Monthly Archives: August 2010

Mountain of Pain

Ok so I swapped the “up my” title formula to something a little more dramatic because, well, titles are important aren’t they. They convey a sense of what is to come, and will either make someone interested in, or put off by the content before they’ve even read it (discounting the faithful followers that will read it no matter what, obviously – love you guys). Who can fail to be excited by “MOUNTAIN OF PAIN” though, I ask you? Say it in your head in the voice of the Hollywood trailer guy and the effect is even greater! Is it a metaphor? Does he mean it literally? Does it even have anything to do with the rest of the post or did he just use it to trick you all into reading on?! Read on to find out…

The week after Gotenba English Camp was my first full week at Kagakugijutsu High School (say that ten times fast). Lessons didn’t actually start until 2nd September so I had plenty of time to work on my self-introduction presentation, which mainly involved me going on Facebook and sifting through pictures of me playing the guitar, climbing, eating and making a fool of myself. I went out for a meal after work on Tuesday with a couple of other ALTs, and cooked Raj (another ALT who lives in my building) a meal on Wednesday but other than that the week was wholly uneventful. Part of the problem is that it’s too hot to do anything here. I spend half the day sweating, and the other half hiding away in an air-conditioned office dreading the moment when I have to go outside and begin sweating again. Air-conditioning units back in the UK are generally set to 19-22C and that is considered a comfortable temperature. Here they’re set to 26C. That is cool here; every day is 30C+. I haven’t even bought a quilt yet and I intentionally make having a shower and getting dressed in the morning the last thing I do before I leave; to open the cereal cupboard results in the loss of half your body’s water; to open the fridge results in the loss of the other half which, finally, results in you lying dehydrated on the kitchen floor waiting for the next door neighbour to come and feed you the milk you wanted through a drip. Careful planning is the only way to stay alive.

It is probably just as well the week was uneventful because at the weekend it was my birthday, and I was going to haul my poor 27 year-old body up the tallest mountain in Japan, Mt. Fuji. You’ve seen the pictures; it’s that huge volcano that dwarfs every – already quite large – mountain in the vicinity, often cloaked mysteriously in cloud and topped with a layer of snow. I’d locked the date in before I’d even left England. Watching the sun rise from the top of the tallest mountain in Japan on the dawn of my birthday, I thought; that’s pretty cool. The thing is, on paper “Climb Mt. Fuji” sounds like a great idea. In the bus it still sounds great. Even when you’re actually on the mountain and it’s only taken you 15 minutes to get from the 5th station to the 6th you just think “Ahh this is easy, I’ll be up there in 30 minutes”, it still seems like a great idea.

Before I climbed Mt. Fuji I have never, ever come close to falling asleep standing up. I thought it was a physical impossibility; a tired old saying; a cliché to describe a very, very tired person. Imagine my surprise then when, shortly before I reached the 8th station, I was actually in imminent danger of falling asleep while I was walking; in fact I think I actually did fall asleep. A number of times I thought I’d stepped on a particular rock only to find it was still there in front of me, waiting to be tackled. My mind was beginning to make its own way up the mountain and it was intent on leaving this pointless pile of flesh and blood behind.

Fortunately I reached the 8th station intact. I was freezing, I was sleep-walking, it was about 2am and I still had two stations to go before I reached the summit. I began talking to myself…

“What the hell am I doing here?” I wondered, “Am I trying to see what my limit is?”

“No, you don’t care; if you did, you would’ve run a marathon years ago.”

You’re right… Why then?”

“Err. I think you thought it was cool.”

“Oh I did, did I?”

“Yeah. You were banging on about how cool it would be to open a bottle of champagne at sunrise, on the top of the tallest mountain in Japan on your birthday.”

“Oh yeah that is quite cool actually”

“It’s not really though is it? You have to walk up a dusty track in the dark for 7 hours cursing every step you take, and once you reach the top you’re going to have to go all the way back down again.”


“You’re freezing as well by the w—”

“Piss off.”

But freezing I was, and it didn’t matter how well I did up my newly-acquired transparent poncho; the cold was here to stay.

Luckily, the 8th station turned out to be something of a god-send. It was heated throughout – which at least allowed me to warm up temporarily – and they sold hot cups of coffee. They were £5(!) each but caffeine was more necessity than luxury at this point so I paid the man a fiver and quietly sipped my coffee whilst I posed painfully for a couple of photos. A few minutes later, brain addled with caffeine, we resumed our journey up the endless hill and I mumbled something to myself something about Facebook and “are you sure” dialogue boxes.

An hour later we reached the 9th station. We were all in higher spirits now; the summit was within view and there was plenty of time to make it before sunrise.

Then we saw the queue.

Yes, the queue. Up a mountain. This must be the only place in the world where people queue to get to the top of a mountain. As a result, our probable maximum of 1 hour of steady climbing became 2½ hours of one step; 10 second wait; another step; half a minute wait; watch man fall asleep standing up; jab him; one more step. It was getting lighter and we were too far from the summit to make it in time for sunrise. It became clear that we would have to do something terrible; something no Englishman has done since the beginning of time. We would have to break the cardinal rule of being English, the one thing that brings tuts and whispers to every man, woman and child in our glorious land, the very fabric of what makes us who we are…

We would have to jump the queue.

Yes ladies and gentlemen I am appalled at myself, but we really had no choice! There was no way we could let a bunch of old fogies, who should never have taken Julie Andrews seriously, prevent us from seeing what we climbed for 7 hours to see. And so we did it; we jumped the queue, in the most shameless fashion we could manage. At one stage a man stuck his walking stick out to stop me and I just barged right on through. Right on through! Like I was a bloody European! I am appalled and ashamed, and I’m sorry.

The result of this blatant disregard for the unwritten rules of British society however, was the view of a sunrise before anyone else in Shizuoka, on top of a mountain, on my birthday, while holding a paper cup brimming with chilled champagne.

Pretty cool, I reckon.

English Camp at Gotenba

Fast-forward one week then to Tuesday 17th August, and it was time for Gotemba English Camp. This was my first experience of working with actual Japanese school children and, where the kids at my school are at beginner-level English, these girls (plus around 10 boys) were some of the top students in Shizuoka Prefecture. Only a few of the ALTs get a chance to do this and I felt honoured and excited to have been picked. I also saw it as a great opportunity to get a bit of experience under my belt before I went into the job for real so I resolved to get a good night’s sleep and be up, bright, ready and raring to go on Wednesday morning when we got on the bus. “There’s a festival in Mishima tonight, ay,” said Mark, a new friend of mine from New Zealand. “Great!” I said, “What’s that all about then?”

“Oh you know, just some street stalls and floats and people dancing and stuff. Should be good, ay.”

Now I’m not usually one to turn down an invitation unless I have a shortage of cash, and I’ve got bags of it over here! Sorry, just saying; it’s a fairly new experience for me. Next thing I knew I had pretty much invited myself to stay at Mark’s for the night and we were soon walking through a huge throng of people, all standing around watching taiko drummers performing their elaborate routines on top of intricately carved floats fashioned like mini-pagodas. Brightly coloured dancers and cheerleaders followed loudspeakers in a trance, performing the same rehearsed moves over and over while girls in kimonos weaved delicately in and out of the crowd taking in the sights and sounds. The delicious, hunger-inducing scent of festival food filled the air; yaki soba, seared belly-pork on a stick, mini kebabs, noodles with fried eggs, mashed potatoes, katsu curry, some kind of pastry package which, when chewed open, reveals a filling of sweet, creamy custard. Now, I thought to myself, the Japanese know how to do festivals, as memories of scout parades and baton twirlers came fading much too vividly into view.

All this revelry came, as you might expect by now, with rather a lot of beer and though managed to tear myself away by 2am, Mark was still out singing karaoke and going pint-for-pint with a particularly large Japanese American Footballer until 4am. Fortunately we managed to wake up and get the train and the bus on time and so, after an awkward start, I settled in to a lengthy conversation about brown rice as we drove up the mountain to the Toto Conference Centre.

You may have heard of Toto before. No, not the dog from The Wizard of Oz. They make toilets, showers, baths and sinks and things. This place was owned by them and subsequently, the very first thing you see when you walk in – and I’m not even joking here folks – is their flagship toilet, standing proud, front and centre, waiting for you to walk over and admire it; possibly even to stroke it a bit and go “ooooooh”. So I walked over with exactly that intention, except that just as I was about to, it opened! It actually opened its lid for me as if to say “Go ooooooon, I know you just had one at that service station but did it wash for you? Did it BLOW-DRY? Go on… Let it flow……… Let it flow.” I took a step towards it and could hear – from somewhere outside of my conscience – a voice saying “No, don’t!” but I could pay it no heed, for it was but a flutter of a butterfly’s wings amongst a storm of desire. A step closer to my goal, and I could feel my lips moving but they did not seem to speak; at least not in a language I understood. I measures? No. What was I saying? MY PRECIOUS?! It had been called that once before but not by me, and not by someone of this age.

“Eh? What?”
“You’ve got your own toilet for that sort of thing.”
“Oh, yeah. Er… Sorry.”

I dropped off my bag in my en-suite, air-conditioned room, had the quickest shower known to man and made my way back upstairs.

And so began two and a half days of games and activities with some of the most wonderful, pleasant and well-rounded teenagers I have ever met. The opening ceremony was a bit nerve-racking; indeed, this was the first time I’d spoke in front of 40 teenagers since I had to do a presentation on something I knew nothing about in secondary school. My English teacher back then, Mr. Pender, asked everyone to write a subject on a piece of paper and then put them all in a hat for us to pick out, the idea being that we were learning the skills for presenting and so the subject didn’t matter; you just had to find a way to relate it to your life. Of course that was what he told us then but, upon reflection, he was actually teaching us how to blag. Blagging, above all else, requires confidence, and at that stage in my life I had none to speak of so when placed in front of the class and faced with the subject “My Day Trip Around the Dell” I froze, not only because I had no idea what “the Dell” was (it’s the name of the old Southampton football stadium for those who don’t know. What? Who cares? Yeah, exactly), but also because I was petrified I wouldn’t say the right thing. That “right thing” would have to be funny enough for my peers, clever enough for Mr. Pender and impressive enough for my friends. I’d set myself up for perfection before I’d even begun to speak, and as a result I froze, said nothing, and was eventually sent back to my seat by a doubtless, frustrated Mr. Pender amidst a chorus of abuse and giggles from the rest of the class. Not the best example of public speaking I’m sure you’ll agree.

Thankfully I’ve come on a bit since then, and all we had to do was stand up in front of the class and introduce ourselves before we were assigned to our teams. So I did – with no freezing whatsoever I might add – and then went and stood next to my 4 girls, Kaori, Saki, Nao and Ayumu. After a brief introductory chat we all went to lunch and then off to separate rooms to work on a team name, motto, and a poster to go on our door. After much deliberation, my girls settled on “Happiness” as a team name and “always smile and be cheerful” as our motto, then they created a multicoloured poster with all our names on it and a whole bunch of hearts everywhere. Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t exactly imagine a group of four 15-year-old girls in England sitting down and coming up with that. You’d have one in the corner going “whatever, I ain’t doing it”, one blowing bubbles and twirling her hair clearly wondering why she’d been placed with these losers in the first place, and the other two coming up with rude team names and drawing multicoloured penises on the sheet of paper. One can only imagine the chaos that would ensue. Yet here I was with four, amicable, respectful and outgoing kids that were a joy to work with. First impressions were good.

That was most of the first day in a nutshell. We had a couple of English-based games but it was all fairly quiet as the kids got used to each other and us ALTs. Everything finished at 9pm and then we played a few quiet games of Scrabble with a couple of the more adventurous kids of the group. A quick ALT meeting, then – for me at least – it was bed at 22:30 where my brain shut down as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Thursday arrived all too quickly. Up at half 7, washed, dressed, ate breakfast (bacon, eggs, fried rice, fruit, deep-fried, battered chicken wings and toast – a stranger breakfast I have never seen) and began work on a play. All the groups had come up with a piece of dialogue which they put into a hat, and then one was drawn out (“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”) so it could be included in every group’s play. Off we toddled back to our rooms where we began work on our masterpiece. I say our masterpiece but it was really their masterpiece since all I did was supervise, and point them towards an ending when I realised they were just scripting a chat around a table.

“How can we use ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’?” I asked, while they were talking about being hot and playing card games (we had to utilise a whole bunch of cultural items they had brought in for another task). “How are we going to end this?”

“Ehhhhhh-toh…..” came the reply – the Japanese version of “um”

When I realised they were having serious trouble with this, I shed my last bastion of self-importance and suggested that I could be a horse. There. I’d said it. No turning back now.

Suddenly their eyes grew brighter as they realised I’d crossed the line from sensible teacher to silly study-mate. The possibilities flew through their eyes, and then through the air in snappy Japanese until they finally decided that I would walk in, pretend to munch on some grass, neigh a little bit, and then be killed and eaten by them. And so as I stood there out of the limelight, waiting for my cue to enter the stage and make a huge fool of myself I had, totally unexpectedly, my first encounter with what it must feel like to be a proud father – that overwhelming need to grab the nearest person and whisper excitedly in their ear “LOOK! They’re my girls up there! Aren’t they doing BRILLIANTLY?!

This bizarre experience happened more than once during the camp, most notably when we played “Jedi Wars”. Each member of the team had to take turns wearing a mask (with the eyes blocked up) then, armed with a long piece of foam, be spun round and directed by the rest of the team to where their opponent from another team was (“turn left”, “turn right”, “hit”, etc.). Except that Team Happiness didn’t really need to use “hit” when they worked out they could just keep swinging the foam as hard as they could and then rely solely on directions in order to get the first hit in, ultimately winning the battle. The other teams eventually caught on, but it was too late. Happiness won nearly every fight. I was proud again.

That Thursday was fantastic. The students had really clicked with each other, and they were also much more confident about coming to talk to us ALTs. We had numerous opportunities to hang out with them throughout the day, playing Uno, Hangman, Scrabble, etc., and after all the official activities were done and dusted a whole load of us all piled into the common room and continued the board/card games until 10pm, when we kicked them all out and got a few beers from the vending machine.

So that was it. On Friday we had an award ceremony for which we had made a load of very fetching rosettes, and then we had our pictures taken for about an hour with every different student, combination of students, and combination of students and ALTs possible. I began to understand how tigers felt at the zoo. One final photo of the whole camp, and we jumped on the bus and made our way back home.

Kakegawa Orientation

JET love orientations. Pre-departure; post-arrival; pre-teaching; post-natal; it’s like they see all of us poor candidates as being locked into a perpetual game of Spin the Bottle in which we think we’re the bottle, and they are the only people who can save us from a life of dizziness, despair and ultimately, suicide. Either that or murder, or being locked up for 20 years for inadvertently puffing on a joint (even though you told them those nasty people said it was oregano), or dying from an earthquake, or from a tsunami, or from crossing your legs or having your hands in your pockets, or having someone give you a pair of chopsticks when you swear you asked for the nearest bridge.

This particular orientation turned out to be the most useful of the three (the post-natal one was a joke by the way – well done if you spotted it) and I came away with a sense of what I am actually going to be doing for the next year. We learnt about the topics we’ll be expected to teach, activities and games to keep the kids interested, what role the JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English) will usually take in the classrooms, ways to motivate students, etc. My official title is ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), but the “assistant” part is really just for show. We get paid just as much as the fully-fledged teachers and so for the most part are expected to act and perform like fully-fledged teachers. In my school I more-or-less own the syllabus with a little guidance from the JTEs. I decide what to teach the kids based on what I think is most useful to them; I plan the lessons, I create the materials, I brief the JTEs on what I want them to do during the lessons and then I just have to make sure I turn up and teach them the stuff. Whether or not I will do a good job of this remains to be seen, and the Kakegawa Orientation – apart from being extraordinarily helpful – also succeeded in putting the kake right up my gawa (that is to say, I was somewhat worried).

Apart from the usefulness of said orientation it was also the first opportunity I had to meet a lot of the ALTs that arrived either in April or a week before our group, as well as a lot of the sempais (veterans who have volunteered to help us newbies) that weren’t at the Tokyo orientation. It was also the first time I had ever got into a bath, naked, with three other naked men. This intriguing male-bonding ritual is known as an onsen, is thoroughly traditional, and is the only way to get yourself clean in this particular conference centre. Basically you all walk, naked, into a big room with a load of buckets lined up underneath the shower heads. You sit on the upturned bucket, soap yourself all over about 17 times, rinse yourself off and then get into a steaming hot mini swimming pool for as long as you want. When you’re suitably hot (bearing in mind it’s 30C+ outside all the time over here) you sit on a bucket again and blast yourself with cold water; the result being that you feel really fresh, clean and a little bit high from the rapid change in temperature. Once you get over the fact that there are man-bits swinging about everywhere it’s actually rather a liberating experience, and one which is worthy of repeating in this prefecture, which boasts of its abundance of natural hot springs with gusto and celebration.

Along with all of the pros I have already mentioned, it was at this orientation that I was able to brush up on my flower-arranging skills, work on my tea-cup turning technique and experience a simulated earthquake. All-in-all, the whole three-day experience was jolly good fun.

Culture Shock in Japan

On Saturday 31st July at around 2pm, for reasons already expressed, I took my first steps towards the biggest change in my life I have ever undertaken. Not content with changing one thing in my life like most normal people, I opted to change my country, house, job, career, language and culture. I left behind every semblance of familiarity I know and 10 hours later I was spat out in Tokyo severely jet-lagged, and faced with the prospect of 3 days of lectures and 2 nights of inevitable heavy drinking and karaoke. It’s a hard life.

It’s been a couple of weeks since then and there have been no updates for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have no Internet in my house; it’s on order, but it might take a couple more weeks. Secondly, I simply have not stopped since I got here; the past two weeks have been two of the most confusing, exciting, upsetting, fun and surreal weeks of my life. If there was a pictorial representation of my emotional state since I got here, it would probably look something like a seismograph attached to a pneumatic drill during a scale-9 earthquake.

The first four days were easy (apart from the chronic jet-lag). We touched down in the plane, jumped on a bus and drove to the Kao Plaza Hotel in downtown Tokyo; a bubble of relative familiarity in a sea of surreal and bizarre. Just over 1000 people from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere had made exactly the same choices as me, and were being ferried from halfway across the world so they could teach English to Japanese school kids. During the day we dressed up in our suits and attended lectures and workshops, then at night we were entertained by Taiko drummers at the British embassy, meeting Japanese MPs, singing at karaoke bars and drinking whiskey-on-the-rocks in a bar on the 45th floor of the hotel while we listened to soft jazz and watched the bright lights of Tokyo twinkle through the darkness. We were all finding it extremely difficult to believe that we were there at all.

Eventually on Wednesday, the wining and dining came to an end and we jumped on the bus to Shizuoka. Three hours later we were at a welcoming ceremony and taking it in turns to introduce ourselves to 30 Japanese supervisors, in a short couple of sentences we had learnt in Japanese, before we were split up and running around Shizuoka with our respective supervisors, getting passport photos taken and setting up alien registration cards. My supervisor, an English teacher from my school, took me to my apartment so I could freshen up and change (the heat/humidity here is insane), before she took me to the school to meet a couple of the teachers. After that she took me back to the apartment and drove off, and for the first time since Saturday, I was alone. I walked around the corner to the local ramen shop and was about to walk in before I realised there were no pictures of the food anywhere. I live on pictures. With pictures you can simply point and say “kore o kudasai” (“that one please”) and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got a chicken curry. No? Tofu curry? Or is that egg? Who knows?

Too frightened to go in and make a fool of myself, I walked to the local corner shop and bought a packet of instant noodles instead. I walked back home, sat down, alone, and attempted to hold back the tears. I failed. The bubble had burst.

I won’t lie to you; this is tough. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The feeling of extreme loneliness on that first night was compounded by the fact that neither I, nor anyone else on the JET programme had a mobile phone or the Internet, nor did we know our physical addresses. There was simply no way of contacting anyone, and although I was surrounded by hundreds of people none of them could speak English, and the only things I could say in Japanese were “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “thank you very much”. Daily tasks that are as normal and easy to me as breathing back in England became a chore which required careful planning and thought. I was panicking; the two sides of my conscience – having signed a peace treaty for the last 4 or 5 years – were at war, pitting reason and sense against an onslaught of doubt, despair and homesickness.

Fortunately it only lasted a couple of days. On the Friday of that week I walked through the front door of my apartment and smiled, excited and amused at the prospect of trying to find an internet cafe using sign language and gestures. I’d found a phrasebook which Brian, my predecessor, left in the apartment, and which was swiftly added to my checklist of necessary equipment for whenever I set foot outside. I skipped along the street until I got to the local shop where I’d bought a pack of instant noodles on the first night. “Internet o cafe wa doku des ka?” I asked the nice, smiley old lady behind the counter. She thought about it for a minute, confessed she didn’t know but then walked out of the shop and across the road to ask her friend. After much deliberation they both decided that they had no idea, but there was nothing that could stop me now. I was on a mission, driven by determination and the intense, animalistic desire for Gmail and Facebook. A few more regurgitations of my new phrase and I was there; a twenty minute walk from my house, and it only took me two hours.

The next day I went to Kanaya, about 40 minutes south on the Tokkaido JR train, to meet up with my partners in crime, Maria and Sophie, who I met at the orientation in Uxbridge, and a few other JETs from the area. We had a meal at an “Italian” restaurant (seriously, if you come here, stick to the Japanese food) before heading on to a get-together for some fireworks in a nearby town. It was a great night, and a wonderful opportunity to meet a few new JETs who have been here for a year, or who had arrived earlier this year. A couple of vodka jellies and a few beers later it was time to decide whether to get the last train home, or pull an all-nighter. With a head full of alcohol and a bunch of fun and interesting people persuading me to stay out, I decided to get the last train home and have an early night.

Yeah right… Off to Hamamatsu we skipped, ending up in a club dancing to trance music before falling asleep on the floor in the middle of the train station and waiting for the first train to arrive on Sunday morning. After a very painful hour on the train and 20 minutes on a bus, I got into bed, woke up at 17:30, ate some food, and went back to bed. Week 1; done.