Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gotta love Japanese signs

Whenever I see a sign written in English here I almost always stop to read it - not because I think it might be telling me something important but because more often than not it provides me with a good laugh. Yesterday when I was at the train station I couldn't help but stop and take a few photos of some of the signs they had... not only was the English funny but so were the pictures! I particularly like the picture of the guy on the train with his giant bag!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mmmmm anything but rice...

Lets just say Japan has a facination with rice... they eat it three times a day, something I don't intend on doing. It's pretty difficult to find any food that you would consider truly "Western" or something we could get in New Zealand. For example they have bread here but its twice as thick and tastes like pure sugar. They have cornflakes (about the only cereal you can get here), but there is more sugar in the box than cornflakes themselves. This means whenever we come across any "Western" food it's a real highlight and memories of all the foods I miss come flooding back... like PIZZA! We had heard of a pizza restaurant in Beppu, where I work, that apparently made pretty good pizzas. I had been dying to go there for quite some time and finally my chance came a few nights ago. For some odd reason Japanese people think corn is a standard pizza topping so after working out which ones didn't have corn we were pleased to be presented with a couple of delicious pizzas that I will no doubt have again. They even deliver on scooters with little warming ovens on the back! Mmmmm pizza!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kyushu adventure - days 4 & 5

Nathan decided to get up at 4.30am the next morning to tramp up Karakunidake - a 1700m extinct volcano, the highest point in the National Park. He decided to go at that time of the morning in hope of being at the top in time for a stunning sunrise... it was pure bad luck that only about 15minutes after he set off it started to rain! Being the real trouper that he is he carried on the hour it took him to get to the top and thankfully only 20mins after getting there the rain stopped at the clouds cleared. “Although it wasn’t the spectacular clear views I had hoped for the views were still stunning and it was a great way to start to my Japanese tramping adventures.” Back at the tent by 8am to find me still sleeping (hehehe) we packed everything up and went for a 2 hour walk around some stunningly beautiful volcanic lakes. Needless to say Nathan had had a busy morning and was pretty tired! So instead of battling the traffic on the free highways we decided to splurge out and took the expressway further north to Kumamoto. Normal roads in Japan even the highways have a speed limit of 50kms an hour. Toll roads on the other hand have limits of 80kms... but as there are absolutely no police most people drive at about 140kms... not us... I was a stickler for keeping Nathan at 100kms! Once on the road we decided to change plans slightly and rather than stay in Kumamoto the night we went straight through to another of Japan’s massive active volcanoes called Aso-Caldera. This is actually the world’s biggest volcanic crater with complete towns situated inside it... a sight you only understand by seeing it. In the middle are the five ‘new’ peaks that were formed in a huge eruption 20,000 years ago... these are all still fully active and regular throw stuff up in the sky. We camped on the side of this volcano in another pretty good campsite. We got up nice and early the next morning to try and beat the crowds up to the massive crater viewing spot... it was sooooo amazing! We were blown away! I have no idea how to explain what it was like! I don’t think we realised we were actually inside a volcano until we got to the viewing platform and looked down inside! Incredible! Again we took a million photos! This is one of the places we will definitely take any visitors that come here as it’s only about 2 hours from our house and has some good tramping trips around it that Nathan is dying to do!
So that’s our trip... like I said we had the most amazing time! We loved every minute of it! From start to finish it was 950kms... we came in well under budget and have memories that will no doubt last a lifetime!

Kyushu adventure - Day 3

Next morning we were up and off again by 9am, this time heading inland towards the bottom Prefecture of Kyushu, Kagoshima. However before we’d gone no more than 5 minutes up the road Nathan decided that he’d investigate the increasing rattling sound coming from the engine... just as well he did as turns out there was not one drop of oil left on the dip-stick... OPPS! We quickly headed for the nearest garage praying the engine wouldn’t seize... shock on the mechanic guy’s face when he saw just how lucky we were said it all!
Once on the move again we decided that seeing as we were that far south we would check out the massive volcano called Sakurajima that the area is famous for. There might have been thousands of other people there at the same time... in the blazing heat... but it was still an amazing place to visit. Sakurajima is a massive active volcano that for some strange reason they have built a city next to. When I say that it’s active that’s exactly what I mean... every day it blows out ash and dust which blankets the city and all the near by towns. Rather than the trees being green they were grey with ash as were all the cars, houses, gardens etc. It’s so active in fact that all along the streets there are little concrete ‘volcano shelters’ just in case it one day erupts again. The school kids even have to walk to school wearing hard hat helmets! It was pretty impressive to see it steaming away and a whole city just operating right next to it without a care in the world... not so sure we would be as happy to live right next to one of Japan’s most active volcanoes!
From there we drove North again up to Kirishima National Park... somewhere Nathan was really looking forward to going. Unfortunately for us it seemed half of Japan was also trying to get there as the traffic was ridiculous! We sat in a traffic jam for about an hour... only moving about 15kms in that time! Once we broke free of the traffic we drove through some stunning scenery of forests and mountain views up towards our campsite. We had no idea it was going to be as popular as it was... thousands of people there! Unlike National Parks back at home this was a hive of activity with tourist shops, huge car parks, tour buses and people milling about everywhere. National Parks in Japan are also different in the fact that they can be made up of land hundreds of kms apart... so this National Park even includes an offshore island. We went straight to the campground in fear we might be out of luck but were lucky enough to get one of the few spots left. The campground was beautiful... in amongst all the trees! We couldn’t get over the number of people there... it’s a really popular place for people to go tramping with a number of walks attracting people from all over Japan.

Kyushu adventure - Day 2

The next morning we were up and about early and tucking into the French stick we’d bought the day before... breakfast is hard enough at home here but on-the-go like we were its even harder... hence the bread stick and only the bread stick that morning! Back on the road again by about 9am after another walk along the beach we headed further down the Miyazaki Coastline towards another coastal campsite on the Nichinan coast. We had an amazing day along the way which was by complete fluke... we spotted a sign (in English!!) that said there was a waterfall close by to where we were... after a quick ‘should we, shouldn’t we’ we decided what the heck and followed the signs along yet another long and windy road through beautiful forests and more of rural Japan’s spectacular scenery. Once at the car park we had another ‘should we, shouldn’t we’ discussion about whether or not to change into our walking shoes of stay in our jandals... we opted for jandals... probably not the best choice and headed up the track. It probably took us way longer than it was meant to but we stopped every 10 metres or so to take more photos... it was really beautiful being amongst the bush (was actually quite a lot like home) but was strange not seeing or hearing many birds. Instead I got the fright of my life when a lizard (I’m not afraid to admit it was even a pretty small one) jumped out in front of me... a scream may or may not have escaped my mouth much to Nathan’s hilarity (but only after he’d made sure it wasn’t a snake like my scream my have implied). After 40 minutes or so we finally got to what we had walked to see.... a 78m waterfall. It was amazing! We scrambled our way over the riverbed along some precarious beams and got to within metres of it... again a million photos were taken! Sure was good to get out of the car and stretch the legs a bit! After a stop-off at a combini for some rice triangles (another stable food on the trip) we then headed the rest of the way to our campsite. Again we weren’t disappointed by it... another beachside location with more Palm trees and white sand.... paradise! Thankfully we had perfected our skills when it came to asking for a site so it was pretty straight forward. By this time our tummies were telling us we were hungry again and so drive into the little village looking for somewhere to eat... not too many options to choose from but we settled on a little restaurant which was lit up with paper lanterns on the outside. When we rolled back the door to the entrance we were met with walls and walls of baseball memorabilia – posters, balls, photos, trophies etc etc. Unfortunately my Japanese reading skills which served me so well the night before were not much use when it came to ordering off this particular menu – it was written in old-school Kanji = impossible to read! The one and only thing I could read was curry so we just went for that. What a fantastic choice it turned out to be! Rather than just getting a curry in a bowl on some rice like you usually would all the veggies and meat came out on their very own gas cooker for us to cook ourselves. Was great fun and tasted delicious! When leaving the chef, his daughter (the waitress) and his wife (also the chef) came out to say goodbye.... we tried talking to them in our limited Japanese to try and figure out what the deal was with all this baseball stuff... from what we could gather one of the local boys from the area had hit the big time by playing for one of Japan’s best teams and has since gone on to play for the Boston Red Sox.... he and several of the team have been to the restaurant to eat hence the many photos of them, autographs etc. The owners loved us so much they even gave us little ice-creams to take away with us. They are just some of the many friendly locals that make our experience here so worthwhile.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kyushu adventure - Day 1

We've just had 5 days off here in Japan so what better way to make the most of it than driving 1000kms around Kyushu! Thankfully Nathan had spent the week before we left analysing our one and only map (which .is in Japanese) and highlighting the roads we needed to take for the entire trip... it sure made my job a lot easier in directing him through the numerous intersections, rice fields, random little streets, cities, villages and back roads. We sure would make one heck of an Amazing Race team! Our trip down to our first campsite was on the Miyazaki coastline so the scenery along the way was stunning. The water is seriously the most amazing blue here! Much of the route we took involved winding our way in and out of little coves and through tiny little fishing villages. We decided not to take the main road as we wanted to take in as much of rural Japan as we could... a decision we never regretted as it meant we got to see some amazing sights! Much of the drive around the little bays reminded us a lot of the Marlborough Sounds... although the boats couldn’t be further from those seen back at home... no big flashy boats here... rather old and well-used fishing vessels used for hauling in the catch of the day. Our ‘off the beaten track’ approach to the trip meant that at one point we were heading towards what we thought was going to be a relatively major road only to discover it was in actual fact the most random windy road that really shouldn’t be considered a road at all. It wound its way through the forest, up and over a big mountain... it was a shame I was sitting on the side of the car that was right next to the big drop down the side of the cliff (with no barriers)... I was terrified and held on tight the entire way! We eventually came out the other side with a sigh of relief and carried on down a ‘normal’ road. Our first campsite for the trip was right next to the beach which was lined with Palm trees and had beautiful white sand. The waves were incredible (hence the 30 or so surfers in the water) with the only downside being it wasn’t a great place for a swim (as Nathan found out after being pummelled by the waved during his short dip). We had a bit of fun trying to communicate with the guy at the camp office... trying to say we had our own tent and only wanted to stay for one night proved trickier than we first thought but we eventually got there in the end.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Death at the villa

A couple of days ago tragedy struck the sea side villa (our house). My dearest stag beetle AKA "Stag" died. We have know idea how or why. On one of my nightly checks and organised play times i discovered him curled in a semi ball like state, initially i thought he was playing games like we always did......not this time. He was truly dead. RIP Stag. You will be missed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The last samurai

I may not be a samurai warrior just yet... but give me time and I will be. Before coming to Japan I knew I wanted to start up some new and exciting Japanese sport/tradition. I've always been interested in samurai history and on arriving in Japan I learnt of a sport called Kendo. Kendo means 'the way of the sword' and has evolved from the samurai's that strolled the streets hundreds of years ago. It took me a while to find a club that I could practice with.. thanks to the good old language barrier, but after learning that one of my students practices kendo at a local school I swiftly pounced on the opportunity to go and watch. With my cunning linguistic skills it wasn't long before I was accepted as a member. After giving a brief but grammatically correct welcome speech I was on my way to fighting for world domination samurai style. To be honest I didn't know much about kendo, apart from the fact that it was pretty much sword fighting. Kendo is an extremely fast sport and matches can be won and lost in a matter of seconds. There are four possible scoring (killing) moves: on the top of the head, throat, wrist and stomach. It might sound very dramatic and dangerous but the amount of padding and the fact that we use a bamboo sword means you can comfortably strike and get smacked with no worries. Kendo is fought between two people and like all Japanese martial arts it is full of traditions and ceremony. It is a very respectful and spiritual sport as this was the samurai philosophy. On my second night my kendo sensei greeted me with my very own, brand new kendo sword. I was completely blown away by his generosity and kindness. I go twice a week and seriously can't wait for my next practice.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cultural differences

This week 3 things happened to me that really made me go 'wow', they were those type of situations where you really feel like you're on another planet. A cultural barrier overcome.

Firstly, on Thursday morning at 8am we had our normal teacher's meeting, all 50 odd teachers at our desks and people saying what they need to say etc. I can't understand a thing so i just look happy and smile and bow when i need to. But this time i knew something was home room teacher (form room) hurried off to the phone and took an important call, everyone carried on but you could tell they were all listening with 1 ear! A student in our class had been knocked off his bike by a truck (he's ok, only a scratch, tough guy) and the teacher told me she was off to sort things out. I was like..."what?", "why" (inside my head). Why would the teacher go?

When i asked her later that day why she had to go she looked at me with a weird expression and said "Because I'm his home room teacher" (with a look of 'why did you ask such a stupid question!!'). Still no closer to an answer. After asking another teacher i got a good explanation. In Japan teachers are responsible for students the moment they leave home, so even though he was on his way TO school, she had to deal with the situation as she was his responsibility!! Imagine if he had died.........!

Secondly, it was an action packed week with school festival (bunkasi, tue-wed) and sports day (unknown Japanese word, Friday). Basically no classes. The students had spent weeks preparing for both of these. Bunkasi is a mixture of shows, dances, performances, food stalls, entertainment, class projects etc. A huge highlight of the school year. My class made a planetarium, another class did a huge domino thing around their room and another built a huge statue made of cans. Along with fashion shows and talent quests it was a fun experience.

Sports day is nothing like in NZ, in fact its more of a games day. The only true sport or athletics are the relay races. But before we could get to the fun and games we had a whole day, 8-4pm, of sports day practise!! Yip a complete run through of the entire day to make sure everyone knew what to do and was doing it properly. When i asked a teacher why they do this he said "There will be many spectators tomorrow and if things do not run well it looks bad for the school so we must practise to ensure we present a good reputation". I get the feeling a lot of things in Japan are done purely for image and how something looks is hugely important.

The real sports day was a blast! Relay races, class skipping (40 people at a time), tug of war, obstacle race, some game where the girls compete against each other to steal hue long poles, class legged race(all legs tied together) and of course this is all after each class marches in with their flag and bows to the principal. Finally the day ended with what was clearly the most popular event. Boys team fighting. There is no other word for it. 3 boys create a pyramid and 1 boy sits at the top, at the whistle they go. Aim of the game is to knock the other person over. All the teachers swarm around to catch falling students or break up fights. I was shocked. All of a sudden we had a brawl going. 100 boys trying to kill each other and it was all in the name of sports day. Amazing. I saw 1 kid get smashed in the face by a beautiful right hander. I was right in the middle of it totally buzzing out, couldn't believe what i was seeing!

Yum yum cookies for my tum...

Anyone that knows me knows that nothing makes me happier than baking! Cookies, muffins, cakes, slices... you name it, I love making it. So when coming to Japan one of the things I was saddest about was knowing that I wouldn't have an oven like back at home.

Never fear though... I discovered that my tiny little microwave doubles as a tiny little oven! Seriously the best discovery EVER! So the other night I attempted my first batch of cookies... it might have taken forever to cook them all (the tray only hold about 5 at a time) but it was well worth the effort! Delicious!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

School Sports Festival

Schools here in Japan are in the midst of School Sports Festival season. We really have nothing back at home that compares to what it is here but I guess the closest thing would be athletics day. However the similarities would stop there as nowhere near the same amount of preparation or effort is put in to it as is done here.

All of my schools have their sports festival on the same Sunday in two weeks time and preparations are well underway in each school. Like any event here in Japan the day begins and ends with a ceremony in which all the kids and teachers have their own special part. Today at my main junior high school the kids had to spend 3 hours outside in the blazing sun practising for the ceremony. Not only did they spend about an hour getting their bowing right to an exact degree angle, perfecting the art of organising themselves into straighter than straight lines but they also spent well over and hour working on their marching. It was quite amazing to watch actually although I felt super sorry for them all having to repeat it over and over again with no breaks in between. My favourite part is when they practice their group warm-ups... something all club sports do after school as well. Basically some terrible music is played over the loud speaker and the entire school of 173 students all stand together and stretch in timed perfection. It always amazes me how the kids seem more than happy to do these things without one complaint, foot out of line (literally) and without a single noise coming out of their mouths... until they get to the part when they all yell out "Can we do it... Yes we can" in their loudest voices.
I'm looking forward to seeing all this practice pay off at the actual festival in a few weeks time.

School lunches

I think it's fair to say that one of the things I was dreading most about living in Japan was having to have school lunches. So far I'm pleased to say it hasn't been all bad... but when it is bad... it's really bad! Unlike back home in New Zealand all elementary and junior high school students have a school lunch provided for them each day. It's quite a major operation with all the schools in the area having the exact same menu for the month and as far as I can tell it arrives at the exact same time at each school. The minute it arrives the kids all rush outside and start bringing in all the pots and pans, trays and cutlery needed for that particular day. The desks in the classroom are then all grouped together like clock work and the kids fall into line dishing out the days food in an unbelievable orderly fashion (I'm yet to see one kid push, shove or argue for more food). The menu is set a month in advance and is never repeated within that month... which for some things is a major bonus and others is a real shame... unless of course you are like me and cover schools in two different areas, meaning they have two separate menus... meaning I was most unlucky to be dished up the same thing two days in a row... the very thing that made me gag just looking at it (I went hungry that day). Within each week there are two bread days (nothing like the bread we get at home mind you!) and three rice days. So far I have had curry (yum), bread with chocolate sauce (not so yum), cold udon noodles (not so bad), potatoes with bacon and vegetable soup (pretty good), a weird pickled salad with tiny little white fish with nasty looking eyes all through it (yuck yuck yuck) and the most disgusting congealed tofu thing that had me closing my eyes just at the sight of it (the thing I had two days in a row). Last but not least every single lunch time each kid is also given a 200ml bottle of milk... some days it warmer than I would like but on the whole it does a pretty good job of disguising the taste of whatever it is I might have just eaten.

The highlight of school lunches is most definitely sitting with the kids... they love it when I pull faces after trying something for the first time... but love it more when they get to finish off what I can't eat!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Beppu's Eight Hell's

Over the weekend we took a trip into Beppu city to take a look at some of its most famous onsens (hot springs). Known as the onsen capital of Japan, Beppu has hundreds of steaming hot spots all over its landscape which people from all over Japan flock to all year round.
Its most famous onsens are known as the Eight Jigoku Hell's and are basically giant multicoloured volcanic pits of boiling water, mud and geyers.
Given the whopping price they were asking to see all eight we opted to just see one of them... and to be honest it was more than enough in this heat.
Known as the 'sea hell' Umi Jigoku is a pool of tourquise water that is 120 metres deep and 9o degrees in temperature. It had a big bamboo pole dangling out in the middle of it on which you can pay to have an egg cooked for you (again super expensive so we skipped this novelty).
There was also the most magnificant green pond that had the biggest water lillies we have ever seen... so big in fact you can actually pay to have your child sit on them! The only disappointment was that there were no frogs jumping from one to the other.
There was also an area where you could take your shoes off and brave the waters of the natural onsen... I opted to watch Nathan and Dave rather than inflict that kind of heat on my already elephant-like ankles. The locals had great fun laughing at them as they inched their way into the hot water up to mid calf level making screeching noises after each step. One Japanese guy in particular thought it was hilarious when they came out sporting red lines on their legs from where the water had scorched them and started calling them 'red socks' in his best English.
After a quick stop at yet another vending machine we then headed to our local Okonomiyaki restaurant for round two of make your own Japanese cabbage pancake... delicious!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

You gotta love this place...

Well we have been in Japan for just over 1 month now so it's about time we had a little celebration - by way of a "what we love and hate " list:

-Vending machines; they are everywhere, even right next to the most sacred of shrines or temples. Buy a treat, pray,walk around, buy a treat, it's just what you do.
-Trains; so much faster than a car! I catch 2 a day and my station master and I are like best mates. You have 3options on them: sleep (and your head goes all over the place when you race around the bend, hahahahaha), watch TVon your cellphone or read. I'm the only one just looking at people.

-No rubbish; this is so true. I would honestly say I struggle to find any even when I'm looking for it. There isjust none. And even rubbish bins! The cleanest place we've ever been.

-Old men and ladies; they nearly fall over with joy when you say something to them in Japanese. I walk past thesame old guy each day outside his rest home. He loves me like a son.

-Treats/Food; so many to pick from! some are wierd and totally disgusting but when you guess right, bingo!

-Gas water heating; why do we pay to heat our hot water in NZ when we don't use it???! GAS is the answer, pusha button and you have hot water, push it again and you don't. Small electric bills.

-Fans; electric fans. Right next to your bed. So good.

-Stag beetles; so much fun. Enough said.

-The cost of food; generally speaking things are cheap, very cheap. For example 500g of chicken costs roughly NZ$2-3!!! Strangely it's rice that is the most expensive thing!!!

-Western toilets; Wow. You can push a button and get a spray of water up your ass, when your done, flush it and there's a tap on top you wash your hands under. Water saver. Time saver.
-Dry clothes; you can wash something and put it out to dry at 10pm. Next morning wear it to work. Awesome!

- Japanese English; It's hilarious to walk around the streets seeing people wearing t-shirts they obviously have no idea what they actually say.... for example... a teacher came to my school wearing a t-shirt that said 'I devote my lifeto playing sex'. English signs can be a source of much laughter too!

-Banks; these cheeky buggers are never open when you need them, 10-3pm, I think they have the shortest working day of anyone(probably not) but they are closed when you need them, actually, it's not really the banks but their ATM's, or lackof. They open at 9am and close at 5pm, that's right...ATM's that close!!!!! That's ok, use your eftpos card to pay I hear you say! No chance. A strictly cash society. On pay day i'm sure there'd be millions of Yen in pockets all overtown.

-The heat; you sweat in the shower. It just doesn't let up.

-What I bought with me; why the hell did I bring 3 hoodies, 2 jerseys and a down jacket. I'd trade them all for a couple ofsinglets.

-The rubbish/recycling system; about 10 different categories. Headache.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Bucket of hard questions...

A month after leaving home I finally had my first day at school today. For the last 3 and a bit weeks I have had to sit at a desk in the Board of Education office until the end of the summer holidays.
Today I was at my base school which I will go to twice a week - Yamaga Junior High School which has 173 students ranging from 12- 15 years old. Today went smoothly enough... I only actually had to periods in the classroom but the kids seemed to enjoy interacting with me at every opportunity.
My first chance to talk with the kids came at exactly 9.10am (everything is done exactly on time) during cleaning time. Here in Japan schools don't have cleaners that come in after school like they do back home; instead each school has a set cleaning time each day when the students and teachers all muck in and do the chores. I was given the task of getting down on my hands and knees and scrubbing the floor... a great way to break the ice with the kids who have an annoying habit of talking behind their hands when they speak to you!
After cleaning time was over we all headed to the gym for a short Welcome Ceremony in which my instructions were to give a brief introduction about myself... the problem was everything I was going to say was said by the person who introduced me... a good lesson on how to think on my feet!
I then had two back-to-back English classes with the second graders which was a lot of fun... and even a little awkward at times... I was given 30 minutes to tell them about myself and about New Zealand which thanks to all the things I brought with me to show and the slides we had made was pretty easy. I then played a criss-cross game which involved the kids having to ask me questions in English... not only did this give me a good chance to get an idea of their English ability (quite low for most but some surprised me) but I also had my first taste of the kinds of hairy questions I can expect to be asked at my 9 other schools!
Some of the questions included: When will you love me? (asked by one of the baseball boys who has a large following of giggling girls), Will you kiss me? (asked by another of the baseball boys who also has a following of giggling girls) and If you wont kiss me, can I kiss you? (asked by the side-kick of baseball boy number two).
So what did I learn from my first day in the classroom?... The boys are going to be a handful... the girls will whisper when spoken to...and if you're not quick enough during school lunch... one of the baseball boys will whip it out from underneath you before you get a chance to notice (yes that did in fact happen while I had my eyes closed trying desperately not to bring back up the warm 200ml milk I have the luxury of having everyday!)