Friday, June 30, 2006

It's rounders! I mean, baseball!

My First Baseball Game!

As you all know, baseball is the number one sport in Japan, and on Tuesday I finally went to my first baseball game: Hanshin Tigers vs. Hiroshima Carps at Undo Koen. Neither of these teams usually play in Fukui (the Tigers are based in Osaka), but once in a while the Japanese Pro Baseball Association organises regional tours, where the big teams visit a few of the more out-of-the-way places in Japan. It's a bit like Arsenal and Manchester United going to play in Scarborough.
I was expecting a pretty ramshackle stadium, but Undo Koen in Fukui city is actually a really nice venue - the stadium is beautifully maintained, and the distant mountains peaking over the stands make for a really nice view. The fans were what really made an impression though - Hanshin fans have a reputation for being some of the most enthusiastic and loud baseball fans in Japan, and I can see why. It seemed like they had a cheer prepared for practically every eventuality in the game, and one cheer would seemlessly lead into another as the brass band in the outfield kept time. Add in the fact that every fan had two club-shaped "noise makers" which they banged together in time with the drums, and you can imagine how loud it was!
We assumed that watching baseball would be much like watching cricket - so we packed plenty of booze and snacks in preparation. The first half was pretty dull I must admit, but it picked up a little after Hiroshima scored in the 5th inning, followed by a home run by Hanshin which sent their crazy fans even crazier. The next few innings seemed to get better and better, but I think that was mostly because I was getting drunker and drunker. Hanshin scored another homer, which sent the game into extra innings. By the 12th inning I was desperately willing it to end, mostly because I'd ran out of beer, but at the same time I didn't want to leave until it was all over. Disappointingly, it ended in a 2-2 draw
Having said that, it was a fantastic night out, and it was a really interesting way to spend an evening, if only to see all the mad crazy cheering. But would I go again? Probably not - give me a day watching the cricket with a bottle of Pimms and a picnic basket any day. God Save the Queen etc etc... [Voice trails away as he mumbles into his whisky and falls off chair]

With the mountains in the distance it was almost romantic. Or it would have been if it wasn't for the drunk bloke behind me flicking ash onto my shoulder.

Look at all those Hanshin Tigers fans! They sure do love their baseball, yes siree.

These guys came out every now and then to do a spot of gardening. Or something. Gardening in helmets.

Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, everyone produced balloons just before the 7th inning. They all sang a Hanshin Tigers song and then...

Wahey! Balloons! Wooooo! Yay!

You heard.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Flick at the entrance to Kanazawa station.

Artsy Fartsy

The weekend started in anarchic fashion - Flick and I decided to head to karaoke on Friday night, and were absolutely delighted to discover that they were offering as much beer as you could drink and karaoke for as long as you wanted for just 2,800 yen (about 15 quid). We resolved to get our money's worth - four hours later Flick was passed out on my lap and I was determinedly croaking through every last R.E.M. song in the book (of which there were many). Finally, at 4.30am we got a call from the manager saying he was closing. Yes, that's right people, we karaoked till the break of dawn - we karaoke harder than anyone I know. Bring on the karaoke.
Needless to say, our original plan of climbing the 2,700 metre Mount Hakusan the next day sort of went out the window, so we decided to visit the 21st Century Museum of Art in Kanazawa instead. It's one of the last places on our list of things to see before we leave Japan (the others being Mount Hakusan and Hiroshima), and it didn't disappoint.
Before I talk about the museum though, I should mention Kanazawa station - it's brilliant. They've created this enormous torii (shrine gate) entranceway with an undulating steel and glass covered area behind it, finished with a stream which becomes a waterfall as it pours into the basement. I loved it. It's so great to see some really impressive modern architecture that's not afraid to do something different. Fukui has a nice new station too, but it's formulaic in comparison to say the least: just a long, white oblong box with a shopping centre underneath it. "Functional" is the word, I think.
Actually, the general architecture in Japan has been one of the most disappointing aspects of the country for me. Although there are many beautiful traditional houses in Fukui (Asahi in particular has lots), they are far, far outnumbered by awful, boxy prefabs, which look like they've been knocked up in an afternoon, along with some truly hideous office buildings. Walking around Fukui city you'd be forgiven for thinking that absolutely no thought had gone into planning or designing the buildings there, beyond making them purely functional - that word again.
Obviously, in terms of attractive modern architecture, things are slightly better in bigger cities like Osaka or Tokyo, but certainly the overall skyline is nowhere near the utopian ideas I had in my head before I came. Perhaps that's schadenfreude on my part, but the fact still remains that, despite notable and daring exceptions such as the Umeda Sky Tower, huge swathes of the buildings in the above cities are, frankly, ugly. Overhead expressways thread through drab, grey tower blocks and the concrete jungle extends for as far as the eye can see in all directions. Kanazawa, on the other hand, feels like at least some thought has gone into its design, with attractive pedestrianised shopping areas, a trendy cafe quarter, some semi-large green expanses near the centre and, of course, the Art Museum.
The Art Museum in Kanazawa is brand new - less than 2 years old - and the low, circular design really makes it stand out. The transparent walls and interior courtyards give it a really open and airy feel, and the curvy, grassy landscaping is the icing on the cake. More importantly, the art inside was just as intriguing - my favourite was an installation by the Brazilian artist Arthur Barrio, which consisted of a circular room where the floor was entirely covered in coffee grains. It was lit only by several dim lightbulbs, and there was graffiti all over the walls between huge gashes made by a hammer. It was kind of eerie wandering around in the dark, listening to the crunch of the coffee grains as you walked across them... You can see a photo of something similar here.
Another highlight was "The Origin of the World" by Anish Kapoor - a sort of weird black oval. No matter how long you look at it, it's impossible to work out if it's a hole or just a black painting - after a while it becomes quite unsettling as you feel like you're just staring into nothingness. If you want to find out the answer to the riddle, click here, although I'd recommend you see it for yourself before the secret is revealed.
So anyway, beautiful building, great art. Five Lewises out of five.

Random sighting - on the train to Kanazawa we spotted this enormous gold Buddha emerging above the trees... then Godzilla came and fought with it. Buddha won.

I absolutely loved Kanazawa station - it's so nice to see some imaginative modern buildings. Here you can see the torii (gate) entrance way with a waterfall in the foreground.

This clock was just outside the station - if you look closely you can see the numbers are actually made up of tiny fountains. Awesome. A rare example of town planners erecting a piece of street furniture which is eye-catching, stylish, innovative and, most importantly, useful. Watford town council please take note.

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. I love all the seemingly random white blocks emerging from the roof - each one is the roof of a gallery. It means that the first thing you do when you enter a room is to look up, since the ceilings are all different heights. It's a nice effect when you emerge from a fairly low-ceilinged room into an enormous aircraft hangar of a gallery.

This is an aerial view of the museum I found on the net - as you can see it's a perfect circle. The idea is to get away from the concept that buildings should have a "front" and "back" and allow people to enter from any direction. It also looks cool.

This swimming pool was in the middle of the musuem. It looks perfectly normal...

...but go down a few steps and you can actually go underneath the pool! What looks like deep water is actually about 10cm of water on a layer of glass. I like art, it's fun.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

I wonder if you could hook that TV up to an Xbox? Imagine playing Halo 2 on that...

Think of them as floaty horses...

Did anyone get that Simpsons reference? There's a lollipop for the first person to tell me where it's from in the comment box... Ooooh, revel in the nerdiness! Soak it up people, soak it up!
Anyway, boat racing. Flick and I stopped off at the Mikuni Boat Race on Sunday on our way back from a spot of camping on the beach. We were camping with Tilly and Laura, and Tilly had heard about the boat race from Joe, who lives nearby. Initially I imagined it as some sort of yacht regatta, but then I found out it was in the middle of the town. Perhaps remote-controlled power boats in the park...?
I was way off. The Boat Race was actually powerboat racing conducted on an enormous artificial lake, overlooked by a gigantic Sony TV which relayed the action to spectators.How have I not heard of this before? Two years in Fukui and no-one made any mention of powerboat racing conducted on an enormous articficial lake overlooked by a gigantic Sony TV. Still, it's good to know there are still things left to discover... Who knows what I'll discover tomorrow? It's like an episode of Tiny Toons or something. 
Anyway, we paid our money to get in, and it quickly became apparent that the main reason for the racing was in fact gambling: a massive TV screen scrolled through betting statistics on the wall above our heads, and banks of vending machines provided punters with gambling slips (well, it wouldn't be Japan without vending machines, would it?). Despite all the high-tech wizardry though, there was the tangible feel of a fleapit betting shop back in England - maybe it was the rows and rows of crumbly old men with despair etched onto their faces, mixed with the smell of stale cigarette smoke and body odour.
It's strange - I was under the impression that gambling for money was illegal in Japan. That's why in pachinko parlours they don't give you money if you win, you just exchange your silver balls for prizes like cuddly toys. To get round the rule, the customers then take their prizes to a booth just outside the parlour, where they exchange them for money. Then presumably the prizes end up back where they were, ready to be won again in the pachinko version of the circle of life. However, according to the teacher I've just asked, it's legal to gamble on certain things, such as horse racing, boat racing and bike racing - yes apparently in Fukui city there's a bike track where you can go to bet on the riders. In my head I'm imagining people racing those granny bikes with the baskets that everyone has, but I suspect he probably meant motorbikes. You never know though...
Despite the despairing, crumbly old men the powerboat racing was pretty cool - the boats pick up a fair bit of speed and it's entertaining to see the "jockeys" lean over and power slide round corners. That's about all they do though - the "track" is just one big oval, and after a while it gets pretty boring watching the same boats go round and round in circles, even if the races only last about 10 minutes or so. I can see why they need the allure of gambling to keep it interesting...

I wonder if they give the boats bizarre names, just like they do with horses? If I raced a boat I think I might call it "Mr. Biscuit", it has a nice ring to it. Anyone else got ideas for boat names?

Here you can see just how enormous the TV screen on the other side of the lake was. I wonder how much it cost?

This is the main viewing gallery, where rows and rows of chain smoking men sat nervously clutching their betting receipts. It was pretty horrible - there were cigarette butts all over the floor and the guy behind us had kindly decided to take his shoes and socks off in order to display his decidedly grubby-looking feet (see the bottom left of the photo). It was eerily quiet for a betting hall though - everyone seemed to be lost in their own reverie.

Here's a view from the outside. I was surprised how big it was - the car park alone was huge, and there's another one round the other side. The screen on the right is either to stop spray from the boats splashing onto cars or to deflect the noise, I couldn't work out which.

I'd say that for the majority of the spectators it was all about the gambling - to the extent that some people weren't even watching the live race at all. This TV gallery was set up facing away from the lake - punters watch the race on the right and betting statistics are on the left. You can't see it from this picture, but there's a car park on the other side of the window.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On a more positive note...

I liked the comment on the last post about how "Jaded?" would have made a fine end to An Englishman In Nyu Gun - but I can't let that happen... not just yet anyway. Of course, since my time in Japan is almost up (5 weeks to go - how time flies!) the lifespan of this blog is nearly over, but there's still loads of things I've been wanting to post but haven't had the time to write about.
One of the things I wanted to talk about was teaching my students. In my last post I talked about how I've gotten really tired of teaching, but at the same time that doesn't mean it still isn't fun. OK, so it takes an enormous effort of will to drag myself to school in the morning, and thinking up lesson plans isn't the walk in the park that it used to be, but the actual lessons themselves can be pretty good fun.
One of my favourites was one I did a few weeks ago. I'm always trying to think up of ideas for lessons that the kids can enjoy, or at least to show them something new, and one of the great things about my school is that they pretty much let me try anything. In the past I've done lessons on everything from Antonio Gaudi to The Fantastic Four to the War in Yugoslavia to Doraemon (a cartoon robot cat from the future). I even did a lesson where students filmed adverts in English using Star Wars figurines - one group had a great one where Greedo was tricked into buying expensive ramen from a disreputable noodle shop, which was followed by a sign saying "BEWARE OF FRAUD".
Anyway, I was sat in the loo, thinking about what to teach the next day (all men do their best thinking in the toilet) and my eyes came to rest on my posable Astro Boy figurine. I should point out that my toilet is full of toys - I'm at the age now where I think I shouldn't really be fascinated by toys, but I still love having them around. I'm a bit too embarrassed to keep them in plain view though, so I've shoved them all in the toilet, along with a Doctor Who poster of a Dalek wearing a Santa Claus beard (a Christmas decoration I grew too attached to to take down).
"Astro Boy!" I thought, "Brilliant!"
So the next day I did a bit of research and came up with a lesson based on the history of Astro Boy, followed by a "finish the story" exercise. I told the kids that Astro Boy was flying over Nyu High School when he heard a student in trouble. He turned round and saw a monster. It was... and the students had to write what happened. Of course, I took in my Astro Boy figurine too to help illustrate the story, which went down a treat with the kids. See? Toys are brilliant. You can never be too old for toys.
Anyway, I got some cracking work back from the class. They ranged from the righteous:
"It was... false Astro Boy. He was as strong as Astro Boy. But, he didn't have heat of justice. So, true Astro Boy won. The student said "thank you"."
To the disturbing:
"It was... very angry strange man. He loves young girl. He was nude. But he wore hi socks."
To the tragic:
"It was... A Huge Devil Man. It destroyed a school. It took students in Devil World. Atomu went to Devil World and killed a Devil Man. Everyone camed back real world. However Atomu wasn't here."
To the heart warming:
"It was... giant ant!! But it was not evil. Very kind. Everyone became friend with giant ant. Happy end."
Not every class goes perfectly, and not every lesson plan works, but when it does...  I guess what I'm trying to say is, teaching in a Japanese high school can be stressful and frustrating, but there are some days when it all just clicks... days when I think about how much I'm really going to miss my students when I leave.

One of the advantages of teaching is that it has allowed me to perfect my blockboard doodling technique. Here's the classic "Lewis-zilla vs. Astro-boy" from a lesson a few weeks back.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


A few people have emailed me to ask if I'm feeling a bit jaded with Japan. My initial answer was "No! Of course not! I love Japan! I even have a T-shirt that says 'Japan Rocks'. Yay Japan!", but then I had a look back over the last few posts I'd written for my blog and I realised they were all really negative. If you compare them to the stuff I was writing a year and a half ago there's a whole world of difference.
So when I thought about it, I realised that maybe everything isn't as rosy as I think it is. Maybe I am jaded. I never thought I'd feel like this about Japan ("Yay Japan!") but I actually can't wait to leave. I've done pretty much everything I came here to do - I've climbed a volcano in Hokkaido, saw humpback whales in Okinawa, watched the sunset from a European mansion in Nagasaki, hung out with the kids in Harajuku, boarded down Olympic ski runs in Nagano, stayed in a capsule hotel in Osaka and visited the Golden Temple in Kyoto. Almost the only thing left on the list is to visit Hiroshima, which will be the last big trip before I leave.
I've done some amazing stuff, but now it's time to call it a day. My job is really getting me down, to the point where I'm finding it harder and harder to drag myself out of bed every morning to go to work, and I desperately need a change. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the teachers or kids at my school - I just don't want to teach any more. Teaching has been fun, considering it's something I vowed never to go into 6 years ago, but I've been doing it long enough now to realise that it's definitely not something I'd like to be doing for the rest of my life. The pressure of thinking up new lesson plans week after week is just getting too much, and I've been feeling totally run down for the past few weeks. Even the teachers at school have told me that I look tired, and not in that nice phrase that Japanese people use when they actually mean "you've been working hard".
It doesn't help that every spare minute of my day is taken up with organising stuff to do with leaving - whether its emailing people about selling stuff, working out travel plans or just clearing up my house. It never seems to end.
So anyway, yes, I am feeling a little jaded I guess, but I feel a bit better for having written all this stuff down. Rant over.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Crow of Death

Have you ever played Resident Evil? Do you remember the crows in the first game? You'd enter a room and they'd all be sat there, waiting. A few would be croaking and cawing to one another. Occasionally one would ruffle its feathers. They seemed menacing, yet harmless as long as they stayed where they were. After a while you'd forget about them and carry on doing whatever you were meant to be doing in that room. Which is just what they want you to do...
As soon as you let your guard down... THEY ATTACK!!! Before you know it you've had your eyes pecked out and it's back to the typewriter.
Well, I've been living through my own personal Resident Evil for the past few weeks. I think I've mentioned before that crows tend to gather in the trees along the road on my walk home from school. They always seemed menacing, but I haven't had any trouble out of them. Until now that is...
It always happens just as I'm passing the graveyard at the bottom of the hill - a lone crow will silently divebomb me from behind. The first thing I know about it is the WHOOSH of wings beating inches away from my ears, causing me to duck instinctively. Then the crow will perch on a tree further down the road, watching me, and waiting until I pass by so it can divebomb me again. It only ever does it from behind: if I turn round and see it in time it pulls up from the attack dive and waits for me to turn around again. It's bloody scary, I can tell you. I mean, this is no pigeon - this thing has a wingspan of nearly a metre. I've taken to walking home backwards, it's gotten so bad.
The most likely explanation I can come up with as to why it's trying to attack me is that it must have a nest nearby which it's trying to protect. I read in the paper today that crows can become "stressed" at this time of year because they're raising their young, and they may even take to gnawing on fibre optic phone cables as a way of relieving the tension from "work". Perhaps I look like a giant stress ball to this one crow... Although the explanation I prefer is that this crow is actually pure evil incarnate, and as such I have nicknamed it "The Crow of Death". Damn you Crow of Death!!! Vengeance shall be mine!!!!
The weird thing is, hundreds of students from my school walk up and down that hill, and I've never seen the crow attack any of them, yet it attacks me every day. I just don't get it... Maybe it's going for my bald spot - I've heard crows like shiny things. Or perhaps it's just a goddamn racist crow. Ooooooh, how I hate racist crows.

Here's the bugger. Sitting... waiting... interminably waiting...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Check out that conflagration! You know, it's amazing how well stage scenery will burn. It's certainly made me more aware of the constant danger from sudden prop combustion that actors and actresses bravely face on a day-to-day basis.

Outdoor Living

I can't believe how quickly the time is passing - it's only seven more weeks until I leave Japan! It's all a bit nerve-wracking, since I haven't even finalised my travel plans yet, thanks to a certain irritatingly unhelpful internet travel agency (which shall remain nameless). Needless to say, Flick and I have been having panic attacks as we watch the prices for summer flights creep up and up, whilst our friendly travel agent "Brenda" (not her real name) continues to give us misleading quotes for incorrect itineraries, and simultaneously ignoring our questions about pricing and routes. I'm convinced that "Brenda" is actually some sort of evil robot created to thwart our travel plans by churning out erroneous email responses... Dammit "Brenda", I swear you will rue the day you messed with a Packwood. Doesn't she know I've got a town named after me?
Anyway, as a consequence of the pressing time, everything I do in Japan now has a big question hanging over it: ie. "Will this be the last time I... [insert name of activity currently engaged in]." Only this morning I was pondering the very real possibility that I was recycling the foam trays from pizza boxes for the very last time. Even the constant weekly grind of sorting out household rubbish has taken on a hint of sorrow now that I know my days in Japan are numbered.
I had another WTBTLTI moment last weekend, when a group of Fukui JETs descended on the Watering Hole in Ono (see the June archives ) for a spot of barbecuing and pyromania. The highlight was when the props and scenery for the recent FJET play were ceremoniously burned, as the producer and director looked on. With mixed emotions, I imagine, as they watched months of hard work go up in smoke. Great fire though.
It's so great to be able to drive for an hour and find yourself surrounded by mountains and lakes - I think I'm going to really miss that when I go home. It's funny, I always thought of myself as a city boy... I never thought I'd adapt to living in the countryside, but here I am going camping and climbing mountains every weekend. Actually, that's entirely untrue, I don't camp and climb mountains every weekend at all. In fact, this weekend I'm having a video games night followed by a visit to the local flea market, neither of which involve camping or mountains. However, I can see mountains through my window, just, so I may occasionally look up at them whilst playing Halo 2 on Friday. Which is close enough.
Will this be the last time I play 8 player Halo 2 in Japan?

The party begins. At the front of the picture you can see the legendary Ono local "Long Peace" expertly cooking some mountain vegetables over an open fire. He actually picked them himself from the woods next to the campsite. Now THAT'S outdoor living.

Brandon gets some expert guitar tuition from Hudson and Mac. He's just mastered the "old lady" chord.

Campfire chats. I'm going to miss all this outdoor cosiness - back to the Big Smoke for me.

Dusty, Sarah and Jesse enjoy a moment. And yes, that big plastic bottle used to be full of whisky.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Lewis The Fashion Anarchist

It's the first of June today, which means it's the start of summer uniform at school - the kids don't have to wear their blazers to class, and teachers are permitted to throw off their jackets and ties in favour of the casual open-necked shirt look.
Of course, no one told me. This morning I came to school dressed in my usual snazzy tie and jacket combo only to discover dress-down-day-a-rama happening in the staff room. To be fair, I should have known it was coming - after all I've been here for two years now, and it's always on the same day - but then again that would mean me actually knowing what day it is when I turn up to school, and at that time of the morning I can barely put one foot in front of the other until I've had my second cup of coffee, let alone decipher complicated devices such as calendars.
What is it with these rigid changeover dates in my school anyway? It's like how they never turn the heaters on before December 1st, no matter how cold it gets. Six months ago I remember sitting in this exact same chair typing emails whilst wearing gloves and a coat - it was that cold in the staff room. Why couldn't they choose a date based on the actual weather conditions outside? I bet if there was a freak snowstorm outside right now they'd still expect everyone to come to school without a jacket. As it happens, the sun's blazing down out there, but that's beside the point.
Anyway, like I said, all the male teachers ditched their tie and jacket today - it seems that summer uniform is more compulsory than optional. Suddenly I was faced with a stark decision: Do I take off my tie to blend in with the crowd? I thought about the agonising 30 seconds I'd spent in front of the mirror this morning trying to figure out what tie would go best with this shirt (yes, yes, I know, I'm vain), and I hated the idea of ripping off that carefully chosen neck garment just because THE MAN had dictated it. To hell with the rules! I'm wearing my tie, and I'm proud! None of this louche open-necked shirt business for me - I'm an English gentleman, dammit! It's my right to look sharp at all times, and no one can take that away from me! Spread the word - comfort is out, dapperness is in! Down with polo necks! Up with Windsor knots!
And if anyone asks why you're wearing I tie when you don't have to, simply reply: "Because, sir, I like it."

Here's me rocking the tie in the photocopier room. Gentleman of the world unite - refuse to lay down your ties!