Monday, October 31, 2005

"KONG SMASH!!!" Matt G rocks it up in a wrestling stylee.

Happy Halloween!!!

It's difficult to believe that it's Halloween again - it seems like
only yesterday that I was spray painting bits of cardboard to make my
Edward Scissorhands costume from last year (see "Mr Scissorhands" in
the November 2004 archive). Yet here we are again.

It seems that Halloween is getting more and more popular in Japan all
the time - I don't know if anyone else noticed this, but more and more
shops seemed to be stocking pumpkins and decorations this year, and
I've seen loads of bars and clubs advertising Halloween parties. Loft
(a department store) in Fukui had loads of Halloween costumes and toys
for sale this time around, whereas last year they had practically

I'm definitely getting into the spirit of Halloween more too. Back in
England Halloween isn't that much of a big thing: I think I only
bothered dressing up for it once, end even then I just stuck a bit of
face paint on, poured tomato ketchup down my front and said I was a
zombie. It's different now though: since I have so many American
friends here, I tend to get swept up in the whole thing a bit more,
and I have to say I had a cracking laugh getting dressed up this year.

I thought I'd push the boat out a bit this time: Flick wanted to go as
Batgirl, so who better to accompany her than The Joker? I was a bit
worried about getting all the bits together, but I had some really
lucky finds in the second-hand shops so it wasn't too hard at all
really. You can judge the results for yourself below.

Lastly, big thanks go out to Sarah B for holding the party at her
place, although I have mixed feelings about the punch - I only had one
glass but I feel like I'm suffering from brain decay. Maybe go a bit
easier on the vodka next time girls...

An unlikely meeting between The Joker (me) and Harry Potter (Dan). By the way, all that white make up is actually poster paint - man was it uncomfortable. By the end of the evening it had all started flaking off too. Luckily, I was too drunk to care.

Holy Caped Crusaders!!! It's Flick as Batgirl!!! Zoinks!!! Sokk!!! Kapow!!! etc etc

Tanya and Laura. Cute, ne?

Left to right: Tilly, Sarah, Sam and Sam. I particularly liked Sarah's Uma Thurman costume - the syringe plunged into the heart was a nice touch. Sam claimed he was a gangster, but in this photo I reckon he comes across more as a dodgy used car salesman. Nice hat though.

Hitomi and Kyoko model the classic devil/angel combo.

Jesse Green. What can you say? Nothing - the picture says it all.

Dana arrived in this awesome mummy outfit. And by the looks of it she was hitting the punch pretty hard too.

Amanda, Kate and Sarah break out the cheesy grins.

The UFO crew: Keith, Kelly and Michelle. I particularly liked Keith's tin foil creation.

Lastly, Colin "Frodo" Johnston shows us the One Ring. And judging by his expression, the burden of the Ring of Power has become a little too much to take.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Let's go to work.

Running with Guns

You know, normally I'm quite a mild-mannered guy. I'm not prone to violence or angry outbursts, I'm not a big fan of gory movies, and I'm not even a particularly big swearer. Actually I can't remember the last time I swore... no, wait a minute it was this morning: I woke up late and I didn't have enough time to make a cup of tea and toast before I left the house. Obviously that's an extreme circumstance though - you can't expect an Englishman to get through the day without a healthy mug of PG Tips and a slab of toast and marmalade.

Could it be though, that all this mild-mannered Englishness is merely a Clark Kent-style alter ego to mask my inherent gung-ho, let's-save-the-world-with-guns, lady-lovin', cigar-chompin', Hannibal-from-the-A-Team-style personality? Possibly. Which would explain why I love paintball so much despite my extraneous foppishness. Well, let's face it, who doesn't enjoy running around with guns, shooting your mates? (Art, the lovely Polish chap who was running the whole shebang, may have insisted on calling them "markers", but he wasn't fooling anyone - we all knew they were guns really). Once you get that gun, sorry, "marker" in your hand it's difficult to stop the testosterone flowing as you creep about in the bushes, diving from one patch of cover to the next. It's exciting stuff.

And why is it so exciting? I'll tell you why - because getting shot bloody hurts. This is the point which puts most people off playing paintball in the first place, but I think it's also the point which is the key to the game's success. Everyone plays the game as enthusiastically as they can, because no-one wants to go home covered in bruises the size of eggs. As a result you could cut the tension with a knife whilst a game's in progress... Though luckily no-one has knives - that would just be asking for it.

A big thank you goes out to everyone who organised the paintball trip along, with our fantastic host, Art. If anyone reading this is interested in organising a trip, the paintball field is located near Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture - you can check out the website here.

A tense moment as Team Red awaits starter's orders. Matt went all out, buying camo gear especially for the occasion, whilst I merely chose to accessorise with some fetching white gloves.

Team Yellow discuss strategy. Bronwen "Killer" Wheeler is on the left, whilst Colin "Jugular" Johnston skulks in brown towards the rear. Chris "Nice Guy" Hall contemplates the map.

The game begins. Ryan and Colin take up defensive positions. Oooooh, isn't this exciting!

Viva La Revolucion!!! This may look like a gung-ho pose, but I'm actually walking off the field with my arm raised after being shot in the leg. And it's a beauty of a mark too - I've still got the bruise.


Then once it's all over it's time for a nice sandwich and a look at the pictures. More tea, vicar?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Ooooooohh!!! Nice Hair!!!

Have you ever tried buying deodorant in Japan? It's impossible. Granted, there are a few brands of scented bodyspray available in some of the larger stores but none of them are anti-perspirants, so they're about as useful as a chocolate microwave. I tried using some Japanese bodyspray when I first arrived, but by the end of the day I'd just be sitting in a pool of my own excretions, albeit with a slightly minty smell mixed-in with the stench of stale sweat. Which, frankly, wasn't pleasant for anyone.

Nowadays I get my deodorant sent from home, so the sweat-pool days are long gone, but I'm still intrigued as to why so few Japanese men use deodorant. When I go to the sento (public baths) I never see Japanese guys put on deodorant when they're getting dressed: even on the hottest days of the year. I've heard it said that Japanese men don't sweat as much as Western men - I've absolutely no idea whether this is true or not, but I've seen enough spreading armpit patches around the office to confirm that a little bit of anti-perspirant wouldn't go amiss here and there. The deodorant mystery continues...

In contrast, guys in Japan have no qualms about slapping every oil and tonic they can get their hands on into their lustrous, and often bizarrely-styled hair. I've heard tales of teenage boys getting up at 5.30am to "set" their hair before they go to school, and there's a chap in one of my classes who sits with a tub of hair cream on his desk all day, presumably so he can dive into it to touch up his coiffure between lessons. And the hair clips! Don't get me started on the hair clips! When did guys start wearing hair clips?

I think there's definitely an obsession with hair in Japan. For a start there seems to be a hairdresser on every corner - Tokyo has 16,000 shops which do hair and make up, and in the Shibuya district alone there are 860 salons, which is one for every 230 residents. There's a good article here which suggests that because there is so little variation in hair colour in Japan, Japanese customers are more willing to experiment with dyes and styling, and Tokyoites in particular want their hair to look "less Asian". I'd definitely agree with that - especially about the styling "experiments". Working at school I'm protected from the worst of these styling "experiments" (the school rules are very strict about dying hair), but occasionally some of the students who've graduated pop back in to say hello and I'm treated to the full force of the styling monster they've unleashed on their hair. Next time one of them comes in I'll take a picture - you wouldn't believe the amount of people walking around with ginger hair in this country...

In the meantime here's some awesome gingerness I found while hunting around the web (photo from

"Ginger hair!/ It's not the same for you/In another world, maybe/We'll all be ginger and free."

Name that song.

This is the selection of men's deodorant in my local chemist: just a couple of shelves and half a dozen products, none of which are anti-perspirants...

...and this entire aisle is just for men's haircare products. Staggering isn't it? It contains just about every wax, gel, oil, cream, mousse, dye and tonic under the sun.

"Hand Designing Aqua Jelly NUDY". Lord knows what this stuff does, but I can honestly say I have no wish to re-design my hands.

This has to be my favourite: a "hair liquid" called "Mandom". It's like the seventies never ended - you can just see this sitting happily on a shelf next to a can of "Brut" and some "Grrr!" aftershave. It's probably advertised by Joan Collins.

Monday, October 24, 2005


I just wanted to say congratulations to my friends Paul and Jenny, who
got married this weekend. Congratulations! I was so disappointed that
I couldn't make the ceremony - I really really wanted to be there.
It's at times like this when I realise just how far away from home I
actually am...

Still, I'll be back for a couple of weeks at Christmas, so hopefully
I'll be able to catch up with everyone then. I can't believe it's been
a year and a half already... How time flies when you're teaching
English to sleeping teenagers.

Jenny and Paul tie the knot.

Look at that - a pub. Not only did I miss out on seeing these lovely people get hitched, I also missed out on sinking a foaming pint of nut-brown ale in this fine establishment. Oh, the cruelty! Ale! How I miss thee! (From left to right: Steph, Paul, Simon, Amy, Jenny, Tim, Mark, Tanya and Laura)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

One of the lion dancers at the Kunchi Festival poses with his mask.


It's a long, long way to Nagasaki. Not to mention expensive: return tickets for the shinkansen (bullet train) were around 40,000 yen for a return - that's about 200 pounds in the Queen's money. On the other hand we did get to travel on the "Nozomi", the fastest train in Japan, which travels at a top speed of about 300 km/h. It was absolutely incredible, like riding in a very low-flying plane weaving in and out through the mountains. It was so smooth and quiet too... man, it's going to be such a shock to go back to England and travel on those noisy old rust-bucket trains again.

Anyway, we travelled to Nagasaki for the Kunchi Festival, which is rightly regarded as one of the three best festivals in Japan. For three days the entire city is entirely taken over by teams of dancers who wander the streets, pausing to perform outside shops and businesses and generally make lots and lots of noise. Our first taste of the chaos happened in a bar just by the station - we were treating ourselves to a well-deserved beer after seven hours on the train, when a dragon wandered down the street and poked its head through the door, accompanied by a small army of children playing cymbals and drums. And things only got weirder from there...

The best thing about the Kunchi Festival is the variety of the performances. Most Japanese festivals stick to the same kind of formula: a bit of traditional dancing, some shrine carrying and a spot of karaoke for good measure. However, Nagasaki was the only place in Japan which was open to the west during the country's period of isolation from 1635 to 1853, and the festival draws on the many foreign influences that form the city's history. As a result some of the performances have a distinctly Chinese flavour, such as the dragon and the lion dancing, whilst the city's Dutch heritage can be seen in the "Hollander Boat" (a miniature sailboat which is dragged around the city flying the Dutch flag). It's all absolutely crazy stuff - I highly recommend you to go to the festival next year if you get the chance (if you're interested, you can find an interesting account of the 2000 Kunchi Festival, along with some good pictures, here).

We also took some time to wander around the Atomic Bomb Museum and the Peace Park in the north of the city. The museum was fascinating, although incredibly depressing. The bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th 1945 - three days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Out of a population of about 240,000, 73,884 people were killed and 74,909 were injured, with many suffering from horrific burns - in severe cases the skin came off in sheets, revealing the bones underneath. Almost everything within a 1km radius of the blast was completely flattened, and bottles and coins melted together in the intense heat, whilst humans were instantly carbonized. Looking around at the city now, it's almost impossible to imagine the destruction that took place there 60 years ago.

I think the Peace Park and museum were a fitting monument to those who died in the bombing - there was definitely a tangible sense of reverence in the air. I wasn't too sure about the main statue in the Peace Park though (see photo below) - in a way I kind of like it, but at the same time it has none of the impact that the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima has (you can see a picture of the A-Bomb Dome on Sam's blog).

I really enjoyed Nagasaki - the European and Chinese influences on the city are pretty obvious as you walk the streets, giving the the whole place a cosmopolitan feel which is missing in most other Japanese towns and cities. That's not to say Asahi is totally lacking in cosmopolitan feeling of course - we do have " Native American Factory HOPI". For what it's worth.

Here's a map showing the location of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Fukui is about halfway up the west coast of Honshu.

One of the best things about Nagasaki is its setting - the hills really give the city a lot of character.

Watching the dragon dance was probably the highlight of the festival for me. I took this photo just after the dragon had invaded a police station, much to the amusement of the local bobbies.

These cheeky young scamps were following the dragon around town, crashing cymbals and giggling at foreigners.

This "riverboat" full of young children playing musical instruments was spun round as quickly as possible, to the delight of the crowd. After the initial spinning, the audience begged for three more encores. Disappointingly, none of the children threw up.

For some reason, old men in bowler hats and kimonos played a large part in the festival, although I have no idea why. Perhaps some sort of tribute to banking?

This odd-looking building is Fukusaiji - a Chinese temple which originally dates from 1628, but was reconstructed after the war to honour the victims of the atomic bombing. Curiously, they decided to rebuild it in the shape of a giant turtle with the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kannon riding on its back.

Yes, that's right, it's a man walking a cat on a lead. There's something just so very very wrong about this...

This is one of several churches which are dotted around Nagasaki - an unusual sight in Japan. Christianity flourished in secret here whilst the rest of the country was closed to the West.

The symbol of the Peace Park in Nagasaki is this blue statue. Everything about the statue is symbolic of something: for example, the right hand pointing up warns of danger from the skies, whilst the left hand symbolises peace. Similarly, the curled right leg suggests calm and meditation, whilst the firmly planted left leg symbolises readiness for action in the defence of peace. All in all, pretty heavy stuff. Having said that, it does look a bit like he's directing traffic.

This black column marks the exact spot where the bomb detonated.

There are thousands and thousands of these colourful paper cranes placed around the Peace Park and museum. Making one thousand paper cranes is a symbolic gesture calling for peace or good fortune.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"Ichigo Kurosaki is a 15-year old boy with an angry face. He also has the ability to see ghosts." The beginning of the plot synopsis on Anime News for the hugely successful manga series, "Bleach".


I knew that comic books were popular in Japan before I came here, but
I never realised quite how massively popular they actually are. For
example, I never realised that students would be reading them under
their desks in class whilst I try to teach them English. Don't let
people tell you that all Japanese kids are ultra polite - in
comparison to British and American teenagers they're absolute angels,
but they still read and chat loudly with their friends in class, make
up excuses to go to the toilet so they can bunk out of lessons and
even fall asleep right there at their desk.

Actually, that last one happens quite a lot, and most of the Japanese
teachers don't seem to mind - they just let them lie there. I think
there's some sort of unspoken implication that if a student is so
tired that they fall asleep at their desk, then they must have been up
studying well into the early hours of the morning. Although in my
experience there's an uncanny correlation between the sleepers and the
kids I saw smoking behind the convenience store the other day. So I've
developed a new strategy - poking the little sods until they wake up.
I'm not sure if poking is necessarily the key to forming a strong
student-teacher relationship, but it sure is effective. I've also
instigated the "Sleepers' Hall of Fame" - every time a student falls
asleep at his or her desk I take a picture with my mobile phone and
stick it up in the library. That'll learn 'em.

Anyway, back to manga. The comic book culture is quite different here
from the UK. For a start it's quite normal for girls to be heavily
into manga, and there's a huge slice of the comic book market which
caters specifically to girls (see the girls' manga section below).
Comics are also incredibly cheap - huge second-hand stores like "Book
Off" deal almost exclusively in manga and sell most titles for about
100 yen - that's just 50p. Plus the average comic is usually over 100
pages long: huge compared to American comics, which usually only have
about 30 pages per issue for three or four times the price.

The down side is that pretty much all manga is printed in black and
white - hence its cheapness. As a result the artwork in Japanese
comics, although very admired, isn't fetishised as much as in American
comics: lavishly painted, double page picture spreads are fairly
common in America, but extremely rare in Japan. Consequently, comics
by famous American artists and writers tend to go up in value over
time, whereas the price of most manga tends to fall as it becomes more
"out of date". My students couldn't believe it when I told them that
the first issue of "Spider-man" could fetch hundreds and hundreds of
dollars at auction.

Manga has a surprisingly seedy underbelly too - nudity is pretty
common, but no one really seems to bat an eyelid. Having said that,
nudity seems pretty common in practically ever country other than
Britain and America, so perhaps it's just my Puritan outrage welling
up unnecessarily. There's something definitely creepy about the manga
toys though, particularly the scantily clad plastic models of girls.
There must be a huge market for them, because there's hundreds for
sale in all the second-hand shops, but I've yet to actually see
someone buy one. Maybe they come out after dark...

Actually, the shop assistants must have thought I was the creepy one,
since I was standing around for about 15 minutes trying to get good
photos of the naked plastic toys with my mobile phone. Suddenly I
heard an announcement over the speakers in Japanese and I swear I
heard the word "mobile", then when I looked round the till girls were
all giving me funny looks. "OK......this looks....dodgy", I thought.
How could I explain in Japanese that the photos were just web-related
research? Would they believe me? Well, you know what they say: "when
in doubt, peg it out of the shop as fast as you can and don't look
back in case they recognise you."

And I think we can all learn something from that.

A selection of some of the manga-related toys for sale.

This entire aisle is dedicated to romance comics for young women.

Let's just say, it's a bit racier than Barbie.

"Pesky wind. Good job I was wearing my ice white panties."

Perfect for Grandma's mantelpiece.

Engrish Engrish Engrish

I realised that I haven't put any Engrish pictures on my blog for
absolutely ages, so here's a few choice cuts, as it were. Let's enjoy

Cigarette vending machines are a great place to find Engrish... check out the one below too.

Buy cigarettes - good things will happen to you. Let's enjoy smoking!

Appropriately enough, one of the items that "Colon Booth" sells is "Asse Chocolate". Mmmmmm.

Not really Engrish this one - more like a nugget of wisdom for the uninitiated.

Oh! Autumn. Heavens! Winter. Oh Lordy Lord! Spring. Well cover me with lipstick and call me Susan! Summer.

What's Sasebo? Why it's delicious jumbo burger of course! Although if you ask me they look more like an army of Daleks in disguise.