Thursday, July 20, 2006

Goodbye Nyu High School!

So today was the big one. After weeks of goodbye party after goodbye party today it was time for possibly the most difficult goodbye of all - saying goodbye to my school.

It's been a fun 2 years at Nyu. There's been ups and downs for sure, but I don't think I've ever had a job as rewarding as this one. It can be crushing when you have a day of bad classes, but the euphoria of creating and teaching a successful lesson is worth everything. It's the kids that really make it. Like this crazy bunch who accosted me for a photo this morning.

Mad lot.

I know I've moaned about the job in the past, but I can safely say that it's the best job I've ever had. The teachers have been fantastic, the students have been fantastic... why am I going home again? Oh yeah, that's right, I want to be a journalist. Now why would I want to go and do a stupid thing like that?

So today was the official end of term at school - and I had to give a goodbye speech. In Japanese. I wasn't particularly worried about it actually, since I'd worked out the speech ages ago and gone through it thoroughly with my Japanese teacher, but when I walked into the school gym for the closing ceremony something went horribly wrong. Why were my hands trembling? Why was I biting my lip? Why couldn't I look anyone in the eye? Shit, I knew this was going to happen - I was about to break down in tears like a big girl's blouse.

I just about managed to hold it together as I walked up on the stage with the headmaster. He made a short little speech saying thank you and we shook hands and everything was fine. Then it all went pear-shaped. Midori from the tea ceremony club walked up on the stage and started reading a speech to me in English, saying thank you for my fun lessons and thank you for coming to tea ceremony club, and then she started sniffling and that got me sniffling too, and before too long she was struggling to get through the speech and I was wiping the tears away like a man who's just caught his crown jewels in the cash register.

By the time it came for me to give my own speech I was a wreck. I was blubbing more than Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars. God knows what everyone was thinking - most embarrassing moment ever? Possibly, but at least I wasn't the only male ALT to have a decidedly unmanly moment on stage, having just read about Sam's waterworks on his blog. Man, giving that speech was hard. To top off all the unmanliness I was given the biggest bouquet of flowers I've ever seen - yes, I really did feel like Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars.

Incidentally, this is my desk. Bye desk!

Anyway, the last couple of weeks at school have been great. I was getting a bit stressed with all the things I had to organise before leaving (selling my car, cleaning out my house, etc etc), but I really enjoyed giving my last few goodbye lessons. The very last one in particular was really special. Flick and I arranged to do joint lessons at each other's schools: I went to her very last lesson at Takefu High School a couple of weeks ago, and she came to my last lesson at Nyu last week. It was a great lesson - we did a quiz and the students were really excited to finally meet my girlfriend! It was a really, really nice way to end my time teaching in Japan. I guess teaching's not so bad after all...

So yeah, it's all getting a bit emotional at the moment. My house is looking pretty sad and empty right now - the other night I finally took down my Japan map. I put up the map about a year and a half ago when I was feeling pretty depressed about how little I seemed to have done in Japan after being here for six months. I decided to stick pins in all the places I'd visited and stick photos next to them, and suddenly I realised that I had done quite a bit after all. Since then the number of pins and photos has grown and grown, to the point where I was running out of wall space. Taking it all down really brought home to me that my time in Japan is actually coming to an end.

Yep, I'm really going to miss Japan. One thing I won't miss though is my nemesis: katsuoboshi. These dried fish flakes (I think they're called bonito in English) seem to find their way into absolutely every food dish in Japan. Truly, they are the vegetarian's worst nightmare. Mostly because most waiters and waitresses don't seem to register that they're actually fish, even if I emphatically explain that I don't eat fish or meat. Hence, ordering a bowl of plain soba results in this:

Katsuoboshi aside though, I can't begin to list the myriad things that I'm going to miss when I go back home to England in exactly a week's time (so soon!). I think the biggest thing I'm going to miss is the feeling that somehow every day is an adventure - you never know what bizarre thing will await you round the next corner. For example, when I was driving round this morning I spotted this:

Yes, that's right, it's a radio-controlled crop-dusting helicopter. Brilliant. Truly, everything in Japan is in miniature. Check out the operator's Tom Cruise-style silver Ray-Bans too - now there's a man who takes his job seriously. I wonder if he realised what he was getting into when he applied for a job advertised as "helicopter pilot"?

Bring on the Greasy Pudding

So last Saturday Jesse organised a big get together in a club called Gramme down in Tsuruga. Jesse is well known throughout the ken for being a pimpin purveyor of red-hot greasy funk soul pudding, so it promised to be a great night. He didn't disappoint. Along with his good friend "Nate-dog" from Ishikawa, Jesse threw down some of the filthiest, funkiest tunes Fukui has ever heard. Truly an epic night.
It was great to finally go to a club in Fukui that actually felt like a proper club. Granted, it was pretty small (like most of the clubs in Japan), but it had some really nice decor - it reminded me a lot of a bar in Soho. I think it might have been the rows and rows of spirits which made me think that - quite unusual for a club in Japan, at least round these parts anyway: In most places you just get a choice of whisky or vodka and that's about it.
Anyway, an absolutely brilliant night, and an excellent way to say goodbye to the people down south - Jesse, I'm gonna miss you man.

Nate and Jesse lay down some grease on the decks. Dirty.

See, it was like a proper club! Only smaller.

Don't mess with an ex-JETfuel editor.

"Bleuurrrrgh!!!!" John and Anna get drooly.

Sam, Steph, Flick and Angela - this lot were doing some serious dancing, I can tell ya. You should have seen it all go off when "Like a Prayer" by Madonna came on. Man, the screaming.

Tilly and I posing for all we're worth.

Mitch "look at my new beard" Malli hams it up for the camera. Awesome hat.

I swear, Tania could pout for Canada. Good work Gizmo, when can I come and visit you in the land of maple syrup and mounties?

It's Karl Bandcamp!!!

Celeste whips out her "Dr. Evil" impression.

Get a room!!!

The night ended with some top quality karaoke in the coveted "party room" in Cote d'Azur. The room was huge! It even had a stage! Awesome. Aw man, I'm going to miss karaoke...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

This just in...

The latest news from Fukui in the style of ITV's News at Ten. Ah, how I miss Trevor McDonald.

BONG!.....Record rains hit Fukui prefecture, leading to fears of flooding similar to that experienced by residents 2 years ago. Flood warnings are issued in most areas as rivers inch towards the top of flood defences. Roving reporter Ruisu Pakkuwuddo took this dramatic photo of the rising waters after he raced to the scene last night. Although he actually forgot his camera and had to use his phone instead. So you can't see anything. But let us assure you, the rising waters were dramatic.

BONG!.....Department store Al Plaza introduces foot-shaped stickers at every staff entrance, indicating the point where staff members must bow to customers when walking on to the shop floor (this is true).

BONG!.....New magazine "Seed Sack Mama" is launched. Are you a seed sack mama? If so, call the studio now: we can put you in touch with people who can help. Modern surgical procedures can now safely remove seed sacks in 90% of cases.

BONG!.....Following a "famous people" classroom quiz game at Takefu high school, female students request to keep the pictures of heart throb celebrities Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt to stick on the classroom wall. Bizarrely, several girls also request the photo of British prime minister Tony Blair to stick alongside the Hollywood heavyweights. One witness, who refused to be identified, offered only this explanation: "He's cool".

BONG!....T-shirt woman invites passers-by to eat her. Allegations that "last night was bad" only serve to deepen the intrigue of the request.

BONG!.....Convenience stores begin selling ice lollies made from red beans. "It's the best bean-flavoured frozen product I've ever tasted", said one customer.

And finally... Authorities in Tsuruga have developed a low-tech robot designed to facilitate the evacuation of the city in the event of a nuclear emergency. The smiling brown robots, which stand on every street corner, are designed to give off a cheery, calming atmosphere, and will direct and encourage the fleeing populace with robotic cries of "Ganbare!" and "Fighto!". The robot also has the ability to transform into a medium-sized Family Mart in order to feed and provide toilet facilities for starving, radioactive refugees.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I'm also available for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs...

The ALT leaving ceremony took place last Friday, and old muggins here was roped into giving the after-dinner speech - a task which seemed simple enough until I actually started trying to write it.  Have you ever tried writing a speech? It's bloody hard, I can tell you. Anyway, Angela and I eventually managed to come up with a half decent bit of prose (Angela was giving the speech with me) and we sent it off to the board of education for translation, but we were dismayed when it was sent back with about a third of it missing: It had been decided that the speech would have been far too long to translate, and that some of the cut sections may have been deemed "offensive".

I was pretty annoyed at the time, considering how hard we worked on the speech, but in the end I think it was a good idea to shorten it - it lasted just about the right amount of time, and both me and Angela were given lots of compliments on how well it went. However, I was quite fond of some of the sections that got chopped out, and it seems a shame that no-one ever got to hear them, so here, just for you, is our closing speech reprinted in its entirety:

By Lewis Packwood and Angela Lehn

Lewis: So here we are. The very last official JET function. The last time we'll be treated to free booze and food by our wonderful employers. The last time we will have the opportunity to gaze upon the shining beacon of manhood that is Mr. Mizutani. Truly, this is a sad occasion.

Angela: We were welcomed into this country with a raised glass of free beer and now we've come to our last. I know I will definitely miss my last kampai, my last nomihoudai. Taking the last sip from my glass, emptying it to find no more friends left to refill it. I will miss my last free drink paid for by my job, them freely helping me to intoxicate myself … then wake up at four in the morning on a Katamachi street bench, alone, with no shoes, no money, no I.D., no self-respect, no dignity, no clue how to get to Chris Hall's damn apartment… only to crawl in the freaking kitchen window at the very same time the door opens after twenty minutes of drunken pounding. Yeah, I'll miss that free beer.

L: It's all "lasts" now isn't it? The last time I do this, the last time I do that… It's not all bad of course – I'm quite looking forward to the last time I have to drive into Fukui city for example. I'm not saying that Fukui drivers are bad, I'm just concerned that they may be too busy watching TV or doing their make up to even notice that they're actually driving. As one of my fellow JETs observed: "It's easier driving in New York city than driving in Fukui. At least in New York drivers do their best to avoid you. In Fukui it feels like they're actually aiming for you."

A: I know I won't miss my last garbage pick-up. The tri-weekly garbage days when I guiltily walk my trash to the metal cage in the parking lot, hoping not to run into any neighbor, being or animal alike surely to condemn me and my horribly separated trash. I won't miss that last walk to the metal cage to find my thrown out food scraps left behind just because I happened to double bag it because the green food scrap bag always leaks all over my garbage can and stinks up my apartment, but they don't want it like that because it's not following the rules, and it's rotting and growing things that even a raccoon would turn up its nose at. I truly fear I will cause the largest maggot infestation my neighborhood has ever seen. Even after Jesse Green lived there  I won't miss saving up my recyclables to only realize I missed the month's date and a midnight run to Family Mart would surely be seen as suspicious since I had already stopped there twice before for milk and ice cream, and heaven knows I don't need any more ice cream…... No, I won't miss my last garbage day at all.

L: These kinds of lasts are definitely in the minority though. Most lasts are like the last I had the other day. It was the last time I saw my Japanese teacher, Mrs. Kinoshita. Mrs. Kinoshita is great. I'm a terrible, terrible Japanese student, but my weekly visits to Mrs. K have been one of the highlights if my JET career. She's just so damn nice! She's taught me so much interesting Japanese too – check this:

(Aside to Mr. Mizutani) "Mo kari makka?"
(Mizutani replies) "Bouchi bouchi desu wa."
(Lewis replies) "So da na."

See what I mean? I'm not too proud to say that I was actually in tears as I said goodbye to Mrs. K for the last time. I'm sure most of you have probably been through something similar recently with your teachers.

A: As for me I'll miss my last autograph signing: the last time hoards of elementary students rush to my desk with all their worldly possessions for me to sign. I'll miss the last scrap of paper, the last notebook, the last ruler, the last stajiki, the last book, hand and even the last arm. Never will I be more famous. I'm almost positive Tom Cruise has never signed a stajiki. But I have. Lots. I'm going to miss all that attention, that rock-star like fame that can drive you crazy and at the very same time make you feel like the luckiest and most important person in the world. I'm going to miss that last gasp of breath, that last " I-na" or "Kawa-ii" for just doing something that to you, may be quite trivial, or quite normal, but most of all I'll miss that last "sign kudasai", the last autograph.

L: Then there's the last time I'll get money out of a Fukui Bank ATM. I just love that little lady that bows to you when you take your cash. When was the last time an ATM bowed to you in your country? Never. Other lasts… It's going to be a sad day when I eat my last bowl of convenience store soba too. I love that stuff. And I've become strangely addicted to the mysterious "Third Way" beer as well. No-one seems to know exactly where it comes from – it just has something to do with peas and it's cheap. I've even started liking natto, much to the delight and amusement of my peers.

A: As much as we might find it odd, uncomfortable, annoying or even at times meaningless I will miss my last bow. This is the only place where a simple bend at the waist, one single movement, can truly mean so much. A thank you, an excuse me, a humbling apology, an offering, a welcoming, an agreement, and of course, a goodbye. Its been a long year with many bows, many ups and downs, and head bobs in between but now as I say goodbye, I bow knowing I can convey a feeling probably better than I can say it, especially since I don't speak Japanese. So, everyone, take your final bow with care. This is the one thing that says so much without you saying a word.

L: Of course, the big last for everyone here will be the last time you go to your school. Are you looking forward to giving your closing ceremony speech in Japanese? I can't wait for mine – I just know I'm going to balls it up fantastically. It may surprise you to learn that, despite the patient teaching of the wonderful Mrs. K, my Japanese isn't actually that good. Like the time one of the teachers at school asked me how my trip to Tokyo for the recontracting conference was. I was trying to explain to him that Tokyo seemed a lot more crowded after I'd lived in Fukui for so long. The sentence I meant to say was: "Tokyo niwa hito ga ippai imasu ne?" (There are a lot of people in Tokyo, aren't there?). What I actually said was: "Tokyo niwa hito ga oppai imasu ne?" (There are a lot of breasts in Tokyo, aren't there?). He paused, looked me up and down for a few seconds, and then said: "Haaaaaaiiiiiii." (Long, dirty, drawn-out "hai")

L: Anyway, the goodbye speech at school is going to be the big one. It's going to be sad enough saying goodbye to all the teachers, but I know I'm really going to miss the students most of all. In my last week of lessons each of my students wrote me a goodbye letter, and reading through them all was heart-breaking, not to mention surprising. Here are some of the things they said:

"I liked your guitar playing and sideburns."

"I think you are every bit a gentleman. You are always smile. I have no remember you get angry at us. I love you. Goodbye for now."

"I don't forget you and you don't forget Nyu High School. Your face is like for Beckham. England is good country. I want to go to there. I'll meet you again. You should take care of your sideburns."

(Those sideburns again)

"Goodbye Lewis, I'm very miss you. So, please stay here a little. But, I think it impossible. You are forever my ALT!"

Gotta love those kids.

A: Students aside though, probably the worst goodbye is going to be saying goodbye to you lot. In Fukui we're blessed to have a really close-knit group of ALTs, but unfortunately that makes saying goodbye all the more difficult and painful. You're fantastic, all of you, and it's been an honour and a privilege for us to know you. Thank you. "Sayonara" is too formal and final a word. Let's end this speech with a far less formal phrase that implies the hope of meeting again. A phrase that means the same in English as in Japanese:


Friday, July 14, 2006

"Yatta!" - Lewis conquers Hakusan.

Climbing the Sacred Mountain

Flick and I have been talking about climbing Hakusan (White Mountain) in Ishikawa for months and months. Every time we plan to go we find that we're either too busy or that the weather is just too bad. Finally though, we had our chance this week - after a quick check of the weather we found that Tuesday would be an ideal time to go - and probably our last chance before we leave Japan on the 27th. I took some time off work and set the alarm for 4.30am, ready for the long drive to the mountain.
Hakusan is one of the three holiest mountains in Japan, along with Tateyama (3,015m) in Toyama prefecture and Mount Fuji (3,776m), which of course means that thousands and thousands of people climb it every year. We were a little bit worried that we might face a re-run of the dreadful queuing that occurred towards the top of Mount Fuji - hundreds of people caught in a slow, cold, soul-destroying shuffle towards the summit. Luckily though, we encountered very few hikers on the way up - going on a weekday definitely has its advantages. Plus the official climbing season doesn't begin until this weekend, so I think that helped us to miss the big crowds.
I'm so, so glad we were able to climb Hakusan before we left Japan - the view from the top was easily worth the aches and pains the next day! If you get a chance to climb it you should definitely go... and if you're feeling a bit more adventurous, why not try scaling all 20 of the highest peaks in Japan - click here to see the list.
What am I going to do without all these mountains back in the UK? No more snowboarding, no more climbing... That's it, I'm moving to Switzerland.

I loved this bridge at the start of the trail - very Indiana Jones.

Unfortunately, this was the view of the river underneath the bridge - terrible isn't it? The entire stretch of river had been dammed and channelled into concrete waterfalls. It looked bloody awful.

We encountered our first large pockets of snow at about 1,800 metres. It was so strange to see snow on such a hot summer day (it was about 27 degrees C at the bottom of the mountain). By the way, check out my awesome new hat - it's going to see me round South America next month.

This was a bit scary, as you can see from the look on Flick's face. The path crossed this snow-covered gully, which dropped down for around 100 metres on the left side. One slip and...

At around 2,400 metres there was an eerie, mist-shrouded plateau, covered in undulating ice and snow. It looked a little bit like a haunted sea. Creepy.

We were really surprised to find this massive hotel complex just below the summit - not exactly what you'd expect to see 2,600 metres up in the air, especially since there was hardly any sign of life on the way up. It was a little dis-heartening to spend 4 hours struggling up a mountain only to discover a comfortable, heated hotel lounge with a restaurant and post office annex - kind of takes the adventure out of climbing, don't you think?

It was overcast all morning and afternoon, and we were really worried that we'd reach the top and not be able to see a thing. Amazingly though, just as we were nearing the summit all the clouds cleared away to reveal some stunning mountain views. Then, just after we began our descent the clouds came back again - we were so lucky to get shots like this.

Here's me looking wistful and manly at the summit. The view was fantastic - you could easily make out the coastline of Ishikawa, and you could even see rain falling on the Japan sea.

And of course, no mountain in Japan is complete without a shrine at the top, especially one as holy as Hakusan. Look closely and you can just about make out Flick flashing some peace our way.

Flick celebrates reaching the summit. Yay! We did it! Of course, it took another 4 hours to get down...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

It's Only Bloody Ending Isn't It

Yep, last weekend was the Fukui JET Sayonara Party - can't believe it's come around so quickly. It was a strange affair, in that I didn't actually say goodbye to anyone: I'm going to see most of the people who were there in the next couple of weeks anyway. And besides, I was having too much of a good time to worry about being sad. Yay! Party!

Dan's monkey suit went down a storm, as you can see from the look on Ariel's face.

The J-Girls just couldn't keep their hands off Dan's monkey tail.

Hudson "Nice Guy" Hamilton went on somewhat of a rampage. And yes, that is a cucumber taped to his head.

My wonderful, wonderful girlfriend posing with Sarah H.

Pete attempts to copy my style. He should know by now that no-one can rock a tie like I can.

It's Kat! Hello Kat!

You don't want to know what Sam was doing with his hand.

Ladies ladies ladies. Sam, Tilly and Laura came out with fashion guns a-blazing.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

James looks for a way past an X-Force Alpha defender in the first game of the tournament.

The Taj Ultimate Tournament

I've been meaning to write about the Taj Ultimate Tournament for nearly 2 weeks now, but things are getting pretty crazy round here and I just haven't had the time. It's scary - I'm counting the time till my departure in days now, rather than weeks and months. Where did all the time go? Man, there's so much I need to fit in before I leave... and so much I have to write about on the blog...
Anyway, ultimate. I've been a fan of the sport since I was at university, and when I came to Fukui I joined up with a couple of like-minded people to play every weekend at a park in the city. A few months ago we heard about the Taj Ultimate Tournament, and decided to enter; with me as captain. Most of the people on the team had never played ultimate before coming to Japan, and hardly any of them had played in a tournament before, so it was going to be an interesting experience...
On the first day I was full of confidence for the team - I was amazed at how hard everyone had practiced in the weeks leading up to the event, and since we were promised that we'd be ranked according to experience, I had high expectations. We looked good too - everyone had bought one of the infamous "Baka Inaka" t-shirts, and they were causing a bit of a fashion sensation down in the fields of Hyogo. Everything was going well.
Then we were thrashed in the first game. I couldn't understand it - weren't we supposed to be playing against teams of similar ability, ie not experienced? I asked one of the staff, and he told me that each group was arranged with one team of low experience, two teams of middling experience and one team of high experience - and we'd just played the highly experienced team. Suddenly the loss didn't seem so bad, but it also meant we had another two tough matches to play just to get through the group. So much for the easy qualification I had in mind at the start.
The next three matches were heart-breaking - in all of them we started off leading before getting bogged down into a long, drawn out point which sapped our energy, leading to a loss in the dying minutes. One of the points went on for 15 minutes, which is unheard of - I mean, the matches are only 30 minutes long. I was impressed with the way the team was playing - they were using all the techniques that Mac (our wonderful coach) had been teaching them in practice, but try as we may, victory lay beyond our grasp. The fourth match of the weekend was the most devastating - after finishing bottom of our group after the first three matches, we were playing for a possible 16th place in the bottom division. It was a match we should have won - and we came tantalisingly close. Afterwards I could barely pick myself up to start the "cheer" for the other team (we sang "Country Road" to them with modified lyrics, they danced for us, it was special). Add in the fact that I'd watched England lose to Portugal on penalties in the World Cup the night before, and you can imagine that I wasn't feeling that sprightly.
It all came down to the last game - we were just playing for pride now. I was determined to go out with a win. Playing in the tournament had been fun, but we had to win just one game - we just had to. Luckily, we did. Everyone came through and we scored our first victory in the fizzling embers of the weekend, and by a considerable margin too. With that one win, it genuinely felt like we'd won the whole tournament, and I couldn't be happier. Finally, a well-deserved win - and anyone who says the other team were pissed is lying.
Final position: 18th out of 20 (I think, might have been 19th though)
Big thanks to Mac for being an ultimate-playing genius (respect), and a huge thank you to everyone who played on the team - you were all fantastic! I had a really great time, and I really appreciate the fact that you all took time out to come - it was a brilliant weekend. I love you guys!

The Fukui Phoenix. [Top row, l to r] Mitsuji, Fong, Ryan, Jesse, Steph, Hudson, Matt, Mac, Michelle [Middle row] Flick, Angela, Kat, Sarah [Lying] Me (Lewis) and James.

Look at me - I'm bloody exhausted, and it's only the first game. I blame the guy I was marking and his crazy-long sprinting legs.

For the second game we were playing against another team in red, so the other team's captain and I flipped to see who would change shirts. Unfortunately, I lost the toss and we had to change into these beige shirts - which Hudson "Nice Guy" Hamilton soon befouled with another man's blood. Who said ultimate was non-contact?

Here I am! Check my awesome baldness.