Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Meet the Parents

They came. They saw. They tried the food. They liked some of it. They
still don't like raw fish. Yes, that's right ladies and gentlemen, my
parents came to visit me in Japan. And not just my parents - my two
little sisters, Kerri (24) and Cara (16) both came as well, along with
Cara's boyfriend Matt. Thankfully I had enough room in my house for
everyone, but it made quite a change to suddenly be living with five
other people after living on my own for so long. Little things started
mattering. Like not having a lock on the toilet door. I really, really
need to buy a lock for that door.

Anyway, it was great having the family here, and I think they really
enjoyed themselves too. They seemed to like the things we did in Fukui
the best - although they enjoyed Tokyo and Kyoto, the big cities were
just a bit too crowded and hectic. Funnily enough, I'm starting to
agree with them - I think I'm beginning to get settled into my country
ways. Even though I'd consider myself a city boy at heart (I lived in
London before I moved here) I was finding myself getting rattled by
all the noise and craziness in Akihabara and Shibuya. As we walked by
yet another garish electronics store blaring out J-pop mixed with
screams of discount slogans I found that all I wanted was a nice cup
of tea and a sit down.

Luckily, if there's one thing my parents are good at, it's drinking
tea (and sitting down, natch). Between the six of us we managed to get
through a scary amount of India's finest in ten glorious,
caffeine-soaked days. Luckily, the folks left me with ample supplies
of PG Tips and Twinings - approximately 320 bags - which we worked out
will just about last me till Christmas if I cut my tea intake to two
cups a day. Hurrah!

Unfortunately, it all had to end sooner or later, and all too soon I
found myself standing behind the ticket barriers, waving goodbye as
they all boarded the train back to Tokyo, then home. So it's goodbye
for another six months at least, presuming I book tickets to go and
visit them at Christmas, which I will do.

I need the tea for starters.


The family in my humble abode. From left to right: Dad, Cara, Matt, Kerri and Mum.


The first place we visited was the famously controversial Yasukuni-jinja, where millions of Japanese soldiers who died in battle are enshrined. Many countries, China and South Korea in particular, are up in arms about Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's regular visits to the shrine, saying that in honouring the war dead he is also honouring several war criminals who are enshrined there too. However, I think due to a combination of severe jet lag, the stifling 34 degree heat and extreme humidity, most of this was lost on the folks as we dashed to the nearest convenience store for ice cream.


My little sister was insistent that we should eat some Japanese food. So I took her to Denny's. Well, they do have a Japanese menu of sorts... (Hey, don't roll your eyes at me! Look, we went to plenty of proper Japanese restaurants later on, I promise...)


It was great fun showing the family round my school. The office staff were really welcoming, and they insisted that I should take a photograph of everyone together!


Eiheiji Temple was one of our first ports of call in Fukui. It's rightfully regarded as being one of Fukui's top tourist attractions, but at the same time it's still a working temple; it's home to a healthy population of monks and priest trainees.


I really enjoyed looking round Eiheiji again. I took tons of photos too - it really is a photographer's paradise.


On Friday we spent the day looking around Kyoto. Well, I say "the day" - it was actually more like five hours, since we spent just under six hours on the train there and back. In hindsight, it might have been better to pay a little bit extra and take the express rather than the local train. Ho hum. Anyway, this is part of the fantastically smart looking Kyoto station.


Our first stop was the famous Kiyomizudera. I think the family was impressed with the architecture, but they weren't keen on the throngs of tourists - in fact they afterwards that decided they preferred Eiheiji, because it "felt more like a real temple". There you go folks - proof that Fukui really has it all.


The best thing about the place for me was the amazing view of the city...


And this is the famous picture postcard view of the temple. The whole thing is held up on a complex lattice of wooden struts that go down beneath the trees.


Later on we had a look at some of the traditional houses in Gion. If you squint, you can just about block out the TV aerials.


Gion was also the home of this traditional tangle of power lines. It's crazy to think that while they were putting this jumble of wires together no-one thought to stand up and say: "Look guys, this is just getting silly now. Why don't we put them in the ground instead?". Or maybe I'm getting it all wrong - maybe it's an elaborate spiderweb contraption for catching migratory birds.


We also took a trip up to Katsuyama to see the swanky new Dinosaur Museum, which is housed in a really funky modern building which looks like a giant airship - this is the huge skylight near the entrance. Did you know that Fukui has two dinosaurs named after it? Yes, that's right, the "Fukuisaurus" and the "Fukuiraptor" were first discovered in this very prefecture. Pretty interesting huh?


In the end though, my parents were more impressed with the (almost as new) Big Buddha just down the road (see "Making History" in the March 2005 archives). This is the enormous building it's housed in...


220 tons of copper, 17 metres tall... yep, it's big alright.


But of course, the highlight of the whole trip was a visit to Tom's Toast Restaurant in Takefu. Now that's what I call toast. Kerri agrees.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

ROAD TRIP!!!!!!


The summer in Fukui is incredibly humid. The temperature extends well
into the thirties almost every day, and doing even the smallest amount
of physical exercise will leave you sweating like a kebab and gasping
for water. The solution to this problem? Hire a Jeep Cherokee, load it
down with camping gear and booze, then drive as far north as you can.

And so it came to pass that Sam, Chris, Gary, Danny and myself bundled
into a 4x4 on August 4th, fired up the iPod, put on some tunes and
blasted off up the highway with absolutely no plan of where to go
whatsoever. Except up. Yes folks, we were headed toward.... HOKKAIDO!!!!

On the first night we ended up camping in a little town on the
southern border of Niigata prefecture, which funnily enough shared the
same name as my hometown in Fukui: Asahi-cho. After broiling in our
tents for a few hours we quickly decided that we had to get as far
north as we could as quickly as possible - another night of
tent-induced steam cooking would be one night too many. So we came up
with a new plan - rather than driving all the way up the main island
of Honshu and then taking the ferry to Hokkaido from Aomori city, we
could take the 18 hour ferry from Niigata city instead. It turned out
to be a cracking idea - the sea was beautifully calm, the rooms had
air conditioning (hurrah!), and I got to see wild dolphins for the
first time ever.

I was amazed at just how different Hokkaido looks from the rest of
Japan - for a start it's covered in grass. (Grass!!! How I've missed
thee!!!) The climate up there is fairly similar to England (ie. it
rains a lot), which means grass can grow pretty much anywhere. Down
here in Fukui the only grass you ever see is on golf courses...

But it doesn't end there - most of Hokkaido is made up of national
parks, which have strict building regulations to retain the natural
beauty of the landscape.

Which means.....

Yes, that's right, NO CONCRETE!!! Woohoo!!! It was such a breath of
fresh air to find a part of Japan where it has been deemed that the
mountains are perfectly able to stand up without the aid of a concrete
straitjacket, and where it has been decided that the rivers actually
look better when they're not hemmed in by concrete walls. Sing
Hallelujah!!!!

Anyway, it was a cracking trip, but rather than banging on any more
I'll let the photos do the talking...


The adventurers prepare to set off. And no, this isn't an advert for Pocari Sweat (although it is very tasty - and rather misleadingly, it isn't sweat-flavoured at all). From left to right: Chris, Danny, me, Gary and Sam.


The water was amazingly calm on the ferry to Tomakomai.


Our first port of call when we arrived in Hokkaido was a lake called Shikotsuko in the south, and we managed to find this campsite right by the water. Look! No concrete! Hurrah!!!


Children playing in Shikotsuko


You heard.


After a dip in the lake we decided to climb one of the nearby mountains - as you can see, the intense heat required a certain degree of nakedness. The guide book promised that after climbing the 866m tall Monbetsudake there would be a "stunning view of the lake from the peak of the mountain".


And here's the stunning view of the lake from the peak of the mountain. Bloody fog. Still, you can see the NTT satellite receiving station quite clearly. Hooray.


As we travelled further into the interior of Hokkaido we found another beautiful lake - Keizawako. The views were stunning, but undoubtedly the best thing about the lake was...


...this life size sculpture of a T-rex, who became our new best friend.


As we continued north we spotted this volcano in the distance, and decided to head towards it. (If you zoom into the middle of the photo you can just about see smoke spewing from the top of one of the peaks.) To the mountains!!!


Unfortunately, the mountain roads proved to be more than the Jeep could cope with. After about an hour of driving up steep and windy tracks, the car's radiator decided to treat us all to a spectaular fountain display. Could this be the end of the road trip? Would we have to hitchhike back to Fukui? Luckily, Danny (aka "The Bodger") was on hand to tape it all back together...


After the car was given the all-clear we continued to make our way further north until we found a place to camp by an onsen at the foot of the volcano, which we discovered was named Tokachidake.


After a well-deserved dip in the onsen, we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. Then, after a chilly night's sleep it was time to tackle the mountain...


Gary, Chris and Sam make their way up the volcano.


Here's me looking all moody and mysterious at the top of Tokachidake. In stripy socks.


And here's the active crater of the volcano, as seen from the peak. Potent rotten eggs smell not pictured.


As we made our way back down the mountain we walked along the crest of a ridge. One side looked like this: you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Scottish Highlands...


...but on the other side the landscape looked more like a photo sent by the Mars Explorer. I think climbing the volcano was definitely the highlight of the trip - it was exhausting, but the views were worth it.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


A cicada on my bedroom window. Finger model's own.

Insects from Hell

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Cicada \Ci*ca"da\ (s[i^]*k[=a]"d[.a]), n.; pl. E. Cicadas
   (-d[.a]z), L. Cicad[ae] (-d[=e]). [L.] (Zo["o]l.)
   Any species of the genus Cicada. They are large hemipterous
   insects, with nearly transparent wings. The male makes a
   shrill sound by peculiar organs in the under side of the
   abdomen, consisting of a pair of stretched membranes, acted
   upon by powerful muscles.
 
"Shrill sound"? "Shrill sound"? More like the sound of a thousand deaf violinists trying to play a top E on a violin with strings made out of barbed wire. Seriously, these little buggers are driving me mad. I don't know if it's just me, but these intensely irritating insects seem to have gotten louder and louder over the past few days. Maybe it's because of the heat - the temperature reached 35 degrees yesterday, which I think was the hottest day of the year so far. Maybe the heat's getting them in the mood for love, and they're calling out to all the lady cicadas. Or maybe they're calling out for air conditioning. Either way, I wish they'd just shut up and let me get some sleep.


SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP!!!!!!!!!


Luckily, the Japanese are one step ahead of the insect menace, as can be seen from this stylish and inexpensive Mosquito Headnet. Now if only they could make one with built-in ear defenders too...

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


The crew settles in for a long, hard day of sitting in the campsite.

Fuji Rock

Wow. Just wow. I've just got back from the Fuji Rock Festival in
Niigata-ken, and I have to say I was thoroughly impressed. I wasn't
sure what to expect before I arrived, but it turned out to be very
similar to a UK festival - not surprising really, seeing as the
organisers modelled it directly after Glastonbury (it even had a Field
of Avalon). The setting was quite different though - Fuji Rock is held
at the Mt. Naeba ski resort way up in the mountains, which makes for
some stunning alpine views. The lack of open farmland was a bit of a
problem - the forests and narrow valley meant that the stages were
spread out in a long line, so walking from one stage to another took a
bit of time. It could be a bit annoying if the band you wanted to see
next was on a stage at the far end of the site, but luckily I managed
to solve the problem by spending most of the day drinking beer by my
tent, only emerging to watch the last couple of bands on the main
stage. That's lateral thinking for you.

Another result of the lack of open farmland was that the campsite was
actually a golf course. Which was a bit weird. "Hey, guys! You finally
got here! Come and find us, we're camped by the 9th green next to a
bunker! Wassat? No, I think it's a par 4...". Still, I wasn't
complaining - it was absolutely fantastic to see some real grass
again. Grass is one thing that I really miss here in Japan - it's so
hot where I live that grass has to be watered constantly to keep it
alive, so golf courses are pretty much the only places you see it. And
besides, there aren't any golf courses in Fukui (that I know of
anyway).

I couldn't believe they were actually letting people camp on a golf
course though - I really couldn't imagine anyone allowing that in
Britain. Usually after Glastonbury the campsite is a sea of empty
bottles and cans, and I've heard it takes a team of volunteers up to
three months to clear up. Not so at Fuji Rock - in true Japanese style
there was NO RUBBISH WHATSOEVER. People were even using pocket
ashtrays to take their cigarette butts with them. I have to say, I was
mightily impressed - I wonder if festival-goers in England could be
persuaded to do the same?

Anyway, it was a cracking weekend, and I could go on about it all day,
but I'm hungry and it's lunch time, so I'll end with my top five
specific moments of the festival, in no particular order:

1. Watching Dave Grohl jump off the stage, run through the middle of
the crowd, then climb the mixing tower in front of us during the Foo
Fighters gig. The man's a genius, someone give him a medal.

2. Persuading a group of Japanese people behind me to engage in an
impromptu bout of choral singing during Beck, followed by a spot of
impromptu robot dancing.

3. Riding up to the top of the mountain on the "Dragondala" and
discovering that the restaurant there had proper toilets.

4. Getting a bit carried away whilst watching Fat Boy Slim and taking
my top off in the rain. I know I have certain levels of English
decorum to maintain, but hey, it's a festival, I'm allowed.

5. Doing a bit of scally dancing to the sounds of those cheeky
chappies from Liverpool, The Coral. "Eh, eh! Calm down, calm down!!!"

Does anyone else have a top 5?


Jesse and Ruan were like a well-oiled machine when it came to setting up the gazebo.


The Four Amigos - left to right, Sam, Gary, Chris and me. Note the fetching t-shirts - the Levi's stall was giving away free t-shirts that you could design yourself. Good work Mr Levi.


This freezing cold stream ran next to our campsite, and was an absolute lifesaver during the roasting-hot midday sun.


This is the main eating area - they even had a restaurant selling English breakfast and pints of Boddington's! I almost wept with joy. Note the mountains in every direction - it really was a beautiful setting for a festival.


There was definitely a Glastonbury vibe to the whole festival, especially in the random installations scattered across the site, like this glitterball we saw in the forest.


This fantastic ant sculpture was in a field called "The Palace of Wonder", which was full of crazy stuff like this. Michael Eavis would be proud.


The British Council were on hand to introduce the Japanese festival-goers to the best that Britain has to offer - i.e. deckchairs. God Save The Queen.


Then we stumbled across the kebab stall - the look on Sam's face says it all. After a year without the pleasure of eating reconstituted meat, Mr Baldwin had developed a serious case of kebab lust.


Kate gracefully displays one of the many insect friends we made over the weekend. There was certainly no shortage of these guys.


One of the highlights of the festival was taking a ride on the "Dragondola" - a cable car which takes you up to the main ski runs which get turned into a sort of chill-out area for the duration of the festival, akin to Glastonbury's stone circle (but without all the drug dealers). The cable car ride up there is just amazing... If you look closely at this picture you can just about see one of the festival stages tucked away in the valley.