Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Blue Skies Are Calling

I've had a crazy-busy day - non-stop lessons all morning, no time to
prepare my lunch before I left the house, huge piles of marking to
finish... and all the while the blue sky outside the staff room window
has been taunting me with its presence. It's possibly the
sunniest/warmest day of the year so far, and I'm stuck at my desk.

Still, tomorrow is "Green Day" which signals the start of "Golden
Week": four national holidays which fall at roughly the same time.
Unfortunately, the way the holidays have fallen this year means that I
still have to go to work next Monday and Friday, but tomorrow is a
different story... I'm planning an epic lie-in, a traditional English
breakfast, complete with Heinz Baked Beans (thank you foreign food
shop!), followed by a lazy afternoon sinking beers at a rooftop
barbecue. Bliss. I just hope the weather holds... At least Japan isn't
like Britain, where the mere mention of the word "barbecue" is the cue
for torrential downpours.

But that's tomorrow. I have to get out of this damn office first...

Only 20 more minutes before I can leave....

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Quirky Japan

You may or may not have stumbled on this website already, but Quirky
Japan is a goldmine of useful/useless information about the land we
all love. I particularly loved the "Nandakke's" section - inventing
Japanese words for foreigners, such as "Danjo Madoi" (uncertainty over
whether the kanji on the toilet means man or woman). "The Honest
Photographer" is also worth a look if you're bored of seeing photos of
sakura and temples. I have to admit that I'm guilty of this too - my
blog may be full of scenic views of Japan, but I guarantee that in 90%
of the photos there's a hideous concrete apartment building I've had
to frame out.

Click on the title above and browse at your leisure. (I've
also put a link to it in the sidebar.)

PS. Sorry for the lack of attention to my blog lately - I haven't had
time to get to the local internet cafe for a few days. However, after
being tipped off about the email settings in Blogger (thanks Phoenix
and Chris!) I can now post via email, so hopefully there won't be any
more random photos posted up without any text. Normal service will be
resumed shortly.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Krazy (sic) Car Rally

Last weekend saw the arrival of one of the most anticipated events in the Fukui JET calendar - the Krazy Car Rally. Strictly speaking it's not a rally at all: it's more akin to a mobile fancy dress party crossed with an Anneka Rice-style treasure hunt. I'll try to explain.

At about 9am on Saturday we arrived in Tsuruga and received a disposable camera with a list of objectives, each worth varying amounts of points. We had to use the camera to take photos of our teammates in various uncompromising situations, such as acting out the kanji for mori (forest) in a mori (forest)[10points], improvising phat dance moves in front of a singing Buddha statue [10 points] and crawling between the hairy legs of a giant caveman statue [10 points]. Every photo had to contain an Anpanman doll, and a bonus 5 points were added for every uniformed schoolkid that could be persuaded (bullied?) into appearing in the picture. Another 10 bonus points were up for grabs if your team turned up in costume - hence the pirate outfits.

My team, Kaizoku-jin (pirate people), was an Anglo-American consortium consisting of myself, Sam, Caitlin and Brandon, and I'm proud to say that we finished first. Well, we got to the end first anyway, we actually came 9th overall (out of 14), but I feel we had the moral victory. Considering how tired we all were after nearly seven hours of driving around southern Fukui doing ridiculous things, I feel we at least deserved a medal. However, in the end, we were satisfied with the knowledge that in the face of adversity (ie suspicious policeman asking us what the hell we were up to taking photos of schoolchildren) we had upheld the good name of assistant English teaching pirates in this fair country.

Massive thanks goes out to all the JETs in Southern Fukui who organised the whole thing. You can count on us to be back next year with an unshakeable air of determination and even sillier costumes.

Ahoy there me hearties! These dastardly knaves go by the names of Brandon, Caitlin, Sam and Lewis, and they be Team Kaizoku-jin. Ay, that they be. And that fine vessel in the background is the good ship Jolly Wagon "Arrrrrrrr!", about to set sail on the high seas of Reinan. Avast ye sea dogs!!! Shiver me timbers!!! (etc etc....)

Nicola T, Nicola C, Mac and Tania pose in their "Kill Bill" costumes.

The "Eazy Breezy Japanesey" rap team. Skirts by Jose.

Nicky and Dave in their "Battle Royale" costumes.

Emily and Dusty "Shaman" Downing were waiting for us in this mystic hut at the halfway point. After much deliberating (ie guessing), we managed to solve their riddle and unlock the challenges for the next leg of our journey.

The finish line was this gorgeous cove down in Takahama. Good old Fukui - it's not all rice fields and Family Marts you know.

After enduring nearly seven hours on the road, I thought we emerged looking rather chipper. Various costume parts had to be abandoned along the way, but all in all we came out relatively unscathed.

The four brave adventurers (and Anpanman), relax after a hard day's rallying.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Blogging Crisis Update

Thankfully, the blogging crisis isn't as bad as it could have been. I can still post pictures with captions onto my blog using the computers at school, I just can't access the website to write anything longer. However, I've resolved to make a couple of trips a week down to the local (well 15 minutes drive) internet cafe, so I can keep everything looking nice and up to date. So if you see lots of photos and not much writing on my blog, it means that I'm in the middle of an update, and haven't managed to get to the cafe yet.

Thanks a lot to everyone who has emailed their support - it's nice to know that people are reading!

Spring is in the air

Spring has finally sprung! After a few false starts (ie snow in March) the good weather has finally arrived, so I thought I'd celebrate by posting some photos of clear blue skies and blooming trees.

Last weekend saw the final flurry of cherry blossom viewing in Fukui. Sadly, the sakura has now moved northward, leaving in its place fresh green leaves and a tangible feeling of optimism. If I sound happy that's because I am - finally I can get back to my house at night without making a dash for the heater and an extra jumper.

The temperature has been hovering in the twenties for about the past week, so I feel I can finally say with some conviction that winter is over. Actually, I was quite surprised at how quickly the weather warmed up - in England spring normally means drizzle mixed with hazy sun, followed by a seemingly endless wait for the mythical "good summer weather" that has a regular habit of entirely missing our fair isle.

Anyway, I took a whistlestop tour of the dwindling cherry blossoms last weekend, and here are the results: first up, that blue sky I've been banging on about...

Nice, isn't it?

The sakura outside my house looked brilliant, but over the past couple of days it's all disappeared... (sob). You can just about make out the temple next to my house in the background.

Sakura in full bloom by Asuwa river, last weekend.

Some koinobori (carp banners) have already been put up in preparation for Children's Day on May 5. Children's Day is actually a celebration for young boys (girls have their day, the Dolls Festival, in March). The koinobori are part of an old Chinese legend about carp which jump up a waterfall in order to become dragons, so they're associated with strength and determination.

The view along Asuwa river in Fukui city. You can just about make out the rows of koinobori against the cherry trees.

The cherry blossoms around Maruoka castle (just north of Fukui city) are rightfully regarded as some of the best in the prefecture. Maruoka castle itself is also quite impressive, mostly because, unlike most of the other "historic" castles in Japan, it's actually quite old.

A cherry tree in full blossom next to Maruoka castle.

The gardens surrounding Maruoka castle. The gardens and castle only partially make up for the fact that the rest of Maruoka is a carbuncle on the face of Japan (sorry to anyone who lives in Maruoka, but hey, it's true).

The blossoms are falling - hanami is over for another year.

Rubbish Gift Boxes

I've noticed a rather curious phenomenon in the supermarkets and department stores of Japan - Rubbish Gift Boxes. In Britain (or America, or Canada, or most other places) you may have been lucky enough to receive a food hamper at Christmas - they usually contain a hotch-potch of food-related goodies, perhaps a Christmas pudding, a few tins, cakes and other sweetmeats, and possibly even a good bottle of wine. Although sometimes disappointing, they often make a nice gift, and if nothing else you can use the empty hamper as a stylish picnic accessory for those romantic meetings in the local park.

In Japan, however, the romance of the hamper seems to have been killed entirely, and replaced by gift boxes which you can only describe, at best, as functional. Take a glance at the pictures below and you'll see what I mean - I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I could mask the disappointment on my face if I were to receive a gift wrapped case of cooking oil for my birthday.

I asked one of the teachers at school what the idea was behind these mysteriously lacklustre gift sets. After laughing for a bit, the best explanation he could come up with is that they're "something useful for a wife".

You can imagine the scene. An over-worked salary man is making the long drive home to his loving family, as his thoughts begin to dwell on the beautiful woman he married ten years previously. He realises that, due to budget cuts and a recent staffing crisis, he's been spending far too much time at the office recently, and perhaps his doting partner is feeling the strain of neglect. He makes a snap decision to buy her something, and pulls into the local late night supermarket. Eschewing the usual chocolates and flowers he instead decides to get her something really special, something that is not only romantic but practical too: fifteen cans of tuna in a cardboard box.

Now, if I was that wife, probably the first thing I'd do if I were to receive this "special" gift is to throw each can, hard and fast, directly at my idiot husband's forehead. But maybe that's not how things are done here. Maybe the wives of Japan are ecstatic to receive such thoughtful gifts, dutifully hugging their spouses and declaring excitedly, "Wow! Tuna! How did you know! I'll use it to make the kids' school lunches right away!".

Maybe. But possibly not.

You know he really loves you when he gives you a slim box full of tiny cans of drink.

An ideal present for a coffee loving friend - five jars of instant coffee and a jar of dried milk. Sounds great until you realise that you could buy a coffee machine for the same price.

A fruit basket is all very well, but in terms of practicality, not to mention longevity, a box full of tinned fruit is much more suitable.

Stuck for a gift? How about 15 cans of tuna? (Or "sea chicken" as it's known in Japan. Seriously.)

Everyone knows that the ladies love a bit of pampering - perfume or bath oils usually go down well when given as a present. But why not go one better and give the woman of your life what she really wants: 20 bars of hand soap.

And lastly, my personal favourite, a selection of vegetable oils. Guaranteed to win the heart of your loved one.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A Sauce Called Ian and Other Stories - Engrish Special

This has got to be my favourite bit of Engrish so far. Yes ladies and gentleman, it's a brand of pasta sauce called "Ian". Brilliant. Now if they only brought out a brand of spaghetti called "Dave", my life would be complete.

The monorail company in Naha is attempting to get people off the roads with their "No My Car Day" campaign. If successful, the government plans to capitalise on the idea with "No My Smoking Day" and "No My Using Too Much Electricity Day".

"It's Bar Smoke! Alcohol, Smoke and Time." News of the movement towards banning smoking in pubs hasn't reached Japan yet - in fact smoking is the main advertising point.

"Euro Style Fooding Bar". Gourmet dishes from all over Europe will be prepared by five star chefs to your exact requirement, after which they will be ceremoniously dumped into the "Euro Style Fooding TroughTM" to be fed upon by the ravenous guests. In keeping with the "Euro Style", all waiters will expect an enormous tip yet will treat you to acid stares and snide comments for the duration of your meal.

"Fried Chicken and French Fly in Basket". Surely that should be "Freedom Flies"?

We spotted this fantastic Engrish menu in a bar called "Bamboo" on Miyako-jima, which is joint-owned by a lovely Canadian guy called Jeff. Unfortunately, Jeff must have been out on the day the staff decided to write the English menu. It begins with the mysterious "Before Vegetable" section, highlights of which include "Dish-grilled-with-salt of a chicken wing" and the priceless "It boils from Miyako and is pig Korean sauce", which sounds more like the title of a 50s sci-fi B movie than a meal. One thing I particularly like about this menu is that the spelling is flawless throughout, and yet it makes no sense whatsoever.

Now onto the salads. My favourite has to be "Mayonnaise dressing salad of a tuna and a corn".

"Become it dry and it is thing" - possibly the best translation of "Bar snacks" I've ever read. Ten out of ten for creative use of English; "Assortment of a cheese" is merely the icing on the cake.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Blogging Crisis!

I had a bit of a shock today - I went to add some photos onto my blog using the school computer and was unexpectedly treated to a message from the internet administrator. Apparently my blog contains "Adult/Sex" content, and is therefore being blocked by the internet nanny. Which came as a bit of a surprise to me, as you can imagine. Maybe I shouldn't have posted that photo of me with my top off on the beach...

It's not just my blog though - the administrator is, for some reason, blocking every single "blogspot" blog, giving the same reason of "Adult/Sex" content, and I've absolutely no idea why. The school network is administrated by the prefectural government office in Fukui city, so I contacted Jazz, our lovely JET representative, to see if she could find out what's going on, and she's going to get back to me next week.

I really hope they can unblock my website, otherwise I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I don't have a computer at home, so in the future my posts could be a lot fewer and farther between. At the moment I'm using Laura's computer to write this post, but she lives a half hour drive away...

There's always the internet cafe I suppose, but how will I post photos? I suppose I could buy a computer, but it could take a while to save up. And even if I did get one I'd have to organise an internet connection for my house, which could prove difficult judging by the state of the ancient bundles of wiring that constitute the phone line.

This is a dark day for An Englishman in Nyu-Gun.

Starting this weblog was one of the best decisions I ever made. It began because I was tired of sending out massive emails to everyone I know, telling them everything that I'd seen on my travels in Japan, then getting half of them bounced back because the recipients' accounts were full. Having the blog means that people I know can just log in when they feel like it and see what I've been up to, plus I can stick up loads of photos without fear of overloading anyone's inbox.

The blog has become more and more important as the months have gone on. For one thing, I've met loads of other bloggers who've had similar experiences, and it's been fascinating to read other people's accounts of Japan (check out the links on the left hand column to see what I mean). The blog has also changed my attitude towards Japan. Since I've started doing it I've become a lot more aware of my surroundings - I'm constantly on the lookout for things that interest me, and things that other people might want to read about. The blog has made me question the things around me and learn to appreciate them more. That might sound a bit pretentious, but it's true.

Plus it's got me writing, and I've really enjoyed it. When I left uni I was dead set on getting into journalism, but after a few knockbacks and disappointments I changed my mind. But I've been enjoying writing this blog so much that it's made me seriously consider getting back into it again when I return to England.

I'm definitely not going to stop writing An Englishman in Nyu-Gun, even if I can't access it at school anymore. The posts may be fewer and farther between from now on, but I'll make sure they keep coming. ("Jerusalem" starts playing in the background, Union Jacks drop down from the balcony, cut to a bulldog wearing a top hat and an England football shirt). In the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, I vow to keep this Garden of England flourishing in foreign soil. The wolves may be at the door, but in true Dunkirk spirit I will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER!!!

(The Union Jack, fluttering in an April breeze, rises to the top of the mast, as local bobbies dance with grannies and children in the streets below. The camera pans upwards to the glorious spring sky as the fiery sun sets behind the spires of Westminster. The final bars of Jerusalem play out, and calm descends on this green and pleasant land. God Save The Queen!!!)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Engrish just keeps coming...

I thought I'd pretty much exhausted the possibilities for Engrish magazines after writing two posts on them, but it seems they just keep coming. I'm starting to think that there must be a computer somewhere which is designed to churn out these names at random, regardless of what the magazine is about...

And there's so many of them! New magazines seem to be coming out every day - is it me, or are there far more magazines in circulation in Japan than there are in England? It certainly feels that way - the range of magazines seems entirely different in every shop I go into, so there must be thousands and thousands of titles...

Still, as long as they keep that Engrish-magazine-title-generating-computer well-oiled and working properly, I'll be a happy man.

"Car Boy" - Primarily aimed at boys with cars. You wouldn't believe the number of magazines which are aimed at young men who like to tune up their cars. They don't seem too bothered about which cars they tune up either, judging by the number of yellow plate cars I see with fat spoilers and radial tyres (let's not forget that by law, yellow plate cars must have an engine of 660cc or less - so tuning them is the equivalent of tying bells onto a petrol-driven lawnmower). This particular magazine seems to specialise in tuning Morris Minors, of all things.

"Tarzan" - A health and fitness magazine for women who like to swing through the jungle wearing only a loincloth.

"Me Jane" - I've absolutely no idea whether or not this has anything to do with "Tarzan" magazine, but I'd like to think it does.

Do you remember "Nuts" magazine? The magazine aimed at teenage girls with the rather dodgy title? Well, you'll be pleased to know they've produced a spin-off magazine, and here it is... Yes ladies and gentlemen, I bring you........"Love & Nuts". As far as I can gather, it's a step by step guide on how to find a boyfriend for young Japanese women with extremely heavy tans (tiaras optional).

"Woofin' Girl" - A magazine aimed specifically at girls who woof. "Welcome to the Fabulous Stage!" the headline obscurely blares... Presumably they're talking about the stage at Crufts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

It's Sakura Time!

The sakura are finally here - hurrah! Time for the obligatory photos of cherry trees!

For months now, the weather forecasters have been trying to predict the exact time that cherry blossoms (sakura) will appear across Japan: the first blooms appear in the far south in March, then head northward over the next couple of months until the season finishes in late May in Hokkaido. For the past few weeks it's all everyone's been talking about in the newspapers and on TV, and at first I really couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. I mean, it's just a few flowers, isn't it?

But then the sakura arrived in Fukui, and suddenly I realised why everyone gets so excited about it. We have cherry trees in England, but you'd be forgiven for not noticing them - they tend to be poorly looked after specimens which are usually planted in new housing estates, most often just so the developers can give a new road a quaint and idyllic-sounding name, such as "Cherry Tree Walk" or "Sakura Way". (In fact, I know a "Cherry Tree Walk" that only has one cherry tree on it - bloody lazy housing developers...)

However, in Japan the coming of the cherry blossom seems to change everything. For one thing, there are thousands of cherry trees all over the place, and when they all come into bloom at the same time it looks spectacular. The mood of an incredibly drab, concrete-lined street can be entirely changed when the sakura arrives. It's a lot like waking up to the first snows of winter: suddenly everything is covered in a blanket of white, and everyone feels a bit cheerier.

The cherry blossom festivals may also be the reason that everyone feels a bit cheerier - the coming of the sakura, coupled with the spring weather, is the perfect excuse to go and sit under trees and get drunk, all in the name of "cherry blossom viewing". Judging by the state of some of the people I saw on Sunday though, they were long past the "viewing" stage and were well onto the "staring at the ground in an effort to make the trees stop spinning stage".

Unfortunately, the blooms only last a couple of weeks, so I'm planning to get out this weekend and do some serious "viewing" before they all go. Kanpai!

Aaaaah, aren't they pretty?

Some of the 600 cherry trees along the Asuwa river in Fukui. Fukui got a rare mention on national TV last night, when they showed some pictures of these trees on NHK News 7. We're famous!

The cherry blossoms are out, so it's festival time. All the traditional Japanese festival stalls are there: the sausage on a stick stall, the random fried things stall, the I've-no-idea-what-it-is-but-it-smells-of-fish- stall, and of course the "goldfish scooping" stall. Which, thankfully, isn't a food stall.

The path along the Asuwa river was packed with families admiring the sakura. The lanterns you can see in this photo are put out especially for the sakura season, so the cherry blossom viewing can go on well into the evening.

Here's a photo of me enjoying some quality sakura time. Note the "Old Man" t-shirt that Flick bought for me in Okinawa. OK, so I prefer ale to beer, and I like to spend my evenings doing crosswords whilst watching the news, but that doesn't make me an old man...........does it? Hmmmm, maybe it does. Actually, when I think about it, I came close to buying a pipe the other day... I think I need to get out and mix with the young people a bit more.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

You know you're in Japan when... see a Boeing 747 entirely covered in Pokemon.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Okinawa Part 2 - Miyako-jima

After a thoroughly pleasant four days in Naha, Flick and I boarded an overnight ferry down to the tiny island of Miyako. To be honest, we were getting a bit bored of Naha by the time we left - the cafes, shops and bars were fantastic, but we were itching to get to the beach, and away from all the military bases and concrete.

After a nine hour sea journey on a packed ferry we were dumped, unceremoniously, at Hirara port, the capital city of Miyako. At 4.15am. In the pouring rain. We had nowhere to stay, since the only 24hour hostel was full, so we were forced to spend the early morning hours curled up on a bench in the ferry terminal. I think next time more forward planning may be in order...

Things got a lot better after that though - we found a really cheap and funky hostel, the rain stopped (and held off for the rest of our stay), and pretty soon we were sunning ourselves on the most gorgeous beaches I have ever seen.

The most famous beach in Miyako is Maehama. It's widely praised as having the best sand and sea in Japan, and has a massive resort complex to cater for all the tourists seeking out the number one beach in Nippon. It was our first port of call, and it was definitely worthy of its reputation - it certainly put Bournemouth to shame, let me tell you.

But the best beach in Japan? Definitely not. On our second day in Miyako we rented a car to do some thorough exploration of the coastline. It didn't take long - the island is only 35km across at its widest point - but there were dozens and dozens of stunning beaches, most of which were absolutely deserted.

It seems that a lot of the tourists who come to Miyako just stay in their resort hotel, and don't really bother checking out the rest of the island, which is a shame. The resort beaches are good, but the more out-of-the-way beaches were like snapshots of paradise.

I really loved Miyako-jima, and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who's thinking of making a trip to Okinawa. I loved Naha, but if I went again I'd definitely spend less time there and more time checking out the isolated islands further south. On Miyako it was difficult to believe I was still in Japan: it's mad to think that two months ago I was checking out ice sculptures in Hokkaido, in -5 degree temperatures, and last week I was sunning myself on a tropical beach - and it was all in the same country!

Flick on our first day in Miyako.

Our first beach in Miyako: Maehama. I loved the white sands and blue sea, but the big resort round the corner spoiled it a bit, and also meant that this was the busiest beach we visited.

An Englishman on the beach. Note the floppy hat and the cold beer which has been cannily placed in a shoe to prevent spillage. I would have worn a knotted handkerchief, but Flick wouldn't allow it.

In the true English tradition I decided to build a sandcastle on our first trip to Maehama beach. Try as I might though, I couldn't find any shops that sold paper flags to stick in the top, so I had to settle for sticks instead.

On our second day we stopped off at Sunayama beach. To get there you have to walk over these dunes until you reach...

....this. Nice eh?