Monday, August 31, 2009

Kunisaki Bonfire and Yufuin

We had another action packed weekend after Nathan's softball game which started out by heading back to the Kunisaki Peninsula to see our friend Dave who had spent the morning organising the necessities for a bonfire down on the beach. Unlike New Zealand Japan has no rules when it comes to burning stuff... it's common to see smoke rising all over the landscape where people are burning their garden waste etc. It was somewhat of a novelty for Nathan and I to be sitting around a fire on a beach and not be told to put it out... in fact for the entire evening we were there we didn't see a single person. The boys had great fun working out the best way to get the wire rack positioned over the embers to cook our food while Kelly and I sat back and watched with great hilarity. The highlight of the night was not only the good food but the fact that there was no wind at all which made sitting out listening to the waves for hours on end nothing but relaxing!
The next morning after sleeping on somewhat iffy futons (sorry Dave) we got up nice and early and headed to Yufuin which is just a hop, skip and a jump from where we are. It's a pretty touristy place so there were plenty of people milling about checking out all the craft shops. Yufuin is surrounded by mountains but much to Nathan's disappointment it was pretty cloudy so we didn't ever actually see any of them...guess that means we will just have to go back!
If your sitting around anxiously waiting for an update on Stag... here it is...
Stag is doing well. He is showing progress as a reliable pet and is beginning to respond to me and my constant handling of him. I purchased a stag toy for him... and some yummy food. He likes me a lot. Next pay day I will buy him a bigger home and each day I pray a female stag will find its way onto our doorstep (Megan however does not!!)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Batter up!

Wow the weeks feel like they fly buy and before you know it another weekend of fun and games is here! The week started off with all the new ALT's in Oita prefecture meeting in Oita city for a 2 day orientation, lets just say it is one of those things you have to do and you are a little bit happier when it is done. I'm very happy i don't live in the city, we are close enough to go if we need/want to but far enough away to live a totally different lifestyle!
Wednesday onwards was back at school and exam time for my
students; still no classes. School here in Japan is about as different as you could get compared with NZ, i'll do a blog on this later in the month when i have more pics and info. My highlight of the working week was having several students staring at my eyes and being told 'you have beautiful eyes'! I laughed, then batted my eye lids and they all ran of giggling and screaming.
All my teachers and co workers are great but 1 guy in particular is a legend. He's the larger than life, noisier, older man who knows how to have a good time and bring a bit of spice into the teachers office. He can only say 3 English words and with my 10 or so Japanese words conversations are like a game of charades .But with a trusty translator things are made a lot easier! He is a big softball fan and loves demonstrating how fast he can pitch. After i told him i'd hit a home run off him the fun began and he invited me to a teachers softball tournament at another school in Beppu.
My knowledge of softball is not good but combined with what i know about baseball and from the first game i watched a few weeks ago i thought i knew enough to say 'Yes'! So this morning we arrived to a freshly racked pitch (grass? way), and a newly painted diamond. After a brief warm up i was deemed good enough to play 2nd base and hit 4th. The only thing i cared about was ensuring i didn't make a fool of myself. When their pitcher stepped up and fired in the fastest practise pitch i've ever seen (aka Brett lee) i nearly pooed my pants.

Cut a long game short i ended up hitting 3 base runs (a good thing) and nearly making 2 home runs if it wasn't for the tallest man in Japan way out in the field. They all cheered, high fived and felt compelled to celebrate my success by using english (eg. good running gu, good hitting gu). Meg's was there to capture the fun and officially took on the roll of solo cheer leader.
Playing on a dirt pitch leaves behind its own special memories, dust in places i've never known about. Fun and games i tell you.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Exploring the Kunisaki Peninsula

On Saturday we ventured out with Dave, a new found friend of ours, to explore the Kunisaki Peninsula. We really had no idea what there was to do or see but soon discovered it’s the kind of area you can drive around for hours totally mesmerized by its natural beauty. After a quick walk along the beach we jumped in the car and headed along quiet country roads (surrounded by nothing but rice paddies, green mountains and fields brimming with sunflowers) that led around the peninsula, stopping off at a number of temples and shrines along the way. Of course like all such places here in Japan there are a million and one steps to be climbed first but with so many beetles, ants and funny looking bugs to look at along the way we were almost able to forget about the sweltering heat. Once at the top there’s no better way to cool down again and catch your breath than standing under the peaceful canopy of the forest taking in the surroundings... each one truly is uniquely serene.When we could ignore our hunger pains no longer we braved it and headed into a local restaurant for a meal complete with hand gesturing and many a laughs. It turned out we were in a ‘cook it yourself’ Okonomiyaki restaurant... hence the laughing that followed as we firstly tried to work out what the heck we were ordering, what it was we had actually ordered when it arrived all raw in a bowl in front of us and then how on earth we were meant to cook it. Having survived that we weren’t so lucky when it came to ordering ice-

cream... let’s just say if your ice-cream arrives and its pitch black in colour... it’s best to avoid it!

Tsurusaki Obon Festival

After Monkey Mountain we jumped on another train and headed to a nearby town called Tsurusaki which was celebrating its biggest festival for the year.We didn't really have any idea what we were off to see but could tell by the crowds of people getting off the same train that whatever it was it was popular!Basically it was like the Obon Festival we went to in Yamaga last weekend but this one was super-sized in comparison with several thousand people there both dancing and just watching. The traditional clothes both the men and women were wearing were pretty spectacular as were the unbelivably intricate craine hats they were all wearing! It was held in the town's big sports park and had a group of Taiko drummers on a big stage in the middle. Around the outsidewere the hundreds of people dancing in one gigantic circle to the beat of the drum with spectators then sitting in grandstands around the perimiter. We mighthave been super tired by the time we got in the door late that night but it was well worth the 40 minute train ride and Nathan assures me the chicken skewer he had from a little old man's stall at the festival was worth travelling twice the distance... he may have even said it was 'the best he's ever had'.

Monkey Mountain

Many years ago the city of Oita had a huge problem with monkeys... The Mayor at the time devised a plan to feed the monkeys at the same time each day on a nearby mountain in an attempt to move them away from the city's growing population. Now there are approximately 2000 monkeys living on Mt Takasaki (a 20 minute train ride from our house). These monkeys are still wild but through increasing numbers of people visiting the park they have become relatively desensitised to humans. Heading to Monkey Mountain seems to be the 'done' here in Oita so we trundled off there on Sunday with a few of our new found friends. Not being awfully fond of animals I was pretty terrified at the thought of being surrounded by unpredictable live-wire monkeys but it actually wasn't too bad. We arrived just in time for feeding which was pretty cool to watch although the fighting that went hand-in-hand with competing for food put me on tender hooks a bit! There were also lots of little babies running around in between our legs and hanging off trees etc... definitely a highlight of the trip!

Giant Stone Buddhas

On saturday after our bed was delivered (pics of our home coming soon!) we headed out for some sightseeing.There are more than enough temples, shrines and amazing landmarks in the area to keep you going for a looong timebut a very famous site is the Kumano Magaibutsu Stone Buddhas. These 2 incredible figures were carved out of stone in about 780, who knowshow they did it as they are about 8m up a cliff face! It's a bit of a walk up some incredibley steep and undulating steps (some 300m),which are said to have be laid down in 1 night by an ogre, but the beautifuly green bush all the way up makes it worth while.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Japan is full of creepy crawleys! From dragon flies (100's of them everywhere!), spiders of all shapes and sizes, snakes, bats (as seen from our balcony), ants, roaches and beetles. Lets not forget the monkeys, bears, racoondogs and wild boar!

So i was pretty excited to take one as my own and call it my first pet in Japan. His name is 'Stag' and he is a stagbettle. A massive, hard shelled crawler, that i think can fly, with a huge horn like thing for a nose. I found him on our doorstep leaving for work one day, he was trapped on his back and couldn't move, i couldn't let him go and we bonded. Now he is mine and lives with us in his container, eating his yummy jelly. Stag says hi.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Drinking the night away...

Well I did it... I survived my first proper Japanese drinking party! Last night my Board of Education held a welcome reception for me at the local ‘Yakiniku’ (ya-ki-ni-ku) which is a traditional Japanese style BBQ restaurant.
I have to admit to being pretty nervous before hand because I’d heard some pretty terrible horror storiesabout what they can be like and the pressure you can be under to keep drinking.Luckily for me, mine seemed relatively tame in comparison to some others... although there were a few moments where it felt very much touch and go!
The whole idea of a drinking party here is to drink as much as you can, as fast as you can... a concept that would be disastrous back in NZ, but here in Japan these parties are very much part of their culture. The format for the evening started off fairly formal with us all being allocated a seat according to rank (of course the tables were all on the floor so we sat on little cushions). Because I was the guest of honour I was seated opposite the head honcho of the Board of Education and next to the second head honcho with the other office workers all slotting into their respective rank. A few speeches followed and then it was time to relax and have fun trying to talk to everyone... who were busy sculling beer, copious amounts of sake, whisky and any other alcoholic drink you can think of!
The table was covered with platters of meat (ranging from beef, chicken, cow’s tongue and chicken cartilage), a whole array of vegetables and various forms of pickles, sauces and dishes. At each end of the table there were big round pits that had netting over them and a large gas cooker underneath... the idea being that you all cook your own food... some would suggest this isn’t the smartest idea when everyone is drinking as was illustrated later in the night with someone starting a small fire!As the hours ticked by everyone around me got drunker and drunker, louder and louder and braver and braver at actually trying to talk to me. Unfortunately for me that wasn’t the only way in which they got braver as before long I had several of the men lining up to grab my boobs, touch my face, arms and legs and tell me how beautiful I was.... I think there might have even been a few I love you’s.
The real hilarity started when the head honcho guy (who was so ridiculously drunk) decided he wanted to sing me a song while holding my hand far too tight and rubbing my face, all the while still throwing back the sake! My laughter was very much nervous laughter but everyone else thought it was the funniest thing ever!
It was then time to get my own back by making everyone stand up and form a circle and do the ‘Hokey Pokey’... again great hilarity ensued. By the end of the night people were stumbling and fumbling all over the place but all seemed to have had a great time.
Even I’m willing to admit it was pretty fun... although the key for me was most definitely knowing when to stop politely sipping my beer in exchange for water!The next morning at work... very much business as usual... although I have seen a few of them clutching their heads and making several trips to the bathroom!

Day of the Dead

One of the things we have been looking forward to the most about being in Japan is getting a chance to experience firsthand all the festivals that are celebrated here throughout the year.Coming from a country where we have few national traditions we were both really excited to get a glimpse (and participate) in our first festival here over the weekend.Like many of the festivals here the Obon festival is observed across several days with many workers taking their paid leave to spend time with their families (not all festivals warrant a public holiday but 15 of them do!). Referred to as the ‘day of the dead’ Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the departed spirits of one’s ancestors. According to Wikipedia it has been celebrated here for more than 500 years and has evolvedinto a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places.We were lucky enough to be invited up to the Tomooka family grave which as part of Obon is cleaned by the family and then the ancestors are ‘carried down’ to their household altar where they stay forthe next three days. On the last night of Obon people gather together to dance in a big circle to the beat of a drum to send all the ancestors back to their resting places. Nathan and I were dressed by Bachan in traditional yukata (summer kimono) and went with Jo, Tom and the kids to take part. Having Bachan dress us in the Yukata caused great hilarity as we are obviously not the same build as the average Japanese and so she was having great fun trying to find ties big enough to fit around us...she even asked Nathan if he had two babies in his tummy! It was heaps of fun trying to get the hang of when to clap, slap, swing your legs and arms and when to take steps in which direction during the actual dancing part of the evening! It was just as well it was outside under lantern light so no one could really see how silly we must have looked! At the end they had a night they had a big raffle... I won some glad wrap and a drink bottle... doesn’t get much better than that!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Usa Shrine

On Sunday we finally kicked the sightseeing off with a trip to our first (of what i'm sure will be many) shrines here in Japan. Usa shrine is just a few minutes from Jo's house but is a truly spectacular sight to see. Designated as a national teasure this shinto shrine is the head shrine of 40,000 located across the country (according to the badly written English brochure).
On the way in you walk through a massive bright orange tori gate before arriving at a pool of water which you are supposed to cleanse your hands at by dipping the cup made of bamboo into the water and then pouring it over your hands. From there you walk through beautiful maple trees, up far too many steps for the summer heat and up to the shrine itself. Nathan had a go at clapping twice, bowing and then saying his pray... but not before throwing a handful of coins into the front of the shrine. After slow amble (it was too hot to manage anything else) we walked back down and found the nearest vending machine for something to cool us down. All in all it was a great way to mark the start of our sightseeing!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

First baseball game!

On Wednesday last week I had the pleasure of watching my very first live baseball game. Baseball is huge in Japan, probably
bigger here than in the USA. The school baseball team takes it very seriously and they are practicing everyday day, even in the holidays. So at 9am i wandered out to the baseball field and found a seat right behind the catcher, a perfect view to cheer my boys on (I haven't actually meet most of them yet but i now call them 'our team'). Unfortunately the lost 8-4 to a rival team but it was a lot of fun. Next step is to get on the field and have a swing!

Shopping blind...

I think it's fair to Say that one of the things we were most excited about in coming to Japan was getting to go grocery shopping! I guess it's the same wherever you go in the world but there's something pretty awesome about wondering around a foregin supermarket not knowing what anything is or how to cook it! We're yet to do our first actual shop but we have enjoyed familarising ourselves (with the help of our trusty guides) with some of the essentials we will need to help us survive. The biggest differences we have discovered so far are that fruit is sold per piece (as in the price is for each apple etc), the fruit here is super-sized (apples are bigger than the size of my hand) and individually wrapped most of the time, chicken and pork is mega cheap (less than $3 for two large chicken breasts) and the snack/treat isle is to die for! It sure will be interesting to see what we come home with the first few times!

One of the things I was most excited about getting was a cellphone. I always had the cheapest, crapest version in NZ so my plan was to go hard out here. After getting to the shop at 6pm the fun started, turns out things aren't as straight forward over here and pre paids don't really exist. After the various different complex plans and the different pricing structures were explained to us, not truly understanding what we had got, we could start the fun of picking a phone! There were about 15 free ones we could choose from, some did this and that but overall it was all about the looks! Oh, and the cameras! Megs phone has 8.2mp!!! That's more than most real cameras. Amazing. We'll never use half the features but that's irrelevant, they look cool and i feel slightly more Japanese with a phone in my hand! Funnily enough the 'English' language option only translates about half of the menus so who knows what i'm doing most of the time!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Signing my life away...

Today was a momentous day for Nathan and I... not only did I drive for the first time by myself (and not get lost), go to the supermarket on my own (and not get lost) whilst Nathan took the train and then bus to work (and not get lost) but we also signed on for our new apartment.
If it wasn't for our trusty translator (Tom)who held our hand through the entire process it could have been a complete nightmare! Luckily for us it actually turned out to be quite fun.
There were a million and one forms to be filled out (I did my best to smile and nod whilst the real estate lady did her best to explain what I needed to do).
Getting the keys was pretty exciting but not nearly as exciting as getting to use my new inkan (signature stamp) for the first time. Here in Japan instead of having a signature each person has a special 'seal' with their name on it which is used to 'sign' official documents. I have to admit I was pretty chuffed with my ultra-styley purple inkan!
Next step... organising to h
ave the electricity, gas and water turned on. Thank god for our trusty translators!