Monthly Archives: May 2011

You Got Me Burnin’ Out

“Finally, a bloody blog,” I hear you say, as you peel your finger from the left mouse button and move the pointer away from the Refresh button for the first time since my last blog. Seriously, you’re putting my stats all out of proportion; there I was thinking I’d got 3 million hits this month and it was just you mercilessly clicking away with with that searing, intense desire to learn about me and Japan. I’m flattered, really I am, but stop it. Pick up that nearby wallpaper-scraper and use it to unstick your cheek from the desk then go outside. It’ll be good for you. Do it right after you’ve finished reading this.

Delusions of grandeur aside, I have been slacking in my duties somewhat. Apologies, but my life has been rather boring of late. I like to think that’s on account of me managing to break my hand 6 weeks ago in a freak cycling accident (involving me and a curb), but in reality having a cast on my right arm has done little to stop me from doing what I normally do. Apart from going to the gym that is. Yes, certain things are a chore; tucking in my shirt for instance, washing my left shoulder-blade, wiping away my tears while my left hand is immersed in the washing up bowl (joke). On the plus side, my left hand has become rather deft at many things; using chopsticks for instance; washing my hair; opening the fridge door; tossing the vegetables in my stir-fry… Anything else…? Nope, can’t think of anything else.

Work has been mental. I’m doing much, much more than I ever was in the first two terms, and that’s even with many of my lessons already created and ready to go. I’ve been asked a couple of times now to do one-offs on topics that I have found quite interesting and which would, under normal circumstances in the UK, promote thought and open discussion. The first, “How Social Media Has Changed the World,” focused on the emerging use of social media as a catalyst for the revolutions in the Middle East. Heavy, as Marty McFly would say, but these are 3rd year students who are blind to much of the world outside of Japan. As far as knowing about world events is concerned, being born Japanese is problematic; the media reports mostly on domestic events and frowns on investigative journalism because, if newspapers publish something that officials don’t like, they will no longer be invited to the official press meetings. Most papers are simply bulletin boards for companies and the Japanese government. This would normally be fine because people could turn to other outlets for their world news in English, but the number of Japanese people who can speak more than a few words of English (let alone read a newspaper) is infamously low.

Where can they get this information from then? Their friendly JET, that’s who. Whether they like it or not. In this case… Not. A classroom of 42 bored, tired students crammed into a tiny classroom in the 7th period of a baking hot Tuesday afternoon will rarely get inspired enough to listen to some bloke rambling on about Facebook and revolution in a language they only partly understand. To give them credit; some did, and when asked to write their thoughts on the benefits and problems associated with social media, they came up with some good points that I had not already mentioned. Most simply copied what the others had written on the board.

Next up is “Green Cars,” where they’ll be expected to draw their own opinions on the best fuel of the future. This time I will be sure to include some group work to try an develop some kind of atmosphere, but 3rd year students are notoriously bad at communicating, either to the teachers or each other. First years are wonderful but 3rd years… Forget it. I think they’ve just been battered so hard by exams, studying and school life that by the time they leave high-school they have to pick up all the pieces of their soul on the way out and glue it back together with the Pritt Stick they stole. I often consider how lucky I am to have grown up in the British school system (despite it having been equally awful), as all these kids ever seem to do is study. Every time you ask them what they did on their weekend they say “studied” or “slept” or “came to school.”

“What? On Sunday too?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you come to school on Sunday?!”

“Club activities.”

…and there we have what would have been the bane of my life had I gone to school in Japan; compulsory clubs. Admittedly some of them (Tea Ceremony Club for example) only meet once every couple of weeks, but if you like baseball or badminton, volleyball or martial arts, or any number of other sports the school deems important then you can expect to be at said school from 6am-8pm every weekday and then 3-4 hours every weekend. Then you have to do your mountain of study on top, all while your ALT wanders in at 8:30am, leaves at 4:15pm and spends his weekends swannying around Shizuoka drinking beer and eating ramen. No wonder they’re burnt out by the 3rd year, poor things.

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Trip to Tokyo (Pt. 2)

Saturday morning then and I wake up to the unmistakable sound of alley-cats endlessly howling at each other just outside my window. They never actually fight each other of course, they just scream at each other for hours as part of some primeval ritual that evolved, I suspect, for the sole purpose of pissing off humans, who predictably open the window and hiss at the offending animal using their best vampire imitation. When this doesn’t work (nearly always) they will pick up the nearest available stone/stick/bucket of ice water and throw it at the creature, gently so as not to hurt it, but hard enough that they know you are Lord of the Alley, and if they don’t shut up then you’ll go out there and hiss doubly loud. That will strike the fear of God into them.

Turns out I threw the stone just right and knocked him dead.

I’m joking of course… He was only unconscious. If I’d done it when he started to howl that would have made more sense from my point of view but since I was up anyway, I felt the creature should be punished for it’s insolence with a good stone-throw to the head.

Put the phone down I’m joking, I’m joking. The cat was fine, it ran off after my elite Dracula impression skillz. Who wouldn’t eh?

I had a little chat with Mal, another member of staff there, who informed me of a good cafe where I could pick up some breakfast and a coffee, and I used the time in there to have a good look over the guide book to see what I actually wanted to do. In the end I decided on Ueno because it contains a huge park, the Tokyo National Museum, a few shrines/temples and a couple more museums. Since August, apart from a couple of festivals I’ve been to, I’ve done very little in the way of cultural enlightenment and the guidebook said that the National Museum was nothing short of spectacular so I made it my first port of call.

I should probably mention now that museums and I don’t have a good track record. Most of my memories of them come from when I was a prepubescent boy who just wanted to go and climb trees and fire cap guns, but was instead forced to walk into an old, dark building and stare at incomprehensible clumps of old brown rust through a glass screen. This pain was usually intensified by the presence of a questionnaire that the school would make us fill in, probably to prove that we’d taken notice of the artefacts but which had precisely the opposite effect; we would be so busy trying to find the things with the answers to the questions that we never had time to look at/become inspired by the things that we might have actually found interesting. Namely swords, bombs, planes and medieval torture equipment.

The Tokyo National Museum and I got off on the right foot since they had plenty of swords, and not just boring old broadswords, but some very cool, very Japanesey curved ones. The blades themselves were fairly plain; some had the occasional kanji engraved on them but in general they were just very shiny, refined and sharp-looking objects of death. The hilts and scabbards however were very elaborate, and nearly all of them had a cherry blossom design of some sort engraved on them. I found it a little ironic that something often regarded as a great symbol for peace and tranquillity in Japan would be carefully and beautifully carved onto something designed purely for death and destruction. This theme continued onto the armour, which was incredibly impressive. Everyone has seen medieval European armour before – big, thick plates of metal often designed to stop all but the most deadly of blows. Functional, but not particularly pretty. Samurai armour is a work of art by comparison. Hundreds of separate pieces of leather and plate all sewn together with a flourish and embroidered with cherry blossoms. It reminds me of Major Jean Villeneuve in The Patriot when he announces that if he dies, he will die well-dressed. Priorities are important.

There were two more things I found particularly interesting. Firstly, since I began learning Japanese I considered the language to be pretty ugly to look at. The Roman alphabet generally makes for some nice looking words, whether in print or written by someone with a good knack for it. Japanese on the other hand makes use of Chinese characters and mixes them with two other alphabets; when you first see something written in Japanese it just looks like a jumble of pictures, but when you start to understand it and differentiate between all the characters it just looks a bit, well, messy. That is until you see an old manuscript sitting in the museum. Obviously the level of care and dexterity that went into writing it was beyond what anyone writing their shopping lists would be prepared to imitate, but it gave me a new level of appreciation for the language.

The other thing was that I was able to officially confirm to myself that I made the right decision in not becoming an archaeologist. Not that I ever really thought of it as an option, but if I ever wanted a career change I could be sure that it’s one area I don’t really need to look into. These people spend their lives in muddy pits, looking for things that look exactly like bits of mud but are in fact of apparent historical value. These things often turn out to be bits of pottery. Now don’t get me wrong; I would be suitably excited if someone gave me a Le Creuset casserole because I like cooking, and I’d be excited about all the amazing food I’d be able to make and eat with it. However I simply, no matter how hard I try, cannot get excited about old bits of broken pottery. I don’t care if it’s 2000 years old and if it tells you that people would boil their yams instead of pan-frying them. I don’t care if it has patterned swirls on it, or some of the first uses of dye in human history, or mother of pearl on the side; to me this just seems like a massive waste of time seeing as we all eventually evolved to desire plain white plates/bowls from Ikea anyway. The only time cooking is interesting is when you are doing it, watching someone with skill doing it, or eating whatever it produced. Looking at a bit of shaped clay through a piece of glass and imagining one of our ancestors in rags and stirring some boiled turnips over a log fire is far from my idea of a good time; I’m just not wired that way. Give me a good story about historical battles, treachery, myths and legends any time, but there’s a reason why you never read about someone boiling potatoes in a fantasy epic.

After the museum I’d decided that I’d already seen enough temples in Kyoto to last a lifetime, so I jumped back on the train to Shibuya to do a bit of clothes shopping and some people-watching in the Starbucks above the busiest road crossing in the world. I also spent a good amount of time in the nearby park doing some reading, and watching everyone frolic about in the sun just before dusk began to fall. There’s an extreme lack of parkland in Shizuoka so I instinctively found myself drawn to the nearest bit of greenery whenever there was some nearby.

After a couple of hours I decided to make my way back to the hostel for the takuyaki (octopus balls) party for more beer and chats and then, after a long sleep, made my way back to Shizuoka for a long week off work.

 

Trip to Tokyo (Pt. 1)

I woke up on Friday to another of Japan’s ubiquitous bank holidays, elated initially because I didn’t have to go to work, then simply annoyed because it was 7:30am and I was completely unable to get back to sleep. Gone are the days when, at university, I could quite happily sleep in until 1pm; now I’m woken up by screaming, either from an alarm clock placed strategically at the other side of the flat or from my own bladder performing its daily protest like a wisened Green Party supporter who took a bit too much LSD back in the day and gets a bit more militant with every inch of new beard growth. I saw the doctor about it once:

“Don’t drink anything after 6pm,” she said.

Oh thanks very much, doc. Sage advice there. I’ll just go half the bloody day with no fluids shall I? Just so I don’t have to get up early for a piss? Great idea. I almost wanted her to say I had diabetes just so I didn’t have to walk around with the knowledge that I’m a 27 year old bloke who can’t sleep in because his organs are already becoming decrepit. Almost.

Anyway, fortunately for you lot this blog isn’t all about the condition of my body’s various functions but rather, about Tokyo and my little trip there this weekend. I decided that same Friday that I should get off my arse and do something. Since most of my friends are off on their own little holidays in Okinawa, Bali, Osaka and the like, that meant going somewhere on my own; somewhere I was likely to meet other people to chat to and have a beer with, as well as doing a bit of sightseeing and some shopping. I hadn’t been to Tokyo since September so I simply thought why not and seized the opportunity, booking a bed at the Khaosan Kabuki hostel in Asakusa and jumping on the Shinkansen northwards.

Instantly noticeable upon arrival was the absence of large numbers of gaijin (foreigners) that were present the last time I was here. From Tokyo Central to Asakusa I must have seen only 3 or 4 at most, and when I arrived at the hostel itself I was told that I was the only guest in my dorm room. Sad in some ways, total RESULT in others! My own room with en-suite bathroom for 2500 yen? Why, I don’t mind if I do, thank you very much. The hostel is great. If you ever find yourself Tokyo-bound then, assuming you don’t want to be closer to the night-life in Shibuya et al., this place fits the deal nicely. It’s clean, it’s new, and it has comfy beds, wonderful staff, and a great location in a beautiful district.

It was about 7:30 by the time I got there and I decided to stay in the near vicinity for the evening with the intention of doing some serious pavement-pounding on Saturday. I asked one of the staff, Miwa, where I could get some ramen and a beer and she duly obliged, marking them out on a map and supplying me with a free sake voucher for the Khaosan bar across the river. Before I waltzed out the door we had a little chat about the tourist shortage. Some people might say it’s expected given the earthquake, aftershocks, tsunami and nuclear power plant dramas of the last two months. Expected perhaps, but necessary? I don’t think so; people need to get a grip. Do they not think that if Tokyo’s background/water radiation had reached dangerous levels then perhaps the millions of inhabitants that live there wouldn’t be subjecting themselves to it quite so willingly; that Japan could probably do with the money those tourists would normally be feeding into the economy after such an expensive disaster? If not the radiation, then what is causing people to cancel their reservations and stay at home? If they’re scared about earthquakes they have no more to worry about than they did before the big one; indeed, if we’re talking probabilities then you would have to be extraordinarily unlucky to come here and be killed as a direct result of an earthquake/tsunami a month after one has already killed 10,000 people. How often does that happen? Frankly you’re more likely to die falling out of bed in the morning.

Who can blame anyone for being scared after the media onslaught that followed in the weeks after the event though. Unfortunately, news corporations have a penchant for blowing things out of proportion and people, governments and businesses will almost always suffer as a result; that’s just the way it goes. I can tell you right now though that Tokyo is perfectly safe. If you’ve always wanted to go then there has never been a better time; flights are cheap, it’s far from overcrowded and the weather is beautiful. The extra arm I grew while I was there is proving to come in rather handy now too.

I went to get some ramen and then popped down to the bar for a beer where I met a whole bunch of lovely people, some travelling, some on a weekend break like me, and a couple of locals. Suddenly I wished I was travelling properly again, preferably for months at a time in multiple countries. There really isn’t anything quite like rocking up to a new city in a different culture, seeing all the sights and befriending a load of like-minded people over a drink or two. Not something I’d want to do forever, mind, but I do miss it. Eventually, after plenty of anecdotes and a couple of massive “samurai” beers I made my exit and walked back to the hostel to bed down for the night.