Monday, January 30, 2006

Rokuroshi Heights ski ground near Ono in Fukui.

The Slippery Slope to Coolness

I suddenly realised this morning that I spent the whole weekend partying and snowboarding. My life has become a Pepsi commercial without me even realising it. I guess it's just one of those things you don't notice is happening until it's happened; like returning home one day and realising that you're wearing the same clothes as your dad. Only in this case it's kind of the reverse - one moment I'm happily minding my own business, looking forward to the next crossword in the morning newspaper, and the next thing I know I'm shredding powder, grabbing air, and getting all up in yo' face. If I'm not careful I'll be rollerblading next, which is hardly the occupation of an English gentleman. 
At the same time I like to feel that I'm maintaining the "spirited amateur" ethos of the British by being Not Very Good at most sports. In this way I can maintain a keen interest in snowboarding without the handicap of actually knowing what I'm doing most of the time. This allows me to don the mantle of "snowboarder" in the same way that one might casually throw on a loose-fitting cravat, or top off a three-piece suit with a jauntily-angled hat. Conversely, in order to cement my amateur status amongst other "boarders" I like to dress as badly as I possibly can whilst on the slopes, clad head to toe in sensibly-priced, second-hand garments, in a variety of awful colours.
Having said all that, I did drink a Pepsi when I was out snowboarding on Saturday. In my defence, it was given to me free of charge as part of a promotion, but that's the way they suck you in, like drug dealers giving you the first wrap of heroin for free. Before you know it I'll be quaffing Pepsi by the crate full, whilst nameless Swedish bikini models accompany me for paragliding weekends on my speedboat. Or something. It's a slippery slope I tells ya.
On a separate note, happy birthday to Dan, Mitsuko and Flick, and thanks to everyone who attended for the hilarity of Saturday night. Much kudos goes to Dan for randomly turning up to the bar dressed as a beer. Good work fella.

I contemplate some mountains at Shiramine in Ishikawa prefecture. "Hmmm... mountains," I think. "Very nice," I elaborate.

Flick shreds some powder. You go girl.

Flick flicks some Vs during a brief burst of sun at Shiramine.

Sunset at Rokuroshi.

Rob attempts to "drink" Dan in possibly the most bizarre moment of the weekend. Rob maintains that Dan was inviting to be drunk due to his provocative outfit. Dan's lawyers maintain that their client's style of dress should not act as a "green light for abuse". The case continues.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Detail from the dry garden at Ryoanji.

Rediscovering Japan

It was Flick's birthday on Monday - the perfect excuse to take a holiday.
We were originally planning to go snowboarding in Hokkaido, so we booked the Monday and Tuesday off in preparation, but in the end the cheap flights we were hoping to get sold out before we could get our mittens on them. Time for Plan B - a long weekend in Kyoto.
Despite living only a two hour train journey away from Kyoto, I've so far managed to somehow avoid visiting it. Well, that isn't strictly true I suppose; I did go on a school trip there in 2004, but since the whole visit lasted just three hours and the coach journey there and back took six hours I don't really count it as a proper "visit" - it was more like drive-by tourism. Then in August I went there again with my family, but because of some unfortunate confusion with local train times, we only ended up having time to visit one temple - Kiyomizudera.
This time though, things were different - we had a whole three days at our disposal for some hardcore tourism, and boy did we make the most of it. I could bang on for ages about all the places we visited in Kyoto, but I'll spare you the details and instead talk about the one place that stands out above the others: the rock garden at Ryoanji.
In a way, seeing the garden was a bit like rediscovering Japan. For a long time now, my life in Japan has become more about my daily grind at work than about discovering Japanese culture, and I think it's the same for most people who live here for a long time. The extraordinary gives way to the ordinary, and although I'm still often surprised by things that happen in everyday life, the little quirks no longer have the impact that they did when I first got here. I guess this is what they call "becoming acclimatised".
The rock garden definitely made an impression on me though. It reminded me about the other side of Japanese culture; the ancient, traditional Japanese culture which doesn't involve heated toilet seats or neon love hotels. The rock garden was something from Japan's past, something based on the concept of Zen rather than Hello Kitty. A garden which is over 500 years old, but which looks bizarrely modern.
Fifteen rocks, surrounded by gravel. That's all it is. But the longer you contemplate it, the more you begin to see: the patterns in the raked gravel, the differing colours of the rocks, the subtle striations on their surface. The garden is more like a tool for focusing the mind than a decoration.
That is, it would be if it wasn't for The Woman. The Unspeakable American Woman. The Woman who seemed completely unable to read in her head, and so insisted on reading all the English signs she came across in a very loud voice for no reason whatsoever. The Woman who decided it would be a good idea to count how many rocks there are in the garden again and again and again and again. Out loud. As if the garden were in fact some kind of Sesame Street numbers game rather than a place for meditation. The Woman whose voice just seemed to keep following us around no matter how hard we tried to escape from her. Oh, damn you Woman. For shame, for shame.
Still, in the brief pauses when The Woman wasn't shrieking about something or other it was a very tranquil and thought-provoking experience. Although of course most of the thoughts which came to mind belonged firmly in the "I think I'm going to murder that American woman" category.
Anyway, I'd highly recommend a trip to Ryouanji if you plan to go to Kyoto - you can read more about it here. Just don't forget to bring earplugs.

Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), arguably Kyoto's most famous landmark.

Ryoanji (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) is home to a celebrated "masterpiece of Japanese culture: a dry garden featuring 15 rocks seemingly adrift in a "sea" of raked gravel. Here you can see three of the rocks.

The snow began falling when we visited Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion), which is home to another dry garden. This one has a curious cone-shaped structure which is known as Kogetsudai (Moon viewing platform). Some people think it's meant to represent Mount Fuji.

The lake at Ryoanji.

Two of the evil deer which plague Nara.

The impressively huge Nandaimon (Great Southern Gate) at Todaiji in Nara.

The Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) at Todaiji, which is the world's largest wooden building. You can just about make out people standing on the steps.

Flick in the Daibutsuden.

Kasuga shrine is famous for the hundreds of stone lanterns which have been donated by worshippers.

Flick pedals past the 50.1 metre tall five-storey pagoda at Kofukuji.

Unfortunately, this is what the rest of Nara looks like - a hideous sprawl of seriously ugly offices and shops which look like they've been knocked together over the weekend for a quick buck. Kind of the equivalent of building a Kwik Save next to Buckingham Palace.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Flick on skis.

Funniest sport ever

I've discovered the funniest sport ever invented: cross-country skiing.
In some ways I have a fairly sophisticated sense of humour. I enjoy the verbal jousting matches on Radio Four's "I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue" for example. If I'm honest with myself though, the sophistication level of the humour I most enjoy is round about the " You've Been Framed" level, ie. People Falling Over. Yes, yes, it's inane, it's stupid, and it's childish, but there's nothing funnier to me than watching another human being fall into a bush, or perhaps out of a moving car. Providing no-one gets hurt (much) I will laugh like a drain at any kind of slapstick, pratfall or accidental banana slip.
And yes, "Jackass: The Movie" is the funniest film I've ever seen.
Now obviously skiing is a fine sport to watch for anyone who enjoys a bit of schadenfreude. But cross-country skiing just has to take the crown, purely because it has the added bonus of watching people fall over at hilariously low speeds. The fact that you're not going very fast just seems to intensify the comedy when someone does actually slide off into a bush. It's like watching a work colleague lowering themselves really slowly into a chair which you've removed without them knowing.
Because the truth, as we discovered on Sunday, is that cross-country skiing is a damn sight harder than it looks. It may resemble walking on skis, but when you're faced with a corner, downhill slope or, God forbid, a downhill corner, suddenly the lights go up and it's welcome to Slapstick City. The trouble is that the narrowness of the course makes it quite tricky to manoeuvre, and the slow speeds actually make turning more difficult - a bit like trying to go round a corner on a barely-moving bicycle.
In fact, at one point Flick and I spent over fifteen minutes trying to get round one corner - the result of us both being doubled up in laughter at each other's outrageous pratfalls.
So there you go, try cross-country skiing - not only does it keep you fit, it provides ample opportunity to laugh at other people's misfortune. In a nice way, of course.

You see? It really is the funniest sport ever invented. Flick and I take a comedy tumble when faced with the first corner.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Raise your shovels in triumph

(Ok, so this picture doesn't necessarily have anything to do with digging through snow, but it's one of the first things that comes up when you type "shovel" into Google images. And it's quite funny.)

Thank you so much for all your constructive, if slightly bizarre advice as regards to the snow removal problem I've been facing (check out the comments on the post below). Although if I'm totally honest, I think some of you aren't taking the problem seriously enough. I'm talking about you, Mr CJ "buy a flamethrower".

Anyway, having thoroughly digested the advice given, and been thoroughly scared by Mr Sam's photo of a house which had collapsed under the weight of snow, I decided to tackle the problem head on, ie. with a shovel. The time for talking was past: quick, decisive action was required to defeat the snowy menace. And a ladder, I needed a ladder.

So on Friday afternoon I approached my supervisor, hoping that she'd be able to translate for me so I could ask the caretaker if I could borrow his ladder. Then a wonderful thing happened.

"Don't worry Lewis-sensei," she said. "The caretaker and the English teachers are coming to your house at about 2pm to help you dig out the snow."

I could have wept with happiness. Apparently the caretaker had been down to my house earlier in the day and saw that the boiler was slowly being smothered, so he put out a call for teachers to come and help dig it out. Amazing.

So later that afternoon I was treated to the sight of almost the entire English department trooping up to my house, shovels in hand, ready to battle the snowy menace on my behalf. One of the P.E. teachers even turned up. I was overjoyed.

After less than an hour of digging, the roof was cleared and the boiler was once more exposed. I struggled to think of something to do that would repay the kindness I'd been shown, so I did what any Englishman would do in the same situation: I made everyone a cup of tea. With biscuits.

So there you go, a happy ending; for now at least. More snow is forecast for this weekend, so my poor old house isn't out of the woods yet... Here's hoping the worst is over though.

I can see my boiler! Hurrah!

The school caretakers brave the roof.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Asahi: Still Covered In Snow.

It's "snow" joke

Excuse the pun.
I thought I'd better write something about the insane amounts of snow we've been having here recently. It was getting pretty crazy when I left for England, but since I've been away the snow has just kept on piling up to ridiculous levels. The snow in Asahi is a good metre or so high at the moment, and in the mountains to the east it's well over that (check out Sam's blog, thefunkydrummer, to see what I mean).
It's not just Fukui either - the whole of the northern Sea of Japan coast is getting record snowfall, and it's causing a fair few problems, as you can imagine. It's getting so bad now that people have begun going up onto their roof to clear the snow off, as they're worried that the roof might collapse. This is a fairly common practice further north in Japan in places like Niigata, where the snow regularly tops a couple of metres, but it's almost unheard of in Fukui.
And now I'm starting to worry too. My neighbours have already been up onto their roofs to clear snow a couple of times, but I've yet to follow suit. I have several reasons:
1) There's no bloody way you're going to get me on that roof. Surely it's more dangerous to go larking about on a slippery roof in wellies than to wait for the roof to fall in. I'm playing the numbers game here: several people have died in Fukui already this winter after falling off their roofs whilst shovelling snow, but I've yet to hear of anyone who's died after their roof fell in whilst they were enjoying a cup of tea and a biscuit by the fire.
2) I've a sneaking suspicion that it's more likely I'd be falling through the roof rather than the snow. I'm keen to avoid any Frank Spencer-style pratfalls.
3) I don't have a ladder.
So there you have it, the snow is staying where it is. Although I have to admit I'm a little anxious: I read in the paper that a square metre of freshly fallen snow weighs about 100kg, but once it compacts and turns to ice it can weigh twice that, and even as much as 300kg...
Should I risk it? Would it be safer to brave the roof? Answers below please.

My stricken house. Check out the amount of snow on the roof - worrying isn't it?

This is the view down the side of my house. As you can see, my boiler is slowly being smothered by the snow falling off my roof. I'm not sure what will happen if it gets totally submerged, but I'm sure it can't be a Good Thing. By the way, there's a wall on the right somewhere under all that snow.

Here's me standing at the end of my road: the snow mountain on the left of the photo was created by the snow plough which clears the road to school. This basically means that I won't be able to park my car by my house until at least March. Boo.

This is the graveyard I pass by on the way to school. Each of the gravestones is well over a metre high, but now you can only see the tops of them.

The snow falling off the school gymnasium roof has formed this enormous snow bank. It's so high now that you can actually reach the first floor windows by climbing up it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Here's my freezing cold house just before I left for England. Believe it or not, the snow's even deeper now...

England, Sweet England

Happy New Year everyone! Well, I'm back safe from my trip home - as expected the two weeks just flew by. Christmas with the family was fantastic (I never realised I'd missed Brussels sprouts so much), and I managed to meet up with loads of old friends for a good old chinwag to boot.
New Year was less enjoyable: I developed a rather nasty head cold and ended up staying in bed for the whole time. I did manage to crawl out of bed for a family game of Cluedo close to midnight, but I'm afraid that's where the festivities ended. So that's 2 entirely party-free, sober New Years in a row - I'm going to have to buck my ideas up for next year.
On the plus side though, I did win Cluedo.
Anyway, enjoy the pictures, there'll be a longer update soon!

The first thing I did when I got home was give the radiator a big old hug. God bless you central heating. God bless you.

Sunset in Malaysia, halfway through my epic 30 hour journey back to England. Bloody stopovers.

Christmas with the family.

Christmas dinner - oh how I've missed thee! I ended up eating so much that I couldn't physically move off the sofa to turn off the Queen's speech, and ended up accidentally watching it. (By the way, this isn't actually my dinner - I had nut roast, natch)

This little scene summed up Christmas in England for me. There's something about the combination of religion, plastic and pebbledash that touches the heartstrings.

Jason "Stone" Andrews was as charming as ever, if not charmingier. And yes, I know charmingier isn't a word.

Big hello to Amy, who has decided to shove a bit of metal through her lip since last I met her. Respect.

I popped down to Salisbury for a couple of days to visit these crazy young newlyweds (hello Mr and Mrs Furtado!). They took me to this wonderful old pub with a human hand buried in the wall. I don't pretend to understand their country ways.

Of course, the highlight of my Salisbury visit was a trip to the local tea rooms for a traditional English cream tea. I have to stop looking at this photo now, because drool is accumulating in the keyboard.

Salisbury cathedral in the snow - a bit blurry, but you get the idea.

Here's Richard and Claire with their new baby, Addison. As you can see, despite having had him for only a few weeks they've already begun humiliating him by putting random things on his head. Good work guys.

Here's me holding Addison. Dammit, now I want one.

Big shout out to Trevor, here seen proudly showing off the new Xbox 360 at his Game store in Edgware. Respect.