Friday, March 25, 2005

More Engrish Magazines

I spotted this new magazine when I was in the Circle K the other day. I've absolutely no idea what it's about, but there seems to be some kind of elaborately coiffed boy band on the front who look like they've had trouble dressing themselves. I'm fairly sure this has nothing to do with the male-orientated egg market.

Actually. I've just noticed that the magazine behind has the word "Pimp" on its cover, and there seems to be a picture of Justin Timberlake... Is Justin Timberlake a pimp? I'm intrigued now, I think I'll stop by the Circle K on my way home and take another look.

Anyway, this'll be my last post for a while since I'm off to Okinawa on Monday (woohoo!!!). I'll be back on April 7th, hopefully with lots of gorgeous photos of white sandy beaches, so until then, take care!

Love Lew.

Food, Glorious Food

Ok, here's a quiz for you. What do the three following foods have in common? Have a look at the photos, then scroll down for the answer.

Here's photo number 1:

Now photo number 2. Hmmmm....tricky.

Photo number 3. Any clues yet?

Have you got it?

Think you know the answer?

Keep scrolling!

The answer is........

They're all made of plastic. Yes, that's right, plastic. Aren't they amazingly realistic? I took these photos outside a cafe in Osaka, and I actually had to go up and touch the food, just to make sure it wasn't real. Here are the dishes above on the table outside:

A lot of Japanese restaurants, if not most Japanese restaurants, have displays of plastic food either outside or in the window, and often the models are astonishingly accurate. I thought it was really quirky at first, but now I've been here for a while I realise it's actually a really good idea - you can see exactly what you're getting. Plus, if your Japanese isn't particularly brilliant (like mine), it means you have the option of dragging the waiter outside and pointing at what you want. Genius.

The Wonder of Okonomiyaki

I've been struggling with food ever since I arrived in Japan. Before I came here I knew it would be difficult to be a vegetarian in the land of octopus balls and beef rice, but even after eight months here there are times when I want to throw my hands in the air and cry out in frustration: "Why is there fish on my "plain" soba noodles?", "Why did you think I wanted bacon when I ordered a "mozzarella and tomato salad"? Surely that would be a "bacon and mozzarella and tomato salad"?!?", "Why does the vegetarian curry set, which specifically says "for vegetarians", come with chicken samosas?" etc etc. These are all things which have either happened to me or my veggie friends, and these are not just isolated cases either. The trouble is, vegetarianism is practically non-existent in Japan, which means that often waiters and waitresses will stare at you incredulously if you say you don't eat meat or fish.

It also means the range of food available to me is pretty limited. At home I mostly eat pasta, noodles and toast, which is pretty much what I used to eat in England. It's a shame really - I'd like to eat more Japanese food, but there really isn't that much of it that appeals to me. Back home I took pride in the fact that I could eat most things (with the obvious exception of meat and fish): I rarely came across something I didn't like. So I was really surprised when I got to Japan and found that pretty much everything I ate tasted totally disgusting to me. I know this is an extreme reaction - plenty of my friends absolutely love Japanese food, and the Japanese themselves certainly take pride in their cooking. But for some reason, my taste buds just haven't been able to adapt.

Plus there's the ever present problem of trying to find something that doesn't contain meat or fish. I often dread being invited out to Japanese restaurants with friends - usually I eat something before I go, so I know that I won't go hungry when I get there and discover the only vegetarian thing on the menu is pickled aubergine. It's a rubbish situation really, but I've gotten used to it.

However, my eyes were opened a couple of weeks ago, when I had my first taste of "okonomiyaki". I can't believe I've been living in Japan this long, and I've never sampled this wonderful food! Okonomiyaki basically means "everything fried", and when you walk into the restaurant you sit at a table like this, with a gas-heated grill in the middle:

From the menu you can choose whatever you want in your fry up from a list of ingredients, which means that its easy to choose something vegetarian - hurrah! Last time I had "kimchi" (pickled cabbage) and cheese, but this picture is a mixture of various vegetables and bacon. The next step is to mix it all up with the spoon.

Once it's thoroughly mixed, you dump it on the grill like this. A few minutes on each side and it's ready to eat! It basically tastes like a giant omelette, but with only one egg and tons of filling...

So I've finally found some Japanese food I genuinely love, and suddenly I have new energy to try other foods (I still can't believe it's taken me this long to try okonomiyaki). So if anyone knows of any decent Japanese vegetarian foods, please let me know!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Mountain of Cream and Fruit

Two of the students from the cooking club brought me this huge cream cake this morning. Isn't it cool! They made it themselves! Being brought an enormous cake really made my day. It's absolutely delicious too...

It's incredible taste is only surpassed by its enormous size - but i'm determined to finish it, even if it takes me all day. I've already been eating it for two hours, but the cream just keeps fighting back. It's relentless.

I can assure you though, IT WILL BE BEATEN.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Last, Last Day of Snowboarding

I've been saying the snowboarding season is over for about a month now, but Mother Nature has been quick to contradict me on a number of occasions. Two weeks ago, when I went to Osaka, the weather was like this:

Beautiful sunshine, clear skies, a slight chill in the wind but otherwise a sign that winter has well and truly passed. Goodbye Jack Frost, Hello Sunshine!!!

Then, a week later, this happened:

A good half metre of snow suddenly appeared overnight, and Fukui was plunged back into the depths of winter for about three days. Perhaps the snowboarding season isn't over after all...

Still, despite the freak snowstorm, the days of boarding are definitely numbered as the temperatures rise, so on Monday we embarked on probably the last, last snowboarding trip this season. Probably.

The chosen destination was Dynaland in Gifu (the neighbouring prefecture), which is a sort of DisneyLand for snowboarders, complete with half pipes, rails, jumps and errrr... more jumps. I came over all Tony Hawks when I saw the halfpipe, but as I was considering trying it out, I suddenly realised that it might take a bit more skill than double-tapping "up" on the D-pad while pressing the triangle button. Plus I'd probably break my neck.

However, right at the end of the day I decided I was confident enough to try out a little jump that someone had made at the edge of the beginner run. I was feeling pretty cocky by this point, so I asked Sam to video me. Everything was going brilliantly until I took off, then suddenly I was wondering why the sky was below me instead of the ground.

So if you want to see a rather amusing video of a guy landing on his head, then narrowly missing a tree, get in touch with Sam L.

(I did manage to do it on my second try though, despite the bruises...)

"So which way is down?"

Due to a rather ill-timed jump on my last snowboarding adventure (similar to the one described above) my goggles are now in two pieces at the bottom of my bin. So for this trip I was forced to adopt slightly less orthodox eyewear... Meet "Huggy Lewis".

It was a fantastic day - you could see for absolutely miles. It was so hot too - I foolishly wore a jumper under my coat and nearly roasted to death.

Laura, Claire and Sam pose at the top of the first run. Mitch and Tilly were there too, but for some reason I didn't take any photos of them - sorry guys!

Claire attempts to hug Sam's face off.

It was great to finally get a chance to go snowboarding with the local Aussie... You may remember that we had Claire's leaving party last week, but so far she's refusing to leave. Well, that's not strictly true - in a cruel twist of fate, by putting back her flight home so she could attend her leaving do/Matt's beard party she accidentally stayed longer than her visa would allow, meaning she has to remain in Japan for another three weeks to sort it out with the immigration people. Whoops!

Me, practicing the art of mobile snow-related warfare (throwing snowballs at Sam while she's trying to take a picture).

Claire relaxes after a hard day's snowboarding.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Usual Arcade Weirdness

I've banged on about them before but I have to say again that I absolutely love Japanese arcades. The games are just so much more interesting than western arcades. I mean, who wants to drive a sports car when they can play a traditional Japanese banjo?

I actually ended up going to the arcade twice on Friday - first to Joyland (love that name), then to Sega World, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a few games which I haven't seen before...

This is a shamisen (Japanese banjo) game. It may look odd, but it was really good fun - a kind of sedate alterantive to the full on craziness of Guitar Freaks and Drummania.

Mr Lewis Packwood models the shamisen - the year's must-have arcade accessory.

Flick was addicted to this one. It's called "Boxing Mania", and features four pads which pop up from either side of the screen, as well as a padded "head" which you can hit. Only for the very fit...

This is yet another version of Drummania, this time called Drummania V. The last time I went to this arcade they were on Drummania Version 11: I guess they've just given up with numbering them now.

This is the poster for Drummania V. It says: "Drummania V: yes!! Just wanna "V"est!!! Along with the reverberating steam timbre, played a poem of leather and chord. Taking revived fragrance in the steam era, let the shining hot feeling reach to the people in the world!!!". Actually, I'd say most people of the world would prefer it if you kept the "shining hot feeling" to yourself.

Matt and Nicola were really getting into this one. It's a tambourine game - coloured dots on the screen indicate where you should point your tambourine, and a flashing dot means you should shake it. Good fun, but really noisy.

Flick and Steph play the taiko drumming game - a perennial arcade favourite. What could be more fun than hitting a big plastic drum with a stick? Answer: Nothing.

Claire plays a baseball game. She seemed to be enjoying it, but it looked incredibly dull to me... I think baseball is just one of those sports that doesn't really lend itself well to the medium of computer games.

One of my favourite arcade games: "Emergency Call Ambulance". The idea of the game is you have to drive a critically ill person to the hospital in the quickest time possible. If you crash into anything along the way the patient's condition worsens, and the amount of time you have left decreases. Failing to get to the hospital in time results in a black screen accompanied by the sound of your unfortunate patient flatlining. It's a rather disturbing feeling to walk away from an arcade machine knowing that your actions resulted in the death of a young boy... A uniquely morbid game.

Posing in front of a Purikura booth at Sega World. "Purikura" is short for "Purinto Kurabu" (Print Club) and it's basically a giant photo booth with room for your friends. We managed to fit 13 people in one booth on Friday - can anyone beat that?

There was some great Engrish on the side of this purikura booth. It says: "I want to shine glamorous. It meets character with me. A gorgeous photograph can be taken."

Making History

I went to see the Echizen Daibutsu on Friday afternoon (Guidebook translation: "The Great Image of Buddha at Echizen". Simpler translation: "The Big Buddha".) Below you can see the main temple building, "The Hall of the Great Buddha".

It was a pretty strange old place... Although the buildings have been contructed in the traditional style, the entire complex only dates back to 1987. What looks like ancient wood and stone in the photos below is, for the most part, poured concrete.

According to the guide book, a local millionaire donated his entire fortune for the construction of the 22 hectare temple in order to "show his gratitude for his great success as a powerful and influential businessman". However, despite his extravagance, the project is said to have become something of a white elephant, and is rumoured to be losing money. I can well believe that - on Friday we were the only people there, except for a rather lonely looking woman behind the cashier desk.

Personally, I was pretty impressed with the whole place, not least because of its sheer size. "The Hall of the Great Buddha" has a 17 metre tall cast-iron statue of Buddha, which, as the guide book boasts, "surpasses the height of the Great Image of Buddha at Nara". And let's not forget the 75 metre tall five storey pagoda - "a height which surpasses that of the To-Ji Temple in Kyoto". The whole place is full of this kind of one-upmanship - you can tell that the builders realised they couldn't compete with Kyoto or Nara for history, so they thought they'd just make everything bigger. It's sort of endearing really...

Even though it's been created with modern building techniques it's hard not to admire the craftmanship - a lot of time and effort has obviously been spent making this place look beautiful, and the thousands of statues which cover the walls are testament to that fact. Many people regard the Daibutsu as a bit of a joke - an attempt to create a bit of artificial history - but the fact remains that it's still a fantastic looking building.

And besides, thanks to constant earthquakes and typhoons, there are very few genuinely historical buildings left in Japan anyway. A great example is Osaka Castle.

This is what the Osaka tourism website has to say about the ancient edifice:

"Osaka Castle has a history of more than 400 years.It was originally built by one of the greatest warlords in the history of Japan, a man who was born the son of a humble farmer. The castle now stands as the symbol of Osaka."

"Wow!", you think, "A 400 year old castle built by the greatest warlord in Japan! That's amazing".

Then you click on "More On Osaka Castle", which is when you discover that the castle isn't 400 years old at all. In fact, in the past 400 years it has been completely destroyed three times.

The current Osaka Castle was actually built in 1931.

From concrete.

But if it looks good, and people enjoy looking round it, does it really matter?

One of two lacquer statues which stand either side of the main gate leading to "The Hall of the Great Buddha". This is Agyo - one of the "Guardian Gods of Buddhism".

The cloisters which lead up to the main hall.

Some of the many statues which litter the corridors and passageways.

And here it is, "The Principal Image of Buddha". You can just about see Flick standing in front of it... Apparently it was built using 220 tons of copper, and is the world's largest cast-metal statue.

Some of the 1,281 statues which completely cover the walls of the Great Hall. They're mostly stone, but the odd gold one sneaks in here and there.

A close up of one of the statues. Although I've no idea who this is supposed to be - has anyone got any ideas?

The 75 metre tall five-storey pagoda - "Japan's Tallest Five-Storied Pagoda", according to the guide book.

The Great Hall as seen from the fifth floor of the pagoda. It's difficult to get an impression of just how big this place is from a photograph... In the background, right in the middle, you can see Heisenji castle.

This is Katsuyama city. As you can see, there's still a bit of snow on the ground up here.

More views from the pagoda.

And finally, after all the solemnity and reverence of the temple, there's a cut-out of the Buddha which you can stick your head through... Sort of "Buddhism meets Blackpool Pleasure Beach".

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Parking Rage

I had my first experience of "parking rage" last night.

Luciana (an Italian JET who lives in Sabae) invited me over for dinner with a few of her Japanese friends, so I popped round to her apartment at about 8, straight after I finished my Japanese lesson. She lives in a fairly small two-storey apartment building, which has a row of parking bays out the front.

When I got there, about half the bays were empty. I had a look to see if there were any markings on the bays which would indicate that they were restricted. There weren't any, so I decided to park in a space which was near to Luciana's apartment. Luciana has been car-less for the past couple of months (following a bit of an accident) so I figured that there was going to be at least one space that was definitely free. Plus it was past 8pm on a Wednesday, so it seemed unlikely that the car park would fill up whilst I was inside.

After a fantastic meal (thanks Luciana!) I decided to head on home at about twenty to 10. After saying my goodbyes I walked to my car, only to discover a tiny Suzuki totally blocking my car in. There was absolutely no way I'd be able to get my car out. "Damn," I thought, "Maybe someone parked there because the car park was full."

I looked around. The car park was still half empty. There were spaces everywhere. I was a little confused now, so I headed back up to Luciana's apartment and sheepishly rang the bell. "Forgotten something?", she said as she answered the door.

I explained the situation and she immediately recognised that it was her neighbour's car. "You've parked in her space", she explained. "Sorry, I should have told you that the guest space is here" (she pointed two spaces to the left).

Now I was a bit confused. "If there's a guest space, why didn't your neighbour just park there instead of blocking me in?", I asked. 'And why isn't it marked as a guest space?' I added to myself.

At that point, the door to the upstairs apartment opened, and a grumpy looking women in pyjamas emerged. She began talking to Luciana in Japanese in a very serious voice, which Luciana responded to with a bow and a "Sumimasen". I followed suit. Then the pyjama lady went downstairs to move her car. Luciana called me over and explained in a whisper: "She said that this is a great trouble and inconvenience for her. She's really mad".

Now I was even more confused. Surely it would be less "trouble and inconvenience" to just not block my car in in the first place - that way she wouldn't have to get up and drive her car round in her pyjamas. I just walked to my car shaking my head - there was probably some logic in the situation somewhere, but for the moment it had escaped me.

Looking back on the situation, I should have known better. A similar thing happened to another JET in Fukui a few months ago. She was visiting a friend in the city, and thought it would be OK to park outside her friend's apartment, but when she returned she found another resident had deliberately blocked her in. The resident turned out to be the grandma from hell, and immediately launched into a tirade of abuse directed at the unfortunate JET, as well as threatening to call the police. No amount of bowing seemed to calm the oba-san's rage, so the plucky JET, who was now on the verge of tears, tried to manouevre out of the space, Austin Powers style, all the while listening to a typhoon of insults in hundred-mile-an-hour Japanese.

If there's one thing you should learn when you come to Japan, it's this: Parking Spaces Are Sacred.

Japan is incredibly crowded society - every square inch of land is used for something. Even in a so-called "rural" prefecture like Fukui there's no real open countryside. Apart from the mountains, every possible space is occupied by a house, road or factory, and the bits left over are filled up with rice fields. Back gardens don't exist - if there's enough space for a back garden, it'll have rice growing in it instead.

This results in two things:

1) Parking is extremely scarce, not to mention expensive.

Many people have to pay every month for the rental of their car parking spot, which can be hundreds of pounds if you're in the city. Plus, the law says that when you buy a car you have to register a parking spot for it as well. A photo of the parking spot has to be delivered to the police, along with an application fee, and then a valid sticker must be displayed in your car at all times. Luckily, this doesn't apply to the really small cars (yellow plates), so I don't have to register.

It also means that things like this are popular in cities:

It's a robotic parking system which can fit into small and narrow buildings where there's no space for a car park. They're pretty ingenious - but the fact they're needed at all shows you just how scarce parking space is.

2) Being packed into a country like sardines means that people can get a bit uptight.

For such a crowded country, it's amazing that people don't flip out more often. The notion of harmony, or 'wa', runs deep in Japanese society, meaning that everyone tries their best to hide their grievences for the sake of the smooth running of the community. This, however, doesn't apply to car parks. And when Japanese people flip out, they really flip out.

One thing I've learned from this whole experience is that the perception of a parking space in Japan is very different from England. In England, a space is just a bit of tarmac. If someone parks in front of your house or apartment it might be a little irritating, but usually you'll just go and park somewhere else round the corner. In extreme cases, a strongly worded note under the windscreen might be called for.

In Japan, a car parking space is perceived more like a front lawn... You're paying for that space. That space is yours. Your apartment may be no bigger than a postage stamp, and you may have to sleep standing up in a cupboard, but at least you know that bit of concrete out front is yours.

So when some gaijin idiot like me comes along and takes your space, it's a bit like someone driving onto the front lawn and pulling donuts in front of your bay windows. Which is when 'wa' goes out the window and is replaced by "I'm gonna teach that gaijin idiot a lesson in manners".

So the moral of the story is this: if you want to go and visit one of your friends at his/her apartment, don't park in the parking spaces provided. Instead, try and leave your car hovering a few feet off the ground, or better still, pay a local street urchin to drive your car round and round in circles for the duration of your visit, thus avoiding the ever thorny issue of where to park, and, more importantly, keeping the 'wa' intact.

Monday, March 14, 2005

This just in - England is a country

A little while ago I wrote to the British Consulate-General in Osaka to ask them for the official definition of whether or not England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are countries.

I've been having trouble explaining the concept of the United Kingdom to my students: whenever I show them the Union Jack, nine times out of ten they recognise it as the flag for England, at which point I have to explain that, actually, it's the flag for the United Kingdom, which is made up of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It's a tricky concept for them to grasp as you can imagine.

However, one of my teachers made a good point the other day. She asked me how England could be a country if the United Kingdom was a country too. "How can there be a country inside another country?", she said. "Good point", I said.

Surely if the UK is a country, then England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales must simply be regions of that country. But if they're just regions, why does each country have a national football team? And conversely, why do we send a "Great Britain" team to the Olympics, instead of separate teams from the four "countries"/"regions"?

So I sent an email to the British Consulate to ask them for an official definition of the UK, and today I received this reply:

Dear Mr Lewis Packwood

This is the explanation of the concept of the UK.
I hope you will find it useful.

Best wishes
(Name deleted by me)
British Consulate-General, Osaka


The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a country with England, Scotland and Wales also usually considered countries and / or nations. This peculiarity of history stems from the Acts of Union that occurred from 1536 onwards where the individual parliaments with England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland decided to form a single government in London. The individual acts are;

· Acts of Union 1536-1543 joining England and Wales (as the Kingdom of England)
· Act of Union 1707 joining the Kingdoms of Scotland and England (to form the Kingdom of Great Britain)
· Act of Union 1800 joining Ireland to Great Britain (to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland)

You will have to divert to your history books if you wish to know the many reasons for these acts but they are generally due to England's heavy influence on its smaller neighbours (especially with Wales) and when in 1603 James VI of Scotland succeded Elizabeth the first to become James I of England as well.

The simplest way to explain it is that 4 individual countries in the course of history decided to form a single government (and hence a single country in the eyes of the world), yet still maintain their borders and national identities (and hence still separate countries in the eyes of the populace). Of course with Scotland regaining a parliament in 1999 through devolution the power of each country within a country is always changing.

So there you go - England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are countries within a country, which is a pretty unique situation when you think about it. God knows how I'm going to explain all this to my students - it's hard enough to get them to point to England on a map, let alone explain the historical complexities of whether or not it's a country.

The Beard Extravaganza

Last Saturday saw the arrival of a much-anticipated event in the JET community - the shaving of Matt Gilhool. At the end of last year, Matt pledged that he would shave off his beard for a charity auction, and the response was amazing. His pledge to shave raised as much money as all the other items up for auction put together: at the last count his beard was worth 115,715 yen (about 570 pounds).

Matt's had his beard for most of his adult life, so the shaving was a big event. My house was chosen as the venue, and fortuitously the date coincided not only with Matt's birthday, but with (Takefu JET) Dion's birthday, as well as the date of (UFO teacher) Claire's departure back to Australia: so it was a big old shindig.

There was a facial hair theme too, resulting in plenty of amusing photos of girls with moustaches. Most of my snaps were a bit blurry, so some of these photos come from Rob Cro's site and Adele's site.

So thank you to Matt G for being such a great sport, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! to Dion and Matt, and sayonara to Claire (we're all gonna miss you!!!) Thanks to everyone for coming!

From left to right: Tilly, Laura, Sam, me and Claire. I decided to go for a raffish look; the appropriate guise for an Englishman abroad.

It's time for one last feel of Matt's glorious beard before its untimely removal.

The mid-way "lion's mane" look.

Matt submits to the "final shaving".

And the beardless Matt emerges! Good job soldier! Now let's have a look at what facial fashions the other guests were wearing...

Mac achieves a "sergeant major's day off" feel through the combination of steely gaze and fiercesome facial hair.