Friday, April 28, 2006

The shoreline near Obama in Southern Fukui.

The Beautiful South

"I must come down south more often."
I say that every time I visit Southern Fukui, but I still hardly ever visit the south. For one thing it's a fair old journey to get down there - it takes a good couple of hours to get down to Obama, even using the expressway, so it's not somewhere you can exactly pop down to visit. It's a shame really, since there's some great people down there and I hardly ever get to see them.
In many ways it's almost a different prefecture from Northern Fukui: in fact, historically the south of Fukui (Reinan) was an entirely different province from the north. The south was known as " Wakasa", whilst the north of Fukui was a province known as "Echizen". There's also a dividing line of Japanese dialects - people in northern Fukui tend to speak Fukui-ben, whilst people in the south often speak Kansai-ben. In many ways the south is closer to Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) than it is to the north, in a physical sense as well as a psychological sense: it takes just as long by train to get to Kyoto from Obama as it does to get to Fukui city.
The biggest difference though has to be in the landscape. Northern Fukui is largely made up of an enormous flat river basin, packed with buildings and rice fields, but the terrain down south is far more rugged and sparsely populated. It's generally a lot more mountainous too: the only relatively flat land tends to be in places along the coastline. The coastline itself is also notably different: whereas the north coast is mostly made up of bare cliffs, the south is a series of bays and sandy beaches.
On Sunday, as we recovered from the post-rally party, a group of us took a wander along the coast near Obama. We met up with Amber, who took us to a hill overlooking the city, and once we'd battled up to the summit (the hangovers were really kicking in by this point) the view was amazing. Amber told us of the beach nearby where she goes surfing three times a week, and I thought about how much more chilled-out the atmosphere is in the south. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is too.
"I really must come down south more often", I thought.

Location of the old Wakasa province.

Obama - making me jealous that I don't live next to a beach.

Another view of the bay. You can just about see a lone cherry tree in the last throes of blossom in the foreground.

Some gravestones near a shrine in Obama.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

JETfuel Goes Online!

As you may or may not know, I'm the co-editor (along with Sam) of JETfuel - a magazine which gets sent to all the JET programme participants in Fukui. We've been making noises about doing an online version of the magazine for months now, but it's finally happened. May I present...
Ever since Phoenix set up the web address a few weeks ago I've been busy loading it up with old articles, and now it's practically finished. Have a look and tell me what you think...
Sam and I are just about to start work on our last issue of JETfuel before we leave Japan. I can't believe it's our last issue already - I'm going to miss editing together all the random thoughts of Fukui's JETs. When they bother to submit them that is.
PS. SUBMIT TO JETFUEL. Go on, it's our last issue. Deadline 8th May.

Monday, April 24, 2006

TEAM NINJA. From left to right: Hudson ("Red Shadow Ninja"), Yuki ("Fashion Ninja"), Brandon ("Sauce Katsudon Ninja") Caitlin ("Craft Ninja"), Sam ("Snow Ninja") and Myself ("Gentleman Ninja").


OK, so you're probably wondering why I'm dressed up as a ninja. Cast your mind back to last April, and you may remember me writing something about the "Kraazy Reinan Kar Rally" - a madcap (I love that word) event where pretty much all the JETs in Fukui get dressed up in mad costumes and race around southern Fukui doing stupid things for points. Well, it's that time of year again...
If anything, the race was even sillier this time around. The plot was fantastically convoluted, involving characters from a junior high school textbook posing questions and photo challenges (such as taking a photo of a member of the public dressed up in your costume) and all the while we were required to carry round a "new character" in the textbook called "Hanako" - which was actually a bag of flour. "Hanako" had to appear in every photo, and if she arrived intact at the finish line then extra points were awarded.
It started a little badly for "Team Ninja" this year - at the first checkpoint we were thrown out of a local market for "scaring the customers" by walking around in ninja costumes: the owner of the market even came out into the car park to write down the number plate of our car. I'd like to think of this gesture as a compliment to how realistic our costumes were, although I should also like to point out to the owner that most "real" ninjas don't carry plastic swords and shurikens made out of foil and cardboard.
Anyway, that was the only negative experience we had all day - everyone else we met had a good laugh at our expense, as we dashed around like mad hares trying to fulfill our objectives. One of the highlights was clambering around in an adventure playground, hunting for parts of a clue, as little kids were running around us shouting "NINJA, NINJA!!!". Bless their little cotton socks.
You may remember that last rear we roared home in first place, only to discover that, when the points were tallied up, we'd only achieved a disappointing ninth position (it seems that in our haste we'd stupidly missed out some of the answers...). Well, this year we'd learnt our lesson and took a much more relaxed (yet thorough) approach to answering questions. In fact, we were so relaxed that three members of the team stopped to take an onsen halfway through the day... One of the questions required that two team members be immersed in water (holding the flour of course), so we decided to do it with a little dignity and hot water, rather than flinging ourselves opportunistically into the sea like some other teams.
Of course, all of this comfort and relaxation did take it's toll, since we finished in... last place. Whoops. Well, at least we were clean.
Yet then something amazing happened...
I couldn't quite believe it as I went forward to lift up the trophy... We'd beaten the second place team by just five points (who incidentally finished first in the race). Our thoroughness in answering every question had paid off! GO TEAM NINJA!!!!
Amazing. Big thanks go out to the team - Brandon, Caitlin, Hudson, Sam and Yuki - and huge thanks to everyone on the rally committee for organising it all. Good work guys.

Sam, Flick and Tilly pose in their "Fame" costumes. Nice hair girls.

Tina, Chris, Doug and Colin and their brilliant "Clockwork Orange" costumes. Bonus kudos goes to Chris for his outrageous jockstrap.

The A-Team - recipients of the prize for best costume. Joe ("Face") couldn't make it on the day, so they touchingly made a cardboard cut-out of him and carried it round all day. I loved the inclusion of Kenny (second from left) as the little-known "fifth member" of the A-Team from the third series: Frankie "Dishpan" Santana. Trivia-tastic.

Kelly, Michelle, Keith and Yoshi make up the Ninja Turtles team. True heroes in a half-shell.

The "Universal Soldier" team - they made the heads from paper cups stuck together. I'm still not sure exactly what this was all about though - each one's supposed to be a different planet, right? Help me out guys!

A hairy moment for the A-Team... Each team had a bag of flour they had to look after for the whole day, and one of the challenges was to take a photo of the flour in mid-air - look closely and you can see it in the middle of the photo. (I love the A-Team van by the way - good work guys.)

Here's me in my ninja costume - look, I had proper ninja shoes and everything. Ninjas rock.

Here's Caitlin proudly holding our hard-won trophy, along with some candy floss ("cotton candy" for our American cousins) that was part of our prize. The carved inscription reads: "Kraazy Reinan Kar Rally, Grand Mother F#?!ing Champions". Get in.

The after party was truly a sight to behold, as dozens of party-hungry ALTs "ripped up" the dancefloor. My favourite moment had to be when a small band of Morrissey-obesessed individuals began "wigging-out" to This Charming Man by The Smiths. Obviously, I was among them.

Jesse and Pete exchange a moment of rocking goodness.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Hard Gay Pirate

Japanese TV is full of half-baked celebrities. They're called "talents", which is ironic, since invariably they have none, and they're celebrities only in the very loosest sense of the word - in the same way that Tony Blair's cat is a "celebrity". These z-list celebrities tend to have a very short TV life span indeed, but they seem to make up for it by appearing on every single TV show in Japan several times a day, in order to milk their fifteen minutes of fame.
Comedians naturally tend to be the most annoying "celebrities" in the "talent" pool, since the ones that make it onto the chat circuit are invariably one-trick ponies: funny for five minutes, but intensely irritating once that five minutes is up. They all have some sort of gimmick, like "Macha Macha" who throws down the microphone, wrestler-style, after telling each joke (which must be an absolute nightmare for the sound technicians), or the "Guitar Samurai", who sings satirical songs which always end in him screaming the last line with his palm raised.
I was always intrigued by the Guitar Samurai - I could never understand what he was singing about, but it seemed pretty dramatic, whatever it was. Then one day I saw him appear on the English language learning programme "Eigo de Shabera Naito", where they helped him translate one of his songs into English. It was rubbish. I can't remember the exact words now, but it went something like: "President George Bush / He's the President of the United States / But he's a cowboy" (that last line shouted). Cutting satire indeed.
Anyway, the point is, he's not on TV now - he had his fifteen minutes of fame, and now he's been consigned to the talent-bin just outside the gates of NHK, along with all the other gimmicky comedians. Which is what I hope will soon happen to Razor Ramon "Hard Gay".
I could go on for hours about what irritates me about this chap, but I'd rather you read the excellent account on Maethelwine's Wide Island blog - he pretty much sums up what I feel about the "Hard Gay" character. Obviously, because he's so annoying, the kids love him, and children up and down Japan are gleefully shouting his catchphrase in the playgrounds: "Whoooo!!!!", followed by some rigorous pelvic-thrusting. Delightful.
So, of course, since he's so popular with children, why not make a version of "Pop-Up Pirate" ("Kuro Hige Kiki Ippatsu" in Japan) using "Hard Gay" instead of a pirate? It's the only logical conclusion.
Poking latex-clad gay men with swords has never been so much fun.

Here's a photo of Razor Ramon, aka "Hard Gay", indulging in what he does best. Good, wholesome fun.

And here we have the Hard Gay version of "Kuro Hige Kiki Ippatsu" (which translates as "Blackbeard's Narrow Escape", or, literally, "Blackbeard Is A Hair's Breadth Away From A Crisis"). Good, wholseome fun.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Cherry Blossom. This Afternoon.

Cherry Blossom Time

It's that time of year again - cherry blossom fever has gripped the nation.
It's actually been a little disappointing this year: the blossoms are fantastic as usual, but the weather in Fukui has been absolutely appalling for the past couple of weeks. We've had nothing but miserable grey, dreary weather - so much of it in fact that I thought I was back in England for a while. I tried to do a bit of "hanami" (cherry blossom viewing) in Maruoka with Flick over the weekend, but it was so cold and wet that we ended up doing most of our viewing from the warmth of the car.
Today though, we've finally got some good weather, so I took the opportunity to sneak out of school and take a few snaps in the afternoon. I love this time of year: the blossoms look amazing and the temperature's perfect (when the sun's shining that is). The idea of a whole cultural phenomenon based around going outside and looking at flowers is just brilliant - you certainly wouldn't get that back home.
Of course, this time of year also brings that dreaded, and oft-repeated question:
"Do you have cherry blossoms where you come from?"
"Yes", I patiently reply, and wait to see the astonished reaction from the questioner, as if the idea that there are cherry trees anywhere other than Japan is the most explosive thing that he/she has ever heard.
Really though, we don't have cherry trees in the UK. I mean, we have cherry trees, but we don't have anything like the selectively-bred and carefully-planted bloom monsters they have in Japan. A road called "Cherry Tree Avenue" in the UK would be lucky to have even one cherry tree, but in Fukui City "Sakura-Dori" has literally hundreds of the things.
Sadly though, the blossoms won't be around for much longer- they've already begun to fall, and by the weekend most of them will be gone. It feels like the viewing season is ending before it's even begun... Damn that rain!

The walk to my school looks fantastic at the moment - the whole road is lined with cherry trees in full bloom.

Here's some cherry blossom at the front of the school: You can see Asahi town in the distance.

The shrine behind my house - there was some sort of ceremony going on today at about 3pm, but I have no idea what it was all about. Does anyone know if there's anything special about today?

Here's the entrance to the shrine. On the left hand side you can see the lanterns which go up at this time of year, to allow the blossom viewing to go on late into the night...

Monday, April 17, 2006

Hold on, what?

I just had to post a picture of this new gym in Fukui - I almost did a double-take when I saw the sign. Why does no-one bother to check these things before they paint them onto 20 feet high billboards? Craziness.
I saw another one yesterday - I drove by a pachinko parlour in Sabae called Phoenix. The only trouble was the gigantic neon sign on the side of the building didn't say "Phoenix", it said "Pheonix". You'd think there was a dictionary shortage in Japan or something.

Here you can see the outside of a newly-opened gym in Fukui city: the enormous sign atop the building says "Holiday Sports Club". But hold on, there's something written on that girl's T-shirt... I wonder what it says? Let's go in for a closer look...

..."The Girl Is Frisking On The Beach". The mind boggles, it truly does.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Oh my God, what are you doing!!! Put him down quickly before someone gets hurt!

Stop it!!! You're going to kill him!!!

Horie-sensei is 60 years old, and about to retire. He's been with Nyu High School for over twelve years, and he's one of the most popular and well-known teachers on the staff. He's famous for wearing a sports jackets instead of a suit, and his zero-tolerance policy towards umbrella thieves is respected and feared for miles around. His side-parting is legendary.
So what better way to celebrate his long years of service than by throwing him towards the ceiling. Twelve times in a row.
The scene was the annual Nyu High School Welcome/Farewell Party, held every April for the benefit of newly arriving teachers and those about to depart. The enkai (party) was a fairly usual affair as far as these things go - it began with formal speeches and polite applause, but as time wore on, and the participants became more and more inebriated, the formality slipped away to be replaced by a sort of semi-organised bedlam. I think the apex of this polite chaos may have been the point when the school music teacher was asked to lead the staff in reciting the school song: Unfortunately he was so pissed he'd forgotten all the words, which caused him to crawl around on the floor for five minutes in an hilarious semi-apologetic bowing fit, provoking gales of laughter. You had to be there I think.
After that came the alarming development of the "farewell bumps" - a Japanese retirement tradition which may or may not have developed from the more familiar "birthday bumps". It wouldn't surprise me if it did originate from Western birthday parties - I mean, this is the country where they celebrate Christmas by blowing out candles on a cake and making a wish, so it's not too great a leap of the imagination.
Anyway, the "farewell bumps" began with the young teachers who were leaving to go to other schools. They took turns to stand in front of everyone and listen to a farewell speech which praised their service at the school, then, after a cue, all the male teachers rushed in and threw them in the air. All good fun.
Then it was the turn of the retirees. Horie-sensei stepped up. Surely they weren't going to chuck him in the air too? I mean, he's 60 years old for God's sake! Suddenly images of broken hips and pensions depleted by endless hospital visits filled my brain...
I held my breath....
...9...10...11...12...and he's down, with no visible wounds!
Yet another scrap of evidence to support my theory that elderly Japanese people are indestructible - which is why they can afford to be such terrible drivers.

Even the departing kocho-sensei (headmaster) isn't exempt from the farewell bumps.

Look at her fly! I can't tell if the look on her face is excitement or terror.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Saturday, 18th March: Day 7 of the Osaka Spring Sumo Tournament.

A Big Day for Yoghurt

Well, I finally did it: after a year and a half of living in Japan I finally went to see a sumo tournament.
I'm absolutely nuts about sumo - I only got into it when I came to Japan, but I was hooked as soon as I saw my first tournament on TV. I think part of the reason I got into it so quickly was because there was absolutely nothing else to watch, since most Japanese TV shows are utterly abysmal.
Speaking of awful TV, when I first arrived I couldn't understand anything they were saying on those crazy Japanese TV shows, but now that I've picked up a bit of Japanese I can understand a good portion of what's going on - which has actually reduced the entertainment value. Before I could at least try and guess what was going on in the chat shows, and I'd spend hours fascinatedly trying to figure out what the hell all the shouting was about. Now I know what it's about and I can't understand why they bother shouting it. About 90 per cent of Japanese shows are either about food, or about intensely annoying minor celebrities playing endlessly protracted 2-hour game shows, or a combination of the two. They usually go something like this:
Host: "Everyone, look at this fish!"
Talent #1: "Looks delicious!"
Talent #2: "Yes, looks delicious!"
Host: "It's actually deadly poisonous puffer fish!"
Talent #1: "You lie!"
Talent #2: "Looks delicious!"
Host: "Now the first person to eat it without dying wins an alarm clock!"
Actually, that was a lot more interesting than the actual TV shows. In fact I'd probably watch more Japanese TV if all the shows were like that. But I digress.
Anyway, I got into sumo because I could easily understand what was going on, and there was nothing else on telly. I started doing a bit of research on it and before I knew it I knew more about sumo than most of the Japanese teachers in my office. (For example, did you know that, among other things, there's a squid buried in the middle of a sumo ring? Presumably it's dead. Why you'd want to know that I've no idea)
Seeing sumo live was actually even more exciting than I thought it would be - in fact, everyone I went with, even the ones who weren't into sumo at all, said they were surprised by how exciting it was. The actual matches only last about 30 seconds, but there's hundreds of matches each day of the tournament so you never get bored. It's the perfect sport for people with short attention spans - it's all over before your attention has time to wander.
The highlight of the day was the match between Kotooshu - the "David Beckham of sumo" - and the huge 175kg Iwakiyama. We'd all taken "David" to our hearts, especially since he was struggling with a knee injury and desperately needed a win. Also, I think the girls were supporting him because he's a 203 cm tall Bulgarian with muscles like tree trunks. Initially "David" was pushed to the edge of the ring by the bulk of Iwakiyama, but some crafty sidestepping let him spin the 'yama like a top and dump him to the ground - you had to be there to hear the cheer that went up.
I'll think I'll bring a Bulgarian flag next time. And a pot of yoghurt of course (see below).

The Osaka Municipal Gymnasium was packed out for the tournament. The sumo goes on all day, every day, for 15 days in a row, but most people only come to watch the top division matches at the end of each day. The atmosphere was just amazing.

Asashoryu - the current No.1 in sumo - performs the yokozuna ring-entering ceremony.

Here's the ring-entering ceremony for the top sumo division. The wrestler just about to step up onto the ring is Roho - he performed absolutely terribly in the tournament, but he made up for it by wearing a ring-entering costume with flashing lights. Classy.

Here's the David Beckham of sumo himself, Kotooshu. Since he's from Bulgaria the Japanese company Meiji (makers of "Bulgaria" yoghurt) have taken it upon themselves to sponsor him - you can see their logo on the front of his costume. The advertising definitely works - when he won I ran out and bought a Bulgaria yoghurt in celebration.