheekily convinced she must be my girlfriend.

We also dropped in on a flower festival on the outskirts of Nanyo. It was the sort that could only happen out in the country — a few craft and food stalls clustered around a tiny shrine, surrounded by rows of flowers. Mum and I tried our hand at kendama — a Japanese toy where one must flick a ball on a string and catch it on a wooden handle. Both of us were judged according to the official Japanese Kendama League standards and reached grade 6 of 12. Not bad for a couple of foreigners (probably).

For a late birthday present, we did some pottery in nearby Nagai, which was an entertaining test of my translation skills in a context about as far away as it’s possible to get from a gaming show in Kyoto. We were both nevertheless reasonably successful, and have a mug and two trays/plates each to show for it.

 

It was my Birthday

IMG_2913

Just like the hanami party, some friends and I generally made a nuisance of ourselves in a park, only this time the park was completely empty and I was successful in the only birthday endeavour that truly matters — drinking a 3-litre can of beer in one sitting.

 

There was a Work Party

to celebrate the 144th [???] anniversary of one of my schools’ founding. It started with snails and jellyfish soup and ended, via sake taste-testing, with my singing Take On Me to the principal, the (I think) head of the PTA and literally one other patron of a tiny snack bar on an ancient karaoke machine at midnight on a Tuesday.

 

Jaz and I Went to Niigata (again)

 

The Airbnb Kerfuffle meant that our booking was cancelled, but we were able to find a very cheap hotel room further out in the countryside. It was an odd place which looked like it could use some love, but for about £15 a night we couldn’t complain! The village in which it was situated seemed to be known for its senbei (rice crackers) but that weekend was the start of a firefly festival. It was the first time either of us had seen them, and there was something very pleasing about how exactly they matched our expectation from films and the like. Fireworks in the city on the horizon only added to the atmosphere, although while they were hidden by the mountains it wasn’t immediately clear at first that we weren’t being bombarded. In the city proper we were able to eat some truly excellent sushi, and got a decent hike out of one of the mountains near our hostel.

I went Skiing

 

in June! Jay and I made the trek up to Mount Gassan, where the ski season starts in April and ends in late July. In winter there is too much snow to ski. Novelty aside, the slopes weren’t excellent. I fared better than the snowboarder, but even so it was a rather unpleasant study in moguls for the most part. The piste itself wound in between trees that, while not yet green, were certainly not white. However, if it was good enough for a large Korean tour who seemed to have taken up the entire café at the bottom of the chairlift, it was good enough for us.

 

We had a Picnic in the Mountains

around Iide, about an hour’s west of me. Marcus, our regional advisor, organised the event and, despite telling everyone to BYOB and bring BBQ food and snacks, helpfully brought with him half of Costco by means of sustenance. The issue was only compounded when a man appeared bearing a banquet-sized platter of vegetables that he had picked that morning. In the end we all took home more food than we brought. It was a scorching hot day but an undeniably beautiful part of the country. We all reconnected with a more innocent time by means of river wading and 3-a-side football.

 

I Sat a Japanese Exam

IMG_2418As mentioned above, I went in for JLPT N3 Part II: The Revengenesis. I’d been doing reasonably well with revision through June, but the very sudden change in temperature (up to 30) followed by humidity (up to 90%) did terrible things to me. The final week consisted of me shambling to and from work then flopping straight into bed under the air conditioner and going to sleep.

The day dawned and I made my way to the very architecturally impressive Tohoku University of Art and Design and into a lecture theatre. It’s a good thing I was born with a single column of bone and muscle running up my back rather than spinal vertebrae or else the chairs would have been tragically uncomfortable and I would have spent every session squirming to try and alleviate the pain. A stomach ache came early on and joined forces with my back to create an abdominal dream team of discomfort and distraction.

Thankfully (touch wood), I feel like I knew most of what came up, and at least have a solid shot of passing. One only needs 50%, and [*hubris warning*] considering I was only about 4 marks off the last time with far less preparation, I’ll be a little miffed if I fall short again. In any case, N3 is behind me, and later this month I begin the arduous journey to the next level: N2.

 

And thus the update is complete. Summer is well and truly here and this first year of JET is coming to a close. In just over a month I’ll be welcoming a new ALT to Nanyō as one of the veterans, rather than the other way round. Hopefully I’ll at least have the Japanese qualifications to feel like less of an imposter.

 

Advertisements

A Bit of A Rubbish Pun

32764552_10103157112728021_2653230649992806400_o

But I’m tired, OK?

This post comes hot on the heels of the last one, but just seems to be how May is working for me. Nary five days after a pretty packed Golden Week I found myself boarding a night bus down to Kyoto for Bitsummit Vol. 6 — Japan’s largest independent game show.

Somewhere in the depths of a JET facebook page (I think) there had been a call for volunteers. I applied about a week before the event in characteristic fashion, and was added to the relevant Facebook group, entitled ‘Bitsummit 2018 Interpreters.’ For someone who had just expected to be stacking some chairs and whatnot, this development was a worrying one. The fact that everyone introducing themselves seemed to work professionally in game localisation only raised this tension. All the same, the buses were booked, so I ticked the ‘non-interpretation help’ box and did some calming breathing exercises.

IMG_5044.jpg

The bus down was about as pleasant as one might expect, and I arrived at Kyoto station at 6 o’clock to find absolutely nowhere to sit down. I consoled myself with a can of coffee and set off walking to the exhibition centre.

As expected, there I met about 40 foreigners in various stages of discomfort. A meeting was called to welcome us and split us into teams — I was given my yellow t-shirt and INTERPRETER badge and we plunged into the hall proper.

While there were some large stalls at the front from like likes of Nintendo and Sony, most of the room was taken up by about a hundred tables. These were the indie developers, who had come with TVs, consoles, laptops, PCs, banners and an impressive amount of papercraft in at least one instance.

IMG_5047.jpg

We had half an hour to wander round before the show proper opened, during which time I played a game where the player, a naked man holding a box around his midriff, must run home and evade detection by crouching down inside the box whenever someone walked past. This was controlled by an actual cardboard box that I raised or lowered to move faster or hide, respectively.

I also tried my first VR game — a kind of diving experience where I had to move my arms breaststroke-fashion to head down to the bottom and collect what looked like a bunch of grapes. The experience was as disorientating as I had feared, especially when I misjudged my speed and went crashing into the ocean floor. Thankfully I was spared the nausea sometimes associated with these things.

The morning was spent pretty much entirely in a state of sensory overload. Luckily, most of the foreign guests at the event had at least a smattering of Japanese, and the Japanese visitors generally suffered through the language barrier rather than call for help. I was called upon only once, and then for a question so bizarre that I was no help anyway. I realised later that, with my arms folded in a relaxed manner, my badge was covered up — this might have had something to do with the lack of work.

After lunch I was placed in a different area and set to work actually doing something. I introduced myself to a few more developers and spent most of my time with Al, creator of Eatvolve. I was able to help in a few small ways, and steadily got more proactive about asking people if they needed help or had questions. Before I knew it I was interpreting like some sort of interpreter or something!

IMG_5089

Bitsummit is not, by game show standards, an especially high-octane event. This meant I was able to spend plenty of time chatting to developers and playing the games themselves. One of the more interesting ones was Super Slime Arena. It’s an party fighting game with two twists. Firstly, your character changes each time you are killed, which happens a lot when every attack kills in one hit. Secondly, it supports a frankly silly number and variety of controllers. Alongside the pretty standard keyboard, Xbox/Playstation/Gamecube controllers and joystick, we could use an N64 controller, a remote control plane controller, a fishing rod controller (possibly for the Dreamcast), a fighting game pad, a Guitar Hero guitar and the bongos from the legendary Donkey Konga Gamecube games.

Day 1 ended with a large sigh from all involved. It had been a relaxed atmosphere but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been awfully busy. I returned for a spell to my Airbnb room which turned out very literally to be a woman’s flat. She was away in Osaka for the night so I felt like something of an intruder.

In the evening I joined about an hundred other developers, journalists and interpreters by the river for an informal party. We made a decent nuisance of ourselves and also managed to stay out until nearly 4am. This did us no favours the next day.

IMG_5175.jpg

I just about managed to arrive at the venue before Day 2 formally began. Having hit my stride a bit more with interpretation I leapt into it, but this backfired a little when I got taken aside by someone from NHK to interview the head of a rather large developer — at this point I had to step aside for everyone’s sake.

I was working rather more (and rather slower) this day, and os got rather less chance to play games. One that stood out, still, was Ultra Space Battle Brawl, a cross between Pong and a side-on fighting game replete with 80s garishness. I interpreted for an interview between some Osaka-based students and a representative of Toge Productions, which was set up to promote Indonesian games like this one worldwide. A card by the TV in the centre of their area advertised a patch to those who could beat the developer, and at the very end of the show (and on my second attempt of the day) I was victorious. I wonder if, given the timing, this was less to do with my skill and more to do with them wanting to get both of them handed out.

Finally, a party was held for all of us intrepid interpreters to cool off after what had been a very full-on weekend. I reached my bus in good time and arrived back in Nanyo, having had next to no sleep, at 6am. It’s taken me roughly until now (Thursday morning) to recover, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Bring on the next one!

I LOVE YAMAGATA IN THE THE SPRINGTIME

JNGR1696Well, somewhere down the line April turned into May and May turned into mid-May and here we are. The cherry blossoms have come and gone, and in their coming they ushered in that most grave and traditional events: hanami.

JNGR1622

It was on a gorgeously sunny Saturday that I and a dozen or so friends broke out the blue tarpaulin and drank the day away while bathing in the pathos of the sakura’s fleeting beauty. So intoxicating was this pathos that we continued to imbibe it (in various forms) until nightfall and beyond to karaoke.

JNGR1710

JNGR1661

The next day we dragged ourselves up north to Tendo to just barely miss a game of shogi, Japanese chess, played with real people in costume representing the pieces. As you can see, we weren’t lacking on the cherry blossom front there, either.

JNGR1773

We started to get a little tired of all this warmth and sunshine, so, with some visitors from England, decided to tackle the third holy mountain of Yamagata, Yudono-san. I don’t know for sure, but this one certainly felt the most holy. A purification ritual was required for us to enter the shrine area, and absolutely no photos or descriptions of it are allowed. Annoyingly, a bus ride was also required due to the remaining snow, despite the really rather clear footpath alongside the road. I felt rather cheated out of some exercise, though admittedly not out of the views.

JNGR1779

Golden Week arrived at the beginning of May and with it a string of public holidays. Jaz arrived on Wednesday for the four-day weekend. Our first activity was the most visually impressive: a reenactment of a battle which took place in Yonezawa, about half an hour south of Nanyo.

We (i.e. the foreigners) were placed in a unit that was to heroically cross the river and support the side that would ultimately lose. Unfortunately, the heavy rain meant that the river was too swollen to be crossed on foot, so we opted for the slightly less heroic hiding in the reeds and running out of them. This was made all the more comic by the large flags strapped to our backs and bright red armour which had clearly been designed with visual impact, rather than stealth, in mind.

After some charging back and forth with scattered skirmishes, we regrouped and were ordered to get out there and die with drama and poise. There several distinct levels of commitment amongst our comrades and foes, but in general the foreigner unit seemed to be the most bloodthirsty. The lines crashed together as two boars and we made many sad strokes upon our enemies. In the end I was killed when two swordsmen, a spearman and a samurai ganged up on me far behind enemy lines, but not before I made them cut each of my legs and an arm off one by one.

The other days were, by and large, far less combative. On Saturday we drove south to Fukushima Prefecture through the mountains and rainclouds to see the Five-Coloured Lakes. There are actually about thirty of them, but differences in the chemical makeup of them leads them to be easily grouped into five. The rain cleared up almost as soon as we arrived, which made for a muddy walk that could still have been far worse.

JNGR1927

Part two of our day was spent in and around Aizu’s Tsuruga Castle. It is a reconstruction, but as Japan’s strengths don’t seem to lie in keeping old buildings un-burned-down and un-earthquaked that was barely an issue. It did mean that the museum within was far more plush that it might have been, and that we could climb all the way to the top for a sunset view of the city.

JNGR1943

And before we knew it it was time for Jaz to leave and both of us to start work in earnest once again. Stay tuned for a much geekier last weekend post once the dust has settled on this one.

Get Down!

Jaz got to choose where we met up this time around. Enter Kamakura and Enoshima, a little bit south of Tokyo.

JNGR1386

I had actually been to Kamakura twice before for a bizarre poetry party on the invitation of someone from that TV show what I went on. However, both times I had completely failed to see its main attractions, so it was a joy to finally be offered a chance.JNGR1391

The first was Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, a massive shrine complex that’s the centre of Kamakura itself. The latter is especially obvious when one reaches the road — it is very long and very straight, aligning with all the main gates all the way up to the main hall at the top of a number of steps and plazas.

JNGR1396

The second, and arguably more famous, thing is the daibutsu (‘Great Buddha’) in Taiizan Kotokuin Shojosenji Temple. This massive statue of Amida Buddha isn’t nearly as tall as Sendai’s offering, but gets away with it by being built in the 13th Century. It’s a 13m-tall chunk of bronze panels that has survived countless storms and natural disasters with only a few repairs needed on the base and foundations. Just like Sendai Daikannon, you can go inside for the princely sum of ¥20, though I’ll admit the effect is rather different.

JNGR1414

Day Two saw us explore closer to home: Enoshima. It’s a small island, dedicated in its entirety to the goddess of music and entertainment, Benzaiten. This means it’s home to an enormous shrine that covers a great deal of the mainland-facing part of the island.

It’s also home to hawks. Lots and lots of hawks. So many hawks it was like someone had switched out all the seagulls. So many that one of them snatched a curry-pan out of my hand as I was raising it to my mouth. Bizarre.

The Meiji government of the late 19th Century was, it’s fair to say, not a massive fan of Buddhism. Because of this, a large portion of the centre of the island, which had previously held a temple, was sold to (via his Japanese wife) to enterprising British merchant Samuel Cocking, who set about turning it into a garden. He probably didn’t plan the enormous Enoshima Sea Candle that stands in the middle of the gardens.

JNGR1564The weather wasn’t great for Sunday, but as we stood at the top we were able to watch Mt. Fuji come into view. Despite having flown over, ridden a train past and driven by it, this was my first definite view of the mountain. Well done us.

*inhale* ROOOOOAD TRIIIP!​

The last time I met Liam in Tokyo, I was on the cusp of returning home. You’ll no doubt be saddened but unsurprised to hear that this time his arrival has little significance when it comes to my return to England. Unless you count ‘eight-and-a-bit months’ as an important milestone, I suppose.

Together we went to many places and did many divers things, so this is going to be a (very) photo-heavy post. Let’s go.

Caravan Cult

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I begin my tale in Tokyo. Liam beat me to the city by a few days to meet Issui, our mutual friend who studied architecture with Liam. In the intervening months since graduation, he’s formed a company called Sampo, which aims to introduce a more nomadic form of living centered around modular campervans. While the infrastructure doesn’t exist yet, they’re already backordered significantly on the campervans, and most of the group have one parked outside the warehouse where they live.

After a decent party and intro pitch to Issui’s parents, Liam and I set off to have a day in the city. Ueno Park featured heavily, especially as I hadn’t been back for a while, then we took in the Thousand Vintage Shops of Shimokitazawa and, of course, the Pokemon Centre. We were a little late getting back to the warehouse to set off, as a result.

I knew beforehand that we were going to drive to a lumber mill near Nara with Issui and Riku (one of the founding members), but the plan for that night was to hit Nagoya and stop there for a drink. For some reason I had assumed we would all be up front, then sleep in the back, but there were only two seats in the cabin. So, with an instruction for one of us to hide if we were stopped by the police (the presence of two people in the back apparently being the most illegal thing about the whole rickety setup), we set off.

On the Road

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rickety is, I think, the right word. Issui’s house has walls that swing out, but this meant they didn’t exactly close with a perfect seal. The ride was incredibly bumpy, and it was tough not to notice the multitude of pointy things on the front wall upon which we could spear ourselves in the event of a sudden stop. Some mystery shochu that Liam found in the airport helped.

In the end, we went to sleep not really knowing where we’d wake up. It turned out not to be Nagoya, but a riverside most of the way to Nara. We arrived at about 5am and woke up late to a glorious view. Issui and Riku had driven through the night to reach this very scenic spot.

The main attraction that day was The Site of Reversible Destiny in Yoro Park. The brainchild/fever dream of architect Shusaku Arakawa, it was a strange place full of concrete buildings designed to force visitors to think using their bodies to navigate the space. The main ‘house’ was maze-like, with tables, baths, washing machines and toilets cut in half by walls and rooms repeated in different orientations.

Outside, there was a crater full of smaller installations. Most of the site was on an angle just steep enough to make you unsure of your footing. Some ramps were unexpectedly slippery, while others interacted with the walls to make balanced walking almost impossible. It was an excellent place to explore and take gravity-defying photos.

After that it dawned on us that we hadn’t washed for nearly 3 days, so I was given the wheel (at a moment’s notice) and directions to an onsen. Initial shakiness gave way to relative confidence — it was certainly more comfortable to be driving than sitting in a bumpy room for four hours. It also gave Issui and Riku time to sleep.

As we trundled up the mountain we came across a sign saying that the road was closed, which necessitated a panicked phone call to the onsen to see if they’d still be open when we got there. Thankfully the receptionist was understanding, and we enjoyed the most necessary bath I think I’ve ever had.

Next came an enormous Chinese meal in which Issui proved himself the fastest eater I have ever seen, before we wobbled our way down to another river for drinks, music and much rejoicing.

We awoke a good hour later than expected, which led to the second panicked phone call of the trip. Issui and Riku were due to meet with the lumber mill owner for a tour, and Liam and I were to join them. After twenty minutes’ speeding up and down country roads during which Liam and I were expected to tidy up in the back, we arrived to find the owner very laid-back. I wasn’t allowed to share any photos I took online, but suffice to say it was very, very expensive hinoki wood, the best of which is often used for detailing or centrepieces in fancy houses.

The plan had been to go into Nara together then on to Kyoto, but it became clear that our paths were now set to diverge. Liam and I said goodbye to our companions of the last few days and threw ourselves onto a train to the City Of Angry Deer.

Bite marks

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Those of you who have been following this blog since last time will have already heard my thoughts on Nara. The deer were just as vicious as last time, the temples just as numerous. What was especially fun was watching the reactions of other tourists, which followed almost exactly the same pattern each time.

First, they caught sight of the deer and exclaimed with wonder how tame and cute they all seemed. After buying some deer rice crackers from a stall they approached the now advancing deer with similar awe, giggling as the first to arrive snatched a cracker out of their hand. The joy turned very suddenly to fear as they found themselves surrounded by four or five very insistent animals, butting and biting them as they sought more and more crackers. The interaction almost always ended with the person walking/running briskly away, waving their empty hands until the last of the deer gave up the chase and waited for their next victim.

The day drew on, and accommodation still needed to be sorted, so we set course for Kyoto.

Fancy Fancy

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kyoto was, as it has always been in my experience, grey and drizzling. Our first night’s accommodation was a little out of the way, but featured showers so our complains were numbered at around zero. We arrived in the evening, so there was only really time to be turned away from an obviously not full izakaya and find food at a smaller place, then have a few drinks and turn in for the night.

Day 1 tackled the important bits: Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple) came first, followed by a multitude of other temples and shrines — this is Kyoto, after all. We were able to tackle Nijo Castle too, and got so distracted talking about films in the garden that I actually came away from it feeling a little I understood a little more what it might have been like to live there. We only had the accommodation for one night, so some time was spent frantically finding somewhere else to sleep that night, and moving our bags from one place to the other. In the evening we tackled Gion, which was mercifully close to where we were staying.

A recommendation from a Kentish barman in an establishment which seemed at least 50% foreigners/tourists led us to a yakitori (chicken on skewers) restaurant where everything was just under ¥300, and the cabbage was unlimited. We took full advantage of both the cheap drinks and plentiful vegetables and devoted much of our energy to eavesdropping on an English couple who were clearly going through rocky time.

In a wonderful twist, Jaz came to join us on Wednesday as we tackled the many red gates of Inari Shrine. The rain mostly held off, but did make the path rather muddy. It was actually quite a climb, but we got the required photos that everyone else did, so our time there was not wasted. In the afternoon we visited Kennin-ji to see the Fūjin and Raijin painting as well as a very impressive dragon on a ceiling. Jaz too was introduced to the wonders of unlimited cabbage — it’s a shame we don’t seem to get these chains in Yamagata.

The last day was spent in Arashiyama to the West. I introduced Liam to the monkeys, who were awfully photogenic. We also swung by the bamboo grove where we totally failed to capture the majesty of the place with our pitiful photography. At last we went for ramen in a well-hidden but very fancy place that was full of design. After eating we had just enough time to grab some road beers/sake and pile onto a night bus, which would take us up to Yamagata.

The Shape of Mountains

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And thus we arrived, blinking in the chilly sunshine, outside city hall and 20 minutes walk from my car. When we got home there was time for a couple of hours’ nap (I slept far better than Liam did on the bus) and a shower before we hoofed up north in the car.

First stop was Dainichi-Bō Temple, near Yudono-san, one of Yamagata’s three holy mountains. After quite a warm time in Kyoto it was weirdly calming to see snow again. When we arrived, however, it looked completely empty. After a few minutes of shouting and knocking a lady arrived to take ¥500 off the both of us and let us in, lighting candles and setting off heaters in the main room. A priest hurried out, motioned for us to sit and began to chant and hit a drum. Then he appeared with the classic ‘lots of bits of folded paper on a long stick’ and shook it over our heads while continuing to chant. Just as quickly as he’d come, he was gone, and replaced by a monk.

We weren’t expecting all of this, but I was glad to get more of an insight into temple rituals. It’s easy to exoticise such things before one has seen a priest go through the motions like a bored vicar. The monk walked us through the various objects in the room in very thickly accented Japanese, stopping about half as much as he should have done to let me try to translate for Liam. As far as I could tell, the temple owes a great deal to the fourth Tokugawa shogun (Ietsuna), of whom it keeps a handprint and sword as part of its display. It may or may not have been one of the few Buddhist temples allowed to stay open unconditionally during the Meiji Restoration, too, but that’s getting far above my abilities.

What we were really there to see was a sokushinbutsu  — a monk who had mummified himself over the course of several years. We were taken into his room after the main tour, and had his life and the process explained to us. He (Shinnyokai Shonin) became a monk in his early 20s and was incredibly devout, as one might imagine. In a strange twist, during a period of disease in the surrounding villages, he tore out his own eyes and offered them to the mountain. As I said: devout.

The mummification process takes about 6 years in total. For 1000 days, the monk restricts their diet and does intense exercise to remove their body fat. For another thousand days, they eat only bark and roots, and drink tea with a chemical in it that’s used to make lacquer for bowls and cups. This effectively begins to embalm them from the inside, and most importantly keeps the maggots from eating them in the future.

After this, they are put into a chamber underground and sit in a lotus position. Down the air hole hangs a string attached to a bell, which the monk rings each day to show they are still alive. Liam and I disagree on this point, but at this point the monk may or may not get a single nut and some water each day at this stage.

When the bell stops ringing, the other monks seal up the chamber and wait another 1000 days before they check to see if the process has worked. Most of the time it doesn’t, but this time it did. Well done Shinnyokai Shonin!

Nowadays they change his clothes every six years, and put scraps of the previous outfit inside charms, sold for the low low price of ¥1000. Naturally, Liam and I bought one each, which seemed to keep the monk(s) happy.

Next on the list was Tsuruoka Aquarium, home to a Great Big Jellyfish Tank and some rather sad seals. Liam and I ended up going through everything backwards for some reason. In a typically Japanese move, jellyfish ramen was on the menu in the cafe, so naturally we both dove in. If I hadn’t expected it, I would have thought it was a strange root vegetable, but since I did it tasted of cartilage and nothing. Something to tick off the list, I suppose. 

After a brief stop at a sake brewery/museum (wherein Liam was given six cups to taste very fast and I, as the driver, was not) we settled down at a friend’s empty house for the night.

The next morning we went to another holy mountain: Haguro-san. In a mistake that it seems everyone has made, we accidentally drove to the top, rather than the bottom of the famous steps up to the summit. This meant we had to climb down to the pagoda, rather than up, and all in the hour or so before a pre-arranged meal in the shrine itself. What with all the snow, the going was treacherous in both directions, but all the more picturesque for it, in my opinion.

That afternoon we completed our third ramen in as many days — Akayu’s nationally famous Ryu Shanghai spicy miso ramen. Then it was up to Yamagata city for a second night away at Jess’ house so Liam could meet The Gang. Drunk Mario Kart got us all started very quickly, then Liam went missing for a good hour in the 20 metres between karaoke and our favourite bar. A good night well made, I believe. Certainly, it was enough to make us abandon our plans to hit Yamadera and instead take a day out, which turned very definitely into a day in when we cooked stew with Jay and the beers once again started flowing.

Monday saw us take Sendai, starting at the now-traditional Zuihoden and Date Masamune’s mausoleum. Then it was up the 100m Sendai Daikannon statue to marvel at the tiny windows and 108 buddhas within. The important parts, of course, were the Delirium Café and Craftsman, both chock-full of eye-wateringly strong/expensive beers. You can probably sense the theme of our evenings by now. Furthermore, Liam was able to enjoy an actual pint in his first real British pub — Hub — while we opened a second round of Pokemon cards from a second Pokemon centre.

Finally, we made it to Yamadera on the last day. Spring is tied with Autumn as the perfect time to visit, in my opinion, and while you’ve all seen these photos before they are always worth repeating. We stopped off at a couple more shrines on the way home, including Kumano Taisha, where we failed to find more than one hidden rabbit on the back of the main hall. For a final meal we went to my local sushi restaurant, where Liam ordered the crab soup I’d been talking about for the last ten days.

And so, at last, it was time to say goodbye. Now I sit in city hall with absolutely nothing to do, waiting for term to start again next week. At least I’ve had a proper holiday.

It’s Officially Spring Now

And though for Japan Spring traditionally starts on the 2nd of February I don’t think anyone was even remotely fooled, beyond a few kids who optimistically tried to pick the ‘Spring’ card during the pre-lesson date-weather-schedule ritual. But now as I type this it’s raining outside. Actual, honest-to-God rain, in liquid form and everything! That said, the last time it rained and I got excited it turned out to be a flat-shaking storm to which snow was added in the morning. The emphatically above-zero temperatures, however, suggest that we may indeed be out of the woods. It’s as though a switch has been flipped, and suddenly it was 15 degrees yesterday!

But it wouldn’t be right to see off the long and cold winter without any ceremony at all, so off I (and several others) went three hours north to Hijiori Onsen to ‘do some digging.’ And my was there stuff to dig.

IMG_0118

And this was just the drive up

Driving up, the only things I knew for sure were:

  1. We would be in teams
  2. The weekend, including staying overnight in a ryokan with dinner and breakfast, was free
  3. There would be digging, likely of snow

As it turned out, I was right on all counts, but not to the degree I expected.

IMG_7100

JNGR9620

A number of other ALTs from around Yamagata had availed of the offer of a free weekend, and we all met up at the hotel. In a display of unbelievable tact, the hotel organised a room for the male and female members of each team separately, and laid different tables for each team too. While it was refreshing not to face the assumption that, as foreigners, we all knew each other, it was regrettable that in this instance we actually did all know each other. The arrangement led to me getting a private room, though, which is something.

 

My team, Hashi Jyōzu (Good at Chopsticks, in imitation of every Japanese Mealtime Acquaintance Ever), consisted six brave souls, all roughly as unprepared as I was, though they did all bring salopettes so the joke was on me come crunch time. Before that, though, we needed to survive an enormous meal and then get chivvied off to an even bigger party to meet the other teams. As it turned out, there were almost 40 teams of varying sizes packed into one room, which just so happened also to be filled with many donated crates of beer from the myriad TV crews hanging around the edges.

IMG_1487

Something that struck me a good few hours into the evening, during a hanagasa (flower hat) dance endemic to Yamagata, was that, while we were certainly marked out as ‘not from around these parts,’ the guys waving their hats around on stage weren’t doing it for us as tourists. This was a party and that’s what you do at times like these. Say it with me: a u t h e n t i c i t y.

After a remarkably long night of alternately drinking and stewing in hot water, we emerged bright and early and were walked to the local junior high school. The school’s playing field was covered in nearly four metres of snow, and our job as a team was to dig down until we reached dirt, then sprint over to the head judge and give it to him.

IMG_9769

Call this the ‘before’ photo

But first an order had to be established, and what better way than by sledging? I braved the hill and got us a respectable middle-placement, which meant we got to choose a plot that wasn’t absurdly far removed from the start line.

After a frankly absurd five-minute countdown, off we (and everyone else) raced to our respective plots and began digging. Although we had been told that digging spiral steps is the main strategy, we were definitely unpracticed. By the time we were halfway we had already picked up a number of spectators (including but not limited to most of the TV cameras at one point) who had finished their own plots and had come to cheer us on. Some call-and-response singing ensued as we worked, and in the end it was me at the bottom of a thin metre-and-a-half pit in the centre of our little mine that struck land.

We reveled in our mediocre victory (29th out of 39 and a time for roughly 53 minutes, for those playing at home) and took some photos before being informed we had to fill our hole in now because someone might fall in and hurt themselves. Doing the whole thing in reverse took less time but was just as arduous for our souls.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The winning team, comprised of just two people, managed the whole thing in about 13 minutes, and had left a well-set snowman on their plot by the time we crawled out of ours. Given that the whole experience was free, however, I’m happy to count the Taking Part on this one. Plus I got to star in my own reaction gif, which is a win of sorts I suppose.

Cold and white but that’s just me

JNGR9147

It’s been a little while, but thankfully the last month and a bit has been thematic enough that I don’t feel the need to do as I did last post — plus that would be milking it. In short, it’s been snowing a lot and generally hovering, if the weather cards the students pick at the start of every lesson are to be believed, between ‘cold’ and ‘freezing.’ Other phrases regarding the degree of feeling in parts of one’s anatomy also spring to mind when trying to describe the temperature, and the fact that the only insulation I have consists of some bubble wrap on the single-glazed windows and walls which might actually be made of cardboard means that it’s scarcely better indoors.

Nevertheless, this climate means that snow-related activities are abundant, and it’s about these that I want to talk to you today.

Sliding down mountains

Yes, this is the big one. Turns out living in the mountains of nowhere has it’s advantage, and that is that I have a big ol’ ski resort less than an hour’s drive away from my house. After-work skiing isn’t something I’m used to, but it’s possible at half an hour’s notice, especially seeing as I am now the proud owner of some too-cheap skis and some too-expensive boots — thanks, Japanese average shoe size.

It’s a good thing that night skiing (or ナイター/naitaa) exists, because it still gets dark before 6pm here. Maybe it’s just because I’m paying attention to it more, but Japan seems to get dark much earlier than the UK. This seems geographically unlikely though, so I’ll chalk it up to perception. Either way, the ski lifts for the day session close at 4pm with good reason, but the night sessions runs from 5-9pm. At Zao (my local resort) there are a very limited number of runs open, but it’s cheap and far better than nothing.

Of greater note was the Tohoku AJET ski trip, which was almost entirely attended by Yamagata JETs. Coming as I do from a ski holiday background, I was ready at 9am on day one after a nice early drive and some rental fun, during which I spoke to a very Irish woman in her 70s who has been coming to Zao with her husband annually for the last ten years. Perhaps because I got some rapport going with one of his regulars, the rentalguy gave me some burnt sugar sweets which were invaluable during the long cold waits for the gondola. They seemed to have decided that weekend skiing is for ninnies, however, as the gondolas only ran once every five minutes or so. That meant a lot more queueing and a lot less skiing, but it was worth it for the glorious powder at the top.

Zao is notable both for skiing and onsen, which are delightful and rather sulphurous. I hadn’t realised how welcome this is after 8 hours throwing oneself down a mountain. When it was time for the enkai, we attacked the one-hour all-you-can-drink in our yukata and were, by and large, much the worse for it. There’s nothing like time pressure to foster irresponsible drinking. After the ‘meal,’ it was off to the hotel’s ‘pub’ for more drinks (this time a BYOB situation which translated to ‘the biggest bottle of sake you could find in Family Mart) and an ancient (by Japanese standards) karaoke machine that still required you to find the song codes in a big books. Finally we dispersed, and some of us went to a bar which does excellent, if expensive, craft beer and pizza. Unfortunately, by this time I was in no state to appreciate either, and had to leave early.

While they are generally regarded as placebos, I have come to place great faith in small bottles of vitamin drinks that are front-and-centre in any convenience store. For me, at least, they are remarkably effective at preventing a hangover if I can drink one before or during a night out. This was not one of those nights. As such, I awoke at 7am the next morning to bear the full brunt of at least five varieties of alcohol in prodigious quantities wreaking vengeance on my body. I was able to stumble to breakfast, but it became increasingly clear that I was quite unfit to ski. The only logical option was to drink a bit of water and get into an old rickety car and drive for an hour down an icy mountain, stopping on the way to buy the aforementioned skis so I could be prepared for my next trip.

 

Sliding along pavements

JNGR9369

It wasn’t all getting drunk and skiing, though. Sometimes I got drunk and went to places, too. One of these places was Sendai, where I met up with Jaz for a weekend of trying not to fall into the path of oncoming traffic. We visited the same mausoleum as I did with my parents, which felt rather different in the snow. The other place of note was the Sendai Daikannon, a 100m tall statue of a Buddhist deity into which one can enter and take a lift to the top. Then you walk down a spiral staircase past 108 statues of buddhas, ostensibly to pray at each one. This would have taken hours, so we consoled ourself with merely photographing the most interesting ones.

The next weekend it was off to Nagai for a very very small snow lantern festival. A summer matsuri it was not, but it did feature very cute children in ridiculous hats, so who’s the real winner here?

But Sendai pales in comparison to the mammoth weekend that was the Sapporo Snow Festival. You’ve almost certainly seen photos of the 10m-plus snow sculptures, so here are some more from this year’s iteration. Alongside the corporate-sponsored centrepieces, there were snow sculpture displays from various countries, even more corporate-sponsored ice sculptures, and, of, course, Hawaiian dancing. According to Hokkaido friends, it’s more common than one might think, but here it was especially admirable because of the temperature.

On this day Jaz and I were able to meet up with Essex friends of the show Max and Mel for the first time since we all arrived in Japan six months ago. Thanks to them I have seen the light (in bread terms) and it is Donguri. Just look at this absolute bombshell of a bakery.

An enkai on the first evening started on time, but the kanpai (toast, and marker than you can eat/drink) was delayed for almost an hour, by which time everyone had started drinking anyway and its power was severely weakened. This left me with about an hour of free drinks, which, as I did at Zao, led to great quantities of divers alcohol being ordered and imbibed. Somewhere over the course of the night I managed to ride a ferris wheel on top of a building, go bowling in various wigs and attempt karaoke — ‘The Triple,’ as I believe it is known Thankfully this time I remembered my vitamins and was thus alive the next day.

The journey home was a little fraught thanks to even more snow than usual falling around Sendai airport. One earlier group’s flight was cancelled, leaving them to take a standing-room-only shinkansen for seven and a half hours. My group were a little more lucky, but as Jaz was to come back to mine for a birthday together we ended up sharing a rented car and driving home from the airport, rather than taking Jess’s car as I had on the way up.

 

Now all that’s out of the way, here’s a huge gallery of miscellaneous photos which I’ll graciously let you link to their respective events. I’ll check in again probably far later than I’d like, especially if I need to be defrosted by the firefighters in the morning. Peace out.

 

Hap-inu-year

Oh, hello. I didn’t see you there. Probably because I haven’t been coming here myself, but I worried I might lose the lease or your confidence if I stopped writing so here I am. Things have happened but one of the problems with leaving almost two months between posts is that it gets harder to remember what, exactly, happened.

Because of this, and because I’m in a bit of an odd mood, and because I think it could be fun, let me fill you in thematically, rather than chronologically. Apologies if the titles sound like the headings to a self-help notebook, but maybe we should all be asking these questions of ourselves a little bit more in this confusing world in which we live in.

1. What happened in your world?

  1. It started snowing. Apparently we’re due even heavier as winter moves on, but right now we’ve had 20-30cm in a day on a semi-regular basis. The temperature hovers around 5-8 degrees
  2. indoors. Because it’s not just freezing outside but also inside with the lack of double glazing or any meaningful insulation. City hall bought a paraffin heater for me which will only kill be a little bit and very slowly, which seems like a reasonable trade off for warmth. If only there were some way(s) of doing this more cheaply, ecologically, effectively and safely.
  3. The school term finished, which brings the number of arbitrary periods of education I’ve not been fired in up to one. As I write this we’re a few days away from term 3 beginning because what kids need holidays I mean honestly.
  4. Christmas and New Year
    1. Jaz visited for the first one, I went to her for the second (see 3.2).

2. What did you achieve?

  1. A Christmas dinner with friends using only one oven after we kept blowing the fuse trying to use two at once. We managed a reasonable spread all the same. I made the roast potatoes in a fish broiler.
  2. A second Christmas dinner actually on Christmas Day with Jaz, complete with not much veg, very strong gravy, stuffing which didn’t quite work, slightly better roast potatoes, mulled wine, port, and chicken.
    1. Buying a whole chicken was in itself an achievement worth recognising, as normal supermarkets don’t seem to do them.
  3. Started up kendo again. Children sometimes still beat me but the adults always do, and it’s the latter that counts. Also it’s much nicer to practice when it’s cold outside.
  4. Bravely and with much vigour turned up for and attempted the JLPT N3. Results should come out soon.
  5. Had haibun (prose + haiku) and a haiku published by the British Haiku Society, which is nice.
    1. bottlerockets press, however, didn’t accept my to my knowledge, but I could be wrong because they hate the internet and don’t confirm anything until the issue is out.
  6. I’m pretty sure I entered and didn’t get selected in a photography competition of some sort but can’t really remember. I have entered another one though, so let’s see.
  7. Team-taught a lesson observed by several other teachers from other schools and cities. Apparently the efforts of the teacher and I were well-receieved. Thankfully I didn’t need to give any closing comments.
  8. Winterised my flat. This meant buying big sheets of bubble wrap and absorbent strips. The latter go around the edges of windows to pick up the rivers of condensation which appear when your windows are a single thin piece of glass. The former stick to the windows to give them at least some insulating properties. (See 1.2)
  9. Managed to read some pages of manga in Japanese on the long train journeys. Not much, but enough that I wasn’t sitting with a dictionary open the whole time. Also realised that trying to read sitting with a dictionary open the whole time is not a fast or particularly effective way of learning a language.
  10. Made some New Year’s resolutions. Broke them almost immediately but at least I’m trying.
    1. Be purposeful in things I do, watch, eat, consume, read, etc. Less autopilot, more self-conscious pilot, even if that pilot really believes it just wants to watch Drag Race and eat Angel Delight.
    2. Saturdays are Japanese days. That means, in principle, speaking only Japanese, encouraging those who can do so to speak to me in Japanese, reading Japanese, watching Japanese TV, listening to Japanese music, etc., rather than the usual English-langauge equivalents. Emergencies don’t count. On Day 1 there were several Emergencies but hopefully they will decrease.
  11. Became Father Christmas on three separate occasions for kindergarten children, which was nerve wracking and often hot, but they also gave. me money and handmade Christmas decorations so who am I to complain?
    1. Was almost certainly found out when a little girl at a Christmas party I went to claimed that I was indeed Father Christmas the day before.
  12. Jaz and I made a snowman, which is the first for a very very long time.

3. Where did you go?

  1. Niigata to the west with Jaz at the beginning of January. The weather wasn’t great but we ascended a building to get some views and went to a fantastic aquarium. I also bought a rather fancy bottle of sake which is being saved for a special occasion during which one might want to drink an entire bottle of sake.
  2. Kanazawa, for New Year (See 1.4)
    1. This was done using a seishun 18 kippu (‘Youthful 18 ticket’) on the advice of Jay. These are only available for certain times of the year and allow the holder(s) 5 days/person of travel on local JR trains only. That means it’s about 10 hours to Kanazawa from Nanyō and 13 the other way, but coming in at somewhere below 20% of the price of shinkansen once you split it between two. (See 2.9)
    2. We went to Ōyama Jinja, the main shrine, on New Year’s Day. I bought a fancy-looking arrow. We both prayed along with literally hundreds of others in a wonderfully organised queue to get to the altar/entrance. Quite the spectacle.
    3. We also managed more touristy things, like Kanazawa Castle and the 21st Century Museum. After dark we saw the tea and samurai districts as well as the inside of several bars. Nanyō’s bars are overwhelmingly of the kind where you are assigned a woman to entertain you. Kanazawa’s are not, and also have good beer. This made me a bit jealous.

As it stands, that seems to be everything in a broad-strokes kind of way. I’ll check in again later, probably with something a bit more ordered. Happy new year and apologies to all those poor friends and relatives to whom I promised a blog post weeks ago.

A Visitation

It’s been exactly a month since my last post, which while unintentional gives this a rather nice sense of balance. In that time the trees have gone from yellow to red to brown, and the snowline has crept from its dramatic perch atop distant mountains to fall for the first time down at ground level. Over the course of the day a thin but persistent dusting has built up, and it’s only going to get deeper form here on out. Winter preparation in the form of wooden teepee-esque structures over trees and supports for their branches, as well as the removal of certain road barriers and the erection of others, seems to be nearing completion. All that’s left now is for the temperature to plummet.

Oh wait, that’s happened too. Outside lows at set to hit -8 degrees this week, and it’s normally about 7 degrees indoors when I return home. My windows are single glazed, my walls are paper thin, but at least I have a paraffin heater to keep me company one room at a time.

However, the real subject of this update is the recent visit of my parents and 6 bulging bags of goodies from home.

Stage One: Tokyo

1.jpg

Shown here in traditional tourist dress with Jaz

We (Jaz and I) met up (with my parents) in Tokyo first, for what would be a very unseasonably warm (by Yamagata standards) weekend. We’d all seen this wonderful city before, so the pressure was off when it came to seeing touristy sights. Jet-lag for 50% of the party didn’t help matters. Nevertheless, we made it to the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park, two favourite haunts, in time to catch sunset and allow the two who needed it a nap on the grass. Our first cat café also featured.

Subsequent days were a little more active. Shinjuku Gyoen showed us wonderful autumn colours, and the Tokyo National Museum was interesting for me at least. The ladies got to dress up and show up the boys, as you may have gathered from the explosion of photos on Facebook last week.

A further highlight was a lamb festival, held in Nagano, which led not only to some cutout photos (which are excellent for posterity) and absurdly long lines for decent-enough lamb, but also to an entertaining cross-cultural lesson. Nigel bought some (soft) drinks while Jaz and I queued up for lamb kebabs, and was half way down his ‘very tasty lemonade’ before it was pointed out to him that, as chū-hai, it ran about 6% ABV. It seems that even unintentionally, my parents are determined to get the drinks in while on holiday.

Stage Three: Yamagata

36

‘Stage Three’ because my parents cruelly decided to go to Kanazawa after Tokyo rather than come straight to me. By the sound of it they had a great time with Jaz, but as I was slaving away at work I can’t speak for them with any certainty.

Their arrival in Nanyo occurred latish on Tuesday night. The legendary Ryu-Shanghai Ramen being closed, we went to Yamagata (and personal) favourite Tonpachi for some tonkatsu before considering the precise logistics of fitting three people into my apartment. The advantage of tatami and futons is that one can sleep pretty much anywhere, and there was just enough floor space to allow us to do so.

On Wednesday we went to school/work and were greeted with some matcha and mini-tea-ceremony hospitality, courtesy of some of my students. After photos we were chivvied up to have tea with the principal and only just escaped fast enough to be 10 minutes late for the first lesson.

Brian and I had planned the lessons to be an interview, where the kids would ask questions and receive answers entirely in English. In the most part it worked very well, once parental expectations about their language ability were managed! At break time and after the final lesson we were once again frog-marched by the vice principal back into the principal’s office. Thankfully the latter’s charisma makes up for his lack of English.

Subsequent days we spent around Nanyo and Yamagata, taking in the autumn colours and eating the most melt-in-the-mouth beef imaginable, as well as proving Lonely Planet more or less right when they devoted a single apologetic paragraph to our prefecture’s capital.

The real highlight of any trip to Yamagata, however, is Yamadera. This marks (if memory serves) my fourth trip there so far. What is a gruelling, sweaty trudge in summer becomes a cool skip in Autumn, however, with a view even better than usual.

Yamadera would be our one truly excellent day of weather. Any hopes we might have had to climb some holy mountains were well and truly dashed by the utterly accurate weather forecast. So, off to Sendai we went.

My first brush with this city had been in high summer, and with a local guide, while the second had been a bit too boozy to properly appreciate its geography. It was good, therefore, to get a tourist’s-eye view of the place at a temperature I could function in.

After a bit of wandering and shopping for a sewing kit (of all things), we strode off with purpose to Sendai’s main attraction, the Zuihoden. This is the mausoleum of Tohoku daimyo, one-eyed Yonezawa local boy and all-round city-founding good chap Date Masamune. The amount of colour on the gates and halls themselves is quite out of character, but one might expect as much from someone with such audacious headgear.

And just like that, time was up. Having rounded off the trip with Jack’s Big o’ Furniture Shop IV: The Reckoning, it was time to pack bags and huddle round a table to eat some home-cooked shabu shabu.

44

Stay tuned soon for The Winterising Post because this ordeal is too big to fit into one day or one blog post.

Running before I Crawl

Joints intact

I returned (properly) to Tokyo for the first time in several years with Jaz at the beginning of the month. It rained almost constantly and we were liberal with our wake-up times, so you’ll have to take my word for it that we had a lovely time. As we were staying in Kōenji, I could take her round my old haunts, which meant UFO Club and Penguin House, primarily. The former hosted a mod event at which we both felt very underdressed.

IMG_3432.jpg

A chocolate pizza in Harajuku also featured, which had to be tasted to be believed.

Pre-race fuel

Pre-race fuel

Unfortunately, the big achievement of the month has passed that window where I could actually inform you about it here, but what the hell, here’s that sweaty picture once again for luck.

IMG_3437

Yes, I ran a half-marathon, and did so in (just) under two hours. This was a bit over a week ago at the time of going to press. Unfortunately, while the post-race hobbles wore off after a day or two, the shin-splints which have remained steadfast since January returned in full force a few days later after a moderately-active 15 minutes running around with some 10-year-olds. The lack of running goal means I can and have put it to rest until I’m properly recovered.

Unfortunately the same had to go for kendo, at least until next week. I’m a little worried about how I’ve come across to the higher-ups, turning up for two sessions then disappearing completely. Thankfully my landlord is one of them, so I’ve hopefully been able to stave him off with an explanation for the time being.

 

Gorging Ourselves

1

What better way to rest my legs than by walking up a mountain and along a gorge? So went the thought process that weekend when I returned to Yamadera for the third time with some friends: Jess, Evan and Andréanne. The original plan had been to join up with a larger group of Yamagata JETS, but a mishap with the station we were supposed to be meeting at caused us to work in reverse, climbing Yamadera then tacking Yamadera Gorge second.

The views at the top were predictably beautiful, and I managed to get one more page of my temple passport filled by a monk who blessed the book with a hoarse growl before handing it back to me. Although I maintain that Jess’s assertion that Yamadera is an hour long and difficulty hike is utterly unfounded, the ease at which we climbed when the temperature was in the mid teens (as opposed to the low thirties) is testament to the power of the climate.

I had seen Yamadera before, but the gorge was a new experience for us all. Jess and Andréanne got their first sight of real life genuine Japanese monkeys and we all slipped at least once on the thin ledge that constituted a path. Nevertheless, the water was clear and cold and especially as the afternoon wore on the whole experience was utterly beautiful. Then someone had the idea to take a photo on the train tracks (because “you can hear them coming”) before we all had to scatter from the oncoming ‘waterfall’ that had been growing louder in the distance.

The next day, Andréanne, Evan and I participated in some ‘German Health Walking’ in nearby Kaminoyama after Andréanne was roped into participating by her employer. Cue two hours of very gentle walking with stops to check our heart rate every hour, and many comments by the old people who seemed the only other real participants. We got a free blood pressure test and udon out of it, however, so all was not lost.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Alcohol-number-place

Last night I went on my first pub crawl, or 酒番所 (sakebansho). This was rather different from those as I understood them in England, where some friends and I would tackle several bars along a route hopefully pre-defined by natural barriers or ancient fortifications.

The sakebansho, on the other hand, was an enormous, and mid-week, affair. About 150 people packed into a community centre and were assigned to one of about ten groups, which were in turn split into teams of four to five. I was with Brian and two junior high school teachers. Our five stops were marked out for us on a map, and we were free to choose the order as long as we went to the highlighted one first. Having paid up front, a drink and a snack at each was provided, and we had to be back by 9pm for a prize draw.

Akayu is not wanting for drinking places. Unfortunately, almost all of them are スナック (snakku) bars. The shadiness of such places varies wildly, but in one we were greeted and served very intently by two women in very very short dresses. It’s rather difficult to write about without sounding either overly prudish or a little seedy, but suffice to say the regular bars had a more comfortable atmosphere.

One highlight has to be the traditional-feeling and very pleasant bar who cheerfully served us snails. The pictures below prove that I did, indeed, eat it, though I wouldn’t again.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Come 9pm we gave the numbers attached to our lanyards to the organiser, who began the prize draw. At least three numbers were within one place of my team’s, but regardless we missed out on many bottles of wine and a significant amount of beef. Thankfully ramen and another drink or two afterwards washed away most of the injustice we felt.

 

And Finally

As part of the current lessons on countries and travel for my Year 6’s I decided to set the record straight on what ‘England’ is and how it relates to the UK, which they (and some teachers) had never heard of. As far as I can tell there were no real winners in the map I drew.

IMG_3441