Monday, September 26, 2005

Apology

Sorry for the lack of postings recently: I've been busy cobbling together the latest issue of JETfuel (the magazine that goes out to Fukui JETs), and my days and nights have been spent scouring Google Images for photos to make all the articles look lovely and pretty, as well as you know, writing stuff. I'll post the results here soon.

I've also been suffering some technical problems - ie the computer guy wiped the hard drive of the computer I use at school in order to upgrade it. Which was a bit annoying. Still, he had the forethought to save the important stuff to CD, so hopefully everything should be back to normal next week.

In the meantime, check out http://www.toothpastefordinner.com/ for some utterly random but brilliant cartoons. My favourite is
basic electronics symbols.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Yep, you guessed it. Rice.

Rice for the picking

I swear, these titles are getting worse. Maybe I should go the whole
hog and start writing pun-filled alliterative tabloid-style headlines,
a la The Sun... Right, from next week it's tabloid headlines all the
way, I promise.

Anyway, back to the point. Actually, I haven't made a point yet have
I? Well, anyway, the point is rice. Got that? Right.

Last Sunday I went rice harvesting. Well, I mean I tried to go rice
harvesting, but the skies were feeling particularly mischievous that
day and decided to stick two fingers up at the weather forecast of
"sunny all morning", and treat us all to torrential downpours instead.
But, on the plus side, I got to meet the Mayor of Fukui. Which was
nice. He turned up in some wellies and told us all about how rice is
very important in Fukui, we bowed a lot, and then he was driven away,
safe in the knowledge that his five minutes of weekly
internationalisation had been completed satisfactorily. He seemed like
a nice man.

It was far too wet to actually go into the fields and pick the rice,
but we did get to see how the rice is processed after it's been
harvested. I was particularly jealous of the giant machine that sucks
the water out of the rice before it gets processed. I could do with
one of those to suck the humidity out of my house - then perhaps my
T-shirts would stop going mouldy all the time. Thank God the cooler
weather of autumn is on the way, cause frankly I'm running out of
clothes.

Anyway, back to rice. One of the most distressing aspects of the day
was watching all that lovely, healthy, wholegrain rice being stripped
of all its goodness and emerging as pallid, bland white rice. It seems
such a waste of resources to make something less tasty and more
unhealthy at the same time. It's almost impossible to get hold of
wholegrain rice in Japan, since only one or two specialist shops stock
it, and even then it's much more expensive than white rice, which
seems criminal really since it actually requires less processing.

Does anyone have any ideas as to why white rice is so popular in
Japan? Is it because it's easier to make sushi out of? Is it because
white is a lucky colour? Answers on a postcard please.


This behemoth of a machine is for extracting moisture out of the freshly-harvested rice. Can you guess what it's called?


...that's right, "Dry Robot EG-RF". You just can't move for robots in Japan - they've got robots for bloody everything. Shame they haven't invented central heating yet though.


Healthy, delicious, nutrient-packed wholegrain rice goes in here...


...and anaemic-looking vitamin-free white rice pops out here.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


The Tea Ceremony Club. If you're having trouble spotting me, I'm the giant white guy at the back.

It's cul-cha innit?

I really enjoyed the culture festival at my school this year, partly
because I actually had things to do this time around. When I started
working for Nyu High School last August I was told that I should spend
the first week familiarising myself with my environment, ready for the
beginning of lessons. Unfortunately, the process of familiarisation
took very little time indeed, and I soon found myself becoming pretty
bored. I could see that people were busy making things and preparing
for the school festival, but whenever I asked if I could help I was
always met with the same answer: "Don't worry Lewis-sensei! You can
just relax!". I could see that the teachers were just trying to be
polite, but it meant that for most of the first week or so I was just
sat twiddling my thumbs.

Thankfully things were a lot more interesting this year. I was asked
to sing "American Idiot" by Green Day with the third year band, so I
spent a lot of time practicing with them in the lead up to the
festival. I was also helping out with the tea ceremony club - I've
been going to the club every Thursday for the past year, and for the
culture festival we put on an all-day tea ceremony.

It was great fun getting dressed up in yukata (summer kimono) for the
ceremony - it was really funny to see the look on the students' faces
when I came shuffling out carrying their tea! They couldn't believe
it! The vice-principal turned up for a cup of "o-cha" as well, and I
think he was pleasantly surprised to watch me in full Japanese culture
mode. Partly because the only other time he sees me is when I'm trying
to ask for time-off with my terrible Japanese.

Anyway, it's nice to feel a part of the school now - I know I'm never
going to properly fit in to Japanese society, and I'm probably never
going to be able to speak fluent Japanese, but at least I've made an
impression, and that's what counts.

And I do a mean Billie Joe Armstrong impression too.


The students tuck into their sweets as the await the arrival of their tea.


The serene atmosphere in the main room is a world away from the frantic activity in the preparation room, as everyone rushes to prepare tea and sweets for twenty people.


Another tray of sweets is ready to be taken to the hungry guests.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


The white team's flag waver takes five.

The Sports Festival

Every school in Fukui has a festival around this time of year, which
is usually composed of a "culture festival" and a "sports festival".
It's the biggest event on the school calendar, and many of the
students come in to school all through the summer holidays just to get
ready for it. Pretty much all the preparation is done without any help
whatsoever from the teachers, which is, frankly, amazing. The kids
make stalls to sell food, make costumes for a fashion show, make
decorations, construct dance routines, write plays... it's fantastic.

The whole school is split into four teams - red, white, blue and
yellow (I was on the white team) - and the teams vie for points over
the three days of the festival. During the two-day cultural festival
(more on that another time) the teams compete in a fashion show and a
singing contest, but it's only when they hit the school grounds for
the final day that the excitement really mounts...

The sports festival was definitely the highlight for me I think. The
tone of the whole event is a lot less serious than sports days in
British schools, which is surprising since at all other times the
students take sport ultra-seriously (the hockey team, for example,
practice every day, including weekends and holidays). Instead, the
sports festival is composed of events such as the three-legged race,
the tug of war, the obstacle race and the "throw balls at boys race"
(see below). One of the best races was where four students had to run
around half the track to reach a piece of paper, which gave them the
name of something they had to find and then carry across the finish
line. Cue students sprinting with chairs, netting, buckets and even
some rather surprised-looking teachers - why couldn't sports day at my
old school be like this?


The dance performance is the highlight of the sports festival. The third years choreograph the whole thing, and they practice all through the summer holidays as well as making all the costumes and pom-poms.


DON'T LOOK INTO HIS EYES!!!!


This game was new to me, but it was absolutely brilliant to watch. Four guys strap bins to their back whilst 250 girls try to throw as many balls in the bins as possible in 90 seconds. It's called "Tama-ire", which I think translates as "Ultimate Kiss Chase". Or it should do anyway.


Of course, there were more traditional races on offer too. What sports meeting would be complete without a three-legged race?


The races are all over and guess what? My team won!!! GO WHITE TEAM!!! It was amazing to see all the emotion in the prize giving ceremony - kids were crying left, right and centre, whether they won or lost.


After all the prizes are given out, each team captain is given a torch, which they use to light a beacon during the closing ceremony. Would you let this kid play with fire?


Finally, after a rousing chorus of "BANZAI!!!" balloons are let off, and it's all over.


The third years of the red team pose in front of their mascot, Kirby. In the weeks leading up to the festival, each team makes their own mascot out of bamboo and papier mache - it's really quite impressive to watch them do it. They do everything themselves, even down to trooping off into the forest to cut down the bamboo.


His purpose having been fulfilled, Kirby was ruthlessly beaten at the end of the day, before being chopped up by a power saw. Which was quite disturbing really.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Birthday Bonanza

My birthday was on September 3rd, and to celebrate I had a massive
knees up at my house in Asahi. Word of the party spread quickly among
the gin joints and saloons of Fukui... The instructions were simple:

1) Wear a T-shirt with an amusing "Engrish" slogan.

2) Bring booze.

It started off harmlessly enough. I got some cracking presents,
ranging from a skateboard to a frog-shaped oven glove to a Lego set
depicting the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. Oh,
and some pants (see below). People arrived slowly, but quickly
colonised the sole air-conditioned room, whilst latecomers were forced
to make do with the woefully inadequate oscillating fan in the
kitchen. The temperature quickly rose, but the booze kept flowing and
nobody seemed to mind too much.

Time passed.

I developed the inclination to dance. It faded almost as quickly as it
appeared. The night wore on. Then someone suggested we should let off
fireworks in the park behind my house. "Alright", I said. We let off
fireworks. It was fun. Then people let off fireworks at each other.
That wasn't so fun. So we stopped letting off fireworks. Then we drank
more. And er.... then I had some crisps.... and.... no, sorry, I don't
remember anything else. But at some point it involved going to bed,
and when I woke up in the morning I was still alive, so everything was
brilliant. Although my head hurt a bit and I had to go to work, so
that wasn't so great, but I knew I had a skateboard and a frog-shaped
oven glove to come home to, so it wasn't so bad at all really.

All in all, it was a jolly good time, and I heartily thank everyone
who came along, and especially those who helped clean up - you truly
are heroes among ordinary men and women.

I think I'm going to enjoy being twenty-six.


Celeste, my fellow birthday buddy, exudes New Zealand charm in this sultry pose.


Probably my best present was a pair of underpants from the hundred yen shop - I was so excited I put them on immediately and began gyrating around the room. I should add at this point that the present I received just before the underpants was a bottle of extra-strong sake.


I have absolutely no memory of this.


It looks like Matty G sat on something he shouldn't have.

And Finally, The Winner Is....

...Koizumi and the Liberal Democratic Party! Again! By a landslide!

Come on everybody, three cheers for the status quo!!!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Lost in the Post(al Privatisation Debate)

Ooooh, I've just reread that cheesy title. Nasty. But hey, it's the end of the day, I'm going home soon and I can't be bothered to change it.

Right, where were we? Ah yes, postal privatisation (stick with me on this one). Now I know that the postal system isn't usually the most thrilling of topics, but suddenly here in Japan it's taken on massive national importance. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been pushing for reform of the postal service for most of his term in office, and despite strong resistance he took the bill for postal privatisation to a vote last month. He was almost fanatically determined to see the bill pass, and threatened to dissolve the lower house if the bill didn't get through.

And guess what? It didn't.

Due to a significant rebellion in his own party, Koizumi lost the vote 125 to 108, and true to his word he immediately dissolved parliament and ejected the politicians who voted against him from the Liberal Democratic Party. Which, let's face it, is a pretty dramatic move. When I read the news in my daily newspaper I was so shocked I accidentally let slip my cucumber sandwich and it plummeted fatally into my Earl Grey. Yes, it was that shocking.

Anyway, a general election has been called for September 11th, and the political stories that have been filling the newspapers read more like a soap opera than an election campaign. Some of the ejected politicians, obviously a little peeved off with the whole sacking thing, have formed two new parties, whilst others are running as independent candidates against the government. In retaliation, Koizumi has fielded so-called "assassin" candidates to run in the same seats as the rebel MPs, hoping that the popularity of these "assassins" will ensure the rebels don't return to parliament. Gripping stuff. Well, I think so anyway.

I still can't quite believe that the country has been thrown into such turmoil over something so seemingly trivial as post office privatisation. I was in my local post office after I heard the news, and I couldn't help scanning the faces of the seemingly friendly staff, desperately searching for a clue to the dark secret which is so important it has caused the entire governing system to become uprooted. Is the head postmaster a Level 8 Necromancer? Is the Post Office Headquarters built over Solomon's gold mines?

Well, sort of (the gold bit that is, not the Necromancer bit). Japanese people like to save (in fact Japan has one of the highest saving rates in the world) and a vast chunk of the people do their saving at the post office. In fact, the post office holds an unbelieveable 3 trillion dollars worth of savings... which it's basically doing very little with. Koizumi's plan is to free up this money through privatisation, get companies to invest it, and therefore boost the economy.

All well and good, but a part of me can't help but think it could all end up going horribly wrong. You can't blame me - after all, where I come from "privatisation" is a dirty word. I was trying to explain this to one of the Japanese teachers at my school the other day: I told him about how the government privatised the rail system in Britain, how the companies had ended up putting profits over safety and how eventually the government had to step in and take control again because things had gotten so bad. His reply was: "Really? In Japan things get better when they're privatised."

Now, I don't know how true that is, but if privatisation can work anywhere, I reckon it could work here. Or at least they could make it look like it's working by running to and from the photocopier in the office and staying late after work for no real reason other than to look busy (if you work in Japan you'll find that funny).

Anyway, the whole thing has resulted in one of the hardest fought and most anticipated election campaigns in Japanese history - there's even the chance that Junichiro Koizumi and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could lose. Which is saying something, since bar a ten month period in the early nineties the LDP has been in power for OVER 50 YEARS. And I thought Thatcher was around for a long time.

If you're interested, you can read more about the election here: http://www.economist.com/printedition/displaystory.cfm?story_id=4267030


And here's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dancing with Richard Gere. God bless Japan.