Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Shoe madness!

For anyone that’s not familiar with Japanese culture you may not be aware of the social protocols that go hand in hand with shoes.

Unlike Western culture where shoes are just as much a fashion statement as the clothes you wear, here in Japan you could wear hessian sacks on your feet and no one could care (well where we live and work anyway... I’m sure if you were in Tokyo with the millions of fashion savvy youths it might be a different story).

In Western culture it’s totally acceptable to wear your shoes inside, be it in a house, school, church etc. But in Japan shoes are really only worn to get to and from places and are generally taken off as soon as you get to where you are going and then replaced with a pair of “inside shoes”.

Having to take your shoes off everywhere you go has its up sides... like the house is always cleaner because you’re not traipsing dirt etc in from outside, you don’t have to worry if they match your outfit seeing as you’ll be taking them off anyway and one pair of shoes can last for a ridiculous amount of time.

However, having to take them off everywhere you can also has its down sides... like the smell! Come summer time when it’s 30 odd degrees outside and you’re sweating like a pig being in a room with 25 kids all without shoes on can be a little over powering! Then there’s the chaos at your front door of having various pairs of shoes lined up waiting for their next outing... not so bad when there’s just two of us but if you’ve got visitors and the genkan (the place where you take your shoes off) is as small as ours it gets a little out of control! Not to be out done of course by the frantic few minutes or so that inevitably takes place at a restaurant when it comes time to try and find your shoes again only to discover that they are no longer where you took them off (luckily on all the occasions this has happened the waiter has simply moved them).

One place I do think the “no shoes inside” policy has been taken a little over the edge is at school. In all likelihood every school has different rules about this but at one of my Junior High Schools I really think it’s gone a little far... as in it’s regulation that every student has a grand total of five pairs of shoes all of which are worn at different stages during the day!

So let me break it down for you: each student has a pair of “outside” shoes (usually the latest Nike or Adidas sneakers in the most garish colours you’ve ever seen) that they wear to and from school. Once they get to school they then put on their “inside” shoes (plastic slip-on ugly things... they all wear identical ones but can choose either green or blue) that they wear for the majority of the day in the majority of classrooms.

But this is where things get a little out of control for my liking... if they are going into a classroom that is lucky enough to have carpet on the floor (like the computer room or library) they must take off their “inside” shoes and put on a special pair of “carpet only” shoes (again every student has the exact same pair).

Shoe number four comes in if they are going to the gym. Now this is quite a process as they first have to take off their “inside” shoes and put on their “outside” shoes for the 5 metre (literally it’s only that far) walk to the gym. Once there they must then take off their “outside” shoes and put on their “gym” shoes (again these are regulation school uniform shoes so they all wear identical ones). This marathon effort is then repeated once they have finished in the gym and head back to the main school building.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more ridiculous they then have yet another pair of shoes they must change into when they have science class or food technology etc... these shoes are proper shoes as opposed to the open-toed slip on ones they wear to other classes, I guess as a safety thing.

Of course no trip to the toilet would be complete without a shoe change too! Which I guess in actual fact brings the total to six pairs of shoes! Whenever they go to the toilet they must take off their “inside” shoes and put on special “toilet” shoes. It’s not uncommon to see a queue of students a mile long outside the bathroom waiting for the special “toilet” shoes they must put on before they can enter.

If it sounds complicated that’s because it is!

In case you’re interested that means there are around 2,000 shoes on the school grounds at any one time!!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Meat and bread

Where do I start with a headline like that!....Today was pay the land lady day, a monthly event on or just after pay day, the 21st of each month. (Side note, who invented monthly pay?! Feels like forever before I am rewarded for my efforts). Pay the land lady day is an exciting event and a lot of thought goes into when we actually pay her. This is because she owns a wee bread shop attached to her house. I like bread. Especially bread that is not full (almost oozing) sugar.

If we have timed our visit right and the gods are on our side we are blessed with a big fresh bag of takeaway bread. Usually enough to last the weekend and particularly good with an egg or two on top or Jo’s amazing jam (thanks Jo!).

We have learnt through a method of trial and error to show up around 4.30-5pm. This is a perfect time as her day is winding down and she is eager to see any unsold bread go to a good home. Thankfully that good home is ours. Many months back we made the mistake of going too early and we were sent home with nothing, this has not happened again!

Today we came away with a walnut filled bread log (apparently called a tank loaf), a chocolate chip bread log/tank loaf and about 8 small buns.

Now these buns might look yummy but hold your horses. DO NOT just dive right in and swallow it in two bites. I believe they should come with a warning label.


I am in no way knocking our land lady/baker, she is awesome, but some of the fillings leave me wondering if I am in fact her unsuspecting lab rat. For example some have a whole potato or kumara inside! Talk about a carb rush. Some have azuki beans, a purple bean paste. I have also been hit with a mouth full of eggy custard and another full of cream.

Moving on from bread we find ourselves at the meat section. During the last few supermarket visits we have been eyeing up a large piece of meat that looks somewhat out of place in a Japanese supermarket. This is because it is actually meat with no fat, aka a steak, not the standard thin slices of fat with some specs of meat on the side! We had been apprehensive about getting it as we thought 1) it was probably whale tongue 2) it was probably animal food 3) there was just no way it was ‘western meat’. After having dinner with a friend and finding out she buys it and it is actually only beef from Australia we quickly added it to our trolley and devoured it for last nights dinner. And it was really good!

Finally, on Friday night we went out for yakiniku. This is Korean BBQ and almost the only non Japanese food you can get. Basically you select a whole lot of meat (thin slices that are at least a third fat) and cook them on a hot plate at your table. Very yummy. The owner was a hilarious Korean man who spent the whole meal at the side of our table grinning away with only half a mouth of teeth while telling us NZ meat is not good. The best thing about yakiniku is that you can eat it mum!!!!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The 'rain man'

You almost expect a samurai to come charging out!

With winter slowly fading away and the mountains losing their snowy peaks tramping season is once again kicking off. I'm very lucky to have meet some very keen trampers who live in Oita city and who seem to spend every weekend out in the hills. Although I am by far the youngest of the bunch, even younger than their kids, it suprises me how fit and fast they are.

The team at the top

Last Sunday we headed out towards Hita, a town about 1.5hrs away. The weather was supposed to be fine but unfortunately yet again this wasn't the case. This annoying problem follws me every time I go tramping in Japan and the people I go with have now dubed me "the rain man"! Every time I tag along the forecast is wrong and it rains. Case in point last Sunday, cloudy with fine patches became complete whiteout and misty drizzle. The beautiful view from the top was nowhere to be found. Don't worry though, it cleared 15mins before we got back to the cars!

Misty mountains

One thing the Japanese love to do is soak in onsens, or as we call them hot springs, there is an onsen on every corner in Beppu and just as many dotted around the country side. If you find a building it's either an abandoned school, convenient store or an onsen. I have had 3 trips to them so far but still can't decide exactly how i feel about them. There is certainly something relaxing about soaking in hot water butt naked while watching the forest around you but it's all the other stuff that's a little uncomfortable. Even though I am shaking on the inside and feeling totally uncomfortable I have to keep telling myself that that is only how I feel, to the locals it's just another nude person. I have now relised that if I want to tramp with this group soaking naked is part of it, everytime they tramp they onsen.

I think we go....that way!

50% of the people I ask say "no way, no bears in Oita" the other 50% say "oh yea, we have bears in Oita!". Who knows. The locals don't seem too.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Japan does it again

Over the last 3 weeks I have experienced a number of feeling and emotions related to living in a foreign land. Sometimes life here can be pure bliss with aspects of it so easy, enjoyable and rewarding. At other times it can be so frustrating and painfully different I wished I owned a teleportation system so I could escape for an hour or so!

As you are aware I use a speedy scooter to race to and from work. About 3 weeks ago I found out I was driving my scooter illegally, not only breaking the rules of my contract, work visa and licence but also meaning I had no insurance cover...eeek! For some strange reason an international driving permit does not allow the use of a scooter in Japan, even though my NZ licence does (and an international licence is just the NZ licence translated into Japanese). Not even any of my teachers could understand this with one of them even saying "what's common sense in Japan is just crazy anywhere else in the world".

After some investigation my only option was to get a Japanese licence! Oh boy I thought, now the fun starts. I knew from previous experience (like when we moved here) that any official type thing is a painful and tedious process.

First step was to put together all of the documentation I needed; NZ licence, Alien registration card, Passport, Certificate of Alien Registration, special drivers licence photos and application form. Second step was to have my NZ licence translated into Japanese, this required a 2hr trip to the only Japanese AA centre in the whole prefecture and more cash. Third step was to book an appointment at the drivers licence centre and after waiting 2 weeks thats where I headed to today.

The licence centre is a massive building with a driving course the size of 2 rugby fields. The system in Japan is very different (as you can imagine) and you don't actually sit a test on the road. The driving course is complete with traffic lights, railway crossings, bridges, lanes, pedestrian crossings, in fact it is a complete replica of a real street. This is where they sit their driving tests! Because NZ and Japan have virtually identical road rules Kiwis don't have to do a driving test (hahaha Americans!) so I expected the process to be quite simple. I was told it would be a short interview. 4 hours later I can assure you it was not a simple process!
20 odd people on scooters practicing on the course
I won't bore you with all the details but here is a sample of some of the questions during my 'interview' and my mental responses in ( ).

-When did you first get your licence? (how the hell do I know, look at the piece of paper in front of you!!!!)

-And it expires in 2014? (I guess so...look at it!!!!!)

-When you sat your learners how many questions where there in the test? (Holy shit your kidding right???! I have no idea, if I said 5,000 would you even understand me!?)

-Tell me what you were tested on in your restricted test? (lets seeing, oh yea, flying a kite with my hand tied behind my back! What do you think mate? Driving)

After half an hour of this I was beginning to wonder if it would be easier just to get in the car and drive around the course!

But finally I walked out with a Japanese licence!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

You know it's STILL winter when...

You wake up to yet more snow on the hills (the view from our driveway)

You do an entire crossword! (Thanks mum!)

You make microwave brownie (again, thanks mum!)

Last but certainly not least, you know it's STILL winter when.....you catch Nathan on camera breaking it down Nate diddy d dog styles!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Funeral... I mean Graduation

I'm not quite sure what I was expecting on Friday when I attended my first Japanese junior high school graduation ceremony but i'm quite sure I wasn't expecting to feel like I had walked straight into a funeral!
Like Nathan said in his last blog, graduations over here are a big deal! Unlike at home where graduations are really only reserved for University etc, at the end of the school year here every level of schooling has a ceremony dedicated to those graduating.
I think it's a great idea to celebrate the end of one school era and the beginning of another -"celebrate" being the operative word!
But what I discovered was that rather than celebrating the new beginning and everything they had achieved, graduation was instead about mourning the end of school as they had known it.
My first hint that is was going to be far from a happy occasion was when I arrived to find everyone dressed in black head to toe... a message that clearly wasn't passed on to me seeing as I turned up wearing grey pants and a pink top!!
The next sign was the ridiculously sad music they played while the 3rd graders paraded in - it was enough to bring a tear to anyone's eye!
Then came the eulogies (speeches) by various people all of whom not once cracked a smile, joke or even looked faintly to be happy for the school leavers. Parents sat weeping, teachers sat with their eyes cast to the ground while the students literally spent the entire hour and a half sobbing.
When it came time for each student to have their moment in the limelight by way of coming to the stage to receive their certificate I thought surely this must be when the mood will lighten a little.... But no.... from the time they left their chair, got their certificate and went back to sit down they had each bowed an impressive 8 times... how they managed to do this in between sobs is beyond me!
It was then time to sing the school song one final time... something that proved just too much for everyone (it had all got too much for me so even I had a tear by this stage).
And just when I thought it couldn't possibly get any worse the principal then handed over the 3rd grade flag to be wrapped and bound and from what I could gather 'laid to rest' - but not before being carried out like a coffin with everyone following in its wake.
So there you have it! Certainly not what I was expecting but interesting all the same! I wonder how the elementary school one will compare next week! Surely there will be at least one smile!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Smiles all round

Over the last two days a couple of things have occured that have once again made me smile and think about how lucky we are to be here and experiencing some cool stuff. A lot of what we see and do no normal tourist can experience.

On Monday it was school graduation. All of the 3rd grade students have finished their 3 years at senior high school and are now embarking on their new lives. Graduation is a BIG deal in Japan and from what I can gather easily the most important moment in the lives of these young Japanese rascals. It was so important in fact that Sunday (my day of rest, relaxation, recreation and recuperation) was set aside as practise day! You can imagine the smile on my face at 8am Sunday morning. Anyway with Sunday over the real ceremony was on Monday at 10am, with everyone seated at 9.55am; parents waiting, students anxious, me wondering if I should have gone to the bathroom or not and just the general hype of such an occasion things were ready to go! But no, we sat in the semi dark, watching the clock until 10..... then bang! It was go time.

The ceremony was a great insight into the old school traditional Japan, one not always obvious in everyday life. It was run like a military exercise with all the long and emotional speeches one would expect. There was quite a lot of bowing, crying, singing, a thunderstorm (outside) and even a power cut just to make things exciting. I wish I had photos to show but I believe I would have been shot if I stood up with my camera.

After this (jumping a few hours and a long explanation about how I am now in the processes of getting a Japanese drivers licence) my supervisor and I went out in search of an instant picture machine, after finding one and having my pic taken he offered me a drink from the vending machine. I ended up with a hot can of coffee. How awesome; hot, can, coffee. Who would have thought it was possible. I have seen heaps of these all over Japan but not being a huge coffee drinker I never take much notice. That has now changed. We sat in his car and drank our coffee while he made jokes using the word 'cheers'. "Cheers to your pictures", "Cheers to us", "Cheers to graduation". I wonder if he got one with alcohol???!
The English on the can tells us "This coffee is dripped one by one person by one"

Tuesday, today, and I have the day off. I caught the train to Oita and had to get re-entry permit for my passport as well as paying a deposit for flights to China. On my way home and in desperate need of a haircut I stopped at a local barber just down the road. Interrupting his TV watching time he proceeded to cut my hair, pausing every 3 mins to listen to an explanation about how a tsunami is caused.

I love Japanese haircuts. Here is a highlight real of today's experience; forehead shaved, back of the neck shaved, the inside,outside and lobes of my ears shaved, a 20min old school style beard shave complete with really sharp blade and man wearing a face mask, hair washed, shampooed, conditioned, face moisturising and head massage. 1 hour of relaxation and money well spent.

To top it all off the trees are blooming! Not long until the famed cherry blossoms come out!