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As We Stumble Along August 31, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan, Random.
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Hello once again! I hope you’re all good and ready for another installment from the depths of rural Japan. Last night, I experienced Sanzoku. Apparently, it’s one of the most famous restaurants in south western Japan and let me tell you, the food was good. They had some weird stuff in their rice, but generally, I liked it. A lot.

But before I experienced the culinary delights of that place, I had to meet my two elementary schools. I’ve been told by both of them that I pretty much have free reign over the curriculum as English isn’t a core subject at that age level. Whilst it sounds cool in theory, I know that in practice, inventing my own syllabus won’t be a walk in the park. However, I can use the same lessons in both schools. I’ve also been told that I’ll be eating school dinners with the kids and will be paying for the pleasure. Now, having spoken to other JETs who have been here longer than I have, this is a fate worse than death. They feed the kids a lot of crap to help them grow up good and strong, so cue lots of fatty food and iron supplements that induce an eerie amount of vomiting. That said, they have told me that if there is anything that I can’t/don’t want to eat then they won’t hold it against me. The kids; they have to eat. As a ‘grown-up’ and honorary weirdo from a different country; I get let off.

Let’s discuss me being said ‘honorary weirdo’. I get stared at. And it’s not subtle. It honestly baffles me that people can stare so openly at someone else. Yes, I’m a white guy who’s quite a bit taller than everybody in town and is quite a lot larger as well. But don’t stop in the street and look, mouth agape at me when I walk by, sweating and struggling with shopping bags. The thing is, in England, that doesn’t really happen. Not that I’ve experienced anyway. I just think we’re much more used to seeing people of different ethnic backgrounds wandering around than they are here. Sometimes it’s unsettling. Sometimes it’s fun. It’s always nice to be the celebrity, but to be honest, I’m only a celebrity here because I look different and it’s really off-putting.

But anyway, other than that, things are really starting to settle down. Having spent last night at a friend’s, I returned to my apartment this evening to find that the smell of mould seems to be dissipating, so it’s starting to feel a little more like a home. Also, generally, I’m starting to feel comfortable here. The heat is (hopefully) lessening and apparently, by mid-September, it should be quite mild here.

I’m starting to plan my Golden Week. Basically, Japan has a lot of bank holidays. And there is a week in between April and May where there are quite a few together and if you take 4 days off, you get over a week off in all. So I’m starting to look for places abroad to go and visit. I could stay in Japan, but all prices are hiked up around that time, so it would be much cheaper to escape to foreign shores. First place on my list is San Fransisco, just because you can go cage diving with great white sharks there. Having already done a bungee jump for my 18th birthday, the other ‘extreme’ thing that I want to have a go at is that and San Fran seems to be one of the closest and cheapest places to get to, to do it. Still, at the moment it’s only a pipe dream and so it may never happen. But, I’m still going to be looking around for places to go and see during that week because I’d like to get it planned and sorted sooner or later. Did you know, it actually takes more time to get from Japan to America than it did to get here from England. I suppose because you never really see the Pacific Ocean on a map you underestimate how big it actually is. Yes, I could come back to England, but that really isn’t an option because, as happy as I’m feeling with this whole set up now, going back to England has the potential to set me back a bit, so I think I’ll just spend the year away and then return to a grand welcome!

Right, I’ve waffled on for a bit about not much really, so I think I’ll desist and let you people get on with something worthwhile. Till next time!

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Oh, What A Circus! August 27, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan, Travel.
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Well, I’ve had my first proper weekend away. After another Orientation (how many they think we need remains to be seen, but to be honest, they’re quite fun, just in the fact that I get to meet up with everyone else who is in Yamaguchi), a few of us travelled on to Hagi, which is on the north-eastern coast(ish) of the Prefecture. What made it really nice was some second and third years even turned out to take us out for an unforgettable night out. Well, not that unforgettable, seeing as certain sections of the evening allude me. However, a fun time was had by all, copious amounts of alcohol were consumed and in general everyone agreed that it had been a really enjoyable time away.

Today, I was taken in to Iwakuni by Wakabayashi-san to meet the Head of Iwakuni Board of Education. I think it was a pretty serious ceremony as the local press was there and they took photos and interviewed me. It was just before this that he ‘had a quiet word’ with me. Basically, on Friday I was supposed to get a car back to Kuga. However, seeing as I was already halfway to my final destination, I thought it made more sense to travel on from Orientation. The Board of Education, apparently, don’t view it like that. I was told that it was part of my job to attend the training sessions in Yamaguchi City (er, yeah, I know!) and that the lift back home is part of working. So they think I skived off to go away for a jolly, just because I didn’t ‘allow’ them to drive me home. Very strange and frustrating, but I just nodded, apologised and said it would never happen again.

Afterwards, he dropped me at Kuga Chugakko and I was taken on a tour of the school by the English teachers. They then drove me to buy lunch and we came back to eat it in the traditional Japanese room for the staff’s use. We were all sat around, watching the torrential rain pound down on Kuga and the surrounding mountains. Then, out of nowhere, we all watched as a bolt of lightning struck the telegraph pole outside of the school. This promptly exploded a couple of times and eventually burst into flames that were quickly doused by the pouring rain. So all the electricity shut off in the school. No computers, no fans, no nothing. So they sent me home, where I now find myself writing about it for your enjoyment. The other teachers that were with me were all female and the screams that issued forth when they heard lightning are only comparable to those noises made by dying animals. Dying animals in lots of pain. Compare this to one of my English teachers who wielded a rather large stick when she saw a poisonous centipede walking up the wall and smashed the creature’s head in a couple of hundred times. Very strange.

Tomorrow I get to visit another one of my schools, so that should be great – if it’s worth it, there’ll be another entry here detailing my Tuesday.

Till next time!

Good Morning, Kuga Chu August 22, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General.
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Today heralded my first visit to my ‘base’ school, i.e. the school where I’ll be spending the majority of my working time whilst here in Japan. Needless to say I was really nervous about meeting them and making a good impression. However, not even those nerves could induce me to wear a tie in this heat, so went in just a shirt and trousers and my lovely new shoes. Ha! First mistake. You don’t wear shoes inside and so I was presented with a charming pair of pointy emerald slippers. Now, don’t think glamour like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. These were a horrible shade of green with Kuga Junior High School embossed in gold script across the toes. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they were at least eight sizes to small and so I had to shuffle about, feeling like a right prick, when in fact, no one even batted an eyelid at, what I thought, was a pretty ridiculous scene. I already tower over people here; just to make sure I don’t fit in, they give me the retard’s slippers. Oh, and because they were too small, my heels hung over the edge and therefore my feet are killing me! I took the complimentary pair that were given out at the hotel in Tokyo and they fit a little better, so methinks I’ll be taking those in when I return tomorrow.

However, the uncomfortable slippers was perhaps the only downside today. First of all I was ushered into a lovely, air conditioned room. We had been told that schools weren’t air conditioned and so I was pleasantly surprised. That said, it was short lived as the teachers apologised to me, explaining that this was the only air conditioned room in the entire building. So sweaty lessons are sure to ensue.

They explained the curriculum, the schedule and what is expected of me. Basically, I’ll be there to help out and sometimes I’ll have to arrange games and activities for classes. And at the moment they’re preparing a student for a speech contest and I’m helping perfect her speech about environmental issues. In fact, that’s the only reason I have to go in tomorrow.

I met the three English teachers and they’re all charming. There are two women and one man. One of the women is really confident and chattered away in English and really made me feel welcome. The other woman is a little more reserved, but just as nice. I didn’t really see much of the man, but, once again, on first impression he seems really nice too. Immediately I was put at ease, just by being met with three smiling faces. They also offered any help they could – I may even get one of them to help me deal with the mould that seems to be ever-present. After they discussed the speech contest with me, they told me I could go home. I decided to ignore them. One thing that has been constantly beaten into us at the umpteen orientations I’ve had to suffer through is the fact that Japanese teachers stay late at school and are always constantly busy. So, I told them that I wanted to stay to work on the script for the speech. God, I’m glad I did, because after I finished working on it, I was invited out for lunch with the two female English teachers. They drove me to a little restaurant where we ate a nice meal and had good conversations about my life back in England, their lives in Japan etc. Basically just getting to know one another. Then, when we got back to the school, I said that I would go home because I need to go food shopping. I’m sure I could have stayed for longer, but no one seemed to care either way, and I do, in fact, need to go and get some more food. I’ll be trying out my bike for the first time and I’m not looking forward to it – it looks like it can support one of my legs. How it’ll cope with the rest of me remains to be seen, so I’ll let you know at a later date (unless, that is, I fall off and get hit by a train or something).

So yeah – all is good at the moment. Just having something to do makes all the difference and gives me a purpose for getting up in the morning. OK, watching Gimme Gimme Gimme on TV Links did seem like a good use of my time yesterday, but leaving the house for a reason other than strolling around and sweating was really great.

Just a final aside so you all know, the box that was full of my stuff that got delayed in England arrived yesterday. Almost everything was in tact – a bottle of shampoo had burst, the worst of it being caught by the plastic bag I had wrapped it in. However, some of my clothes did suffer from the fallout and I had to wash them. It didn’t come out completely, unfortunately – now there are just rather suspect white marks over a couple of my t-shirts. I will wash them again, rather than risk getting the reputation of sex-pest in Kuga.

Watch this space for more school stories. Till next time!

I Should Tell You…Part I August 19, 2007

Posted by Mitch in Life in Japan.
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Things you always wanted to know about Japan but were afraid to ask:

1. Bread is really thick here. You don’t get what we call a loaf, but normally between 3-6 slices. And boy are they thick. I had one slice today for lunch and that was enough!

2. Most toilets I’ve seen in houses so far have a sink in the top of them. When it refills, the water it’s refilling with runs through the tap and you can use it to wash your hands. What I originally thought was a little weird (because in essence you’re washing with toilet water), I now see as a really clever little process that saves water. In fact, I’ve now even put hand wash and a towel in my toilet so it can be used to its full effect.

3. Jehovah’s Witnesses are here too. I travelled 13,200km from Britain and was strolling down Route 188 in Iwakuni yesterday when I was stopped, in the street, by a charming woman called Jamie who proceeded to ask me how I felt about the future. Up until this time I had thought she was just being nice and testing out her (very good) English. I told her that I was a Catholic and was already au fait with God’s word, but then she asked me if there was any way she could contact me. Playing the new citizen card, I told her I didn’t have a mobile yet and needed to rush off as I was so hungry. Disappearing post haste into a nearby Tex-Mex restaurant, I was then forced into ordering food. As nice as it was, I just wasn’t very hungry, but it got the God Squad off my back, so it was alright by me!

4. People bow everywhere. On the street, whilst they’re riding their bikes, in cars, on the phone. It’s like one big stereotype come to town. Oh, and there are quite a few houses with ‘Japanese style’ roofs – you know the ones; you’d normally associate them with pagodas. Well, they’re everywhere. So when I look out of my window and see a mountain with a pagoda-like structure in the way, it sort of hits home that I am actually in Japan and those 12 hours spent on a plane did actually serve a purpose.

5. You have to be careful of the beer. What may look like beer, may turn out to be chemically formulated stuff that tastes like beer. So far I’ve not had a run in with this stuff, but apparently, even after one glass, the world’s worst hangover will be winging its way to a morning near you! Oh, and I’ve also been warned away from draft beer. Apparently Japanese bars are a little slack with cleaning their pipes out and so it can be a little…off.

Well, I’m sure that’s enough to go on for the time being. As the title suggest, this is only part one an ongoing look into how Japan functions really. With my witty, journalistic style, I’ll be trying to dispel popular myths and separate fact from fiction. Or, I’ll just rant about the country when it pisses me off (as it inevitably will do).

Cockroaches, Spiders And Mould, Oh My! August 18, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan.
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Well, it seems like an age since I last wrote an entry – things have been manic. After leaving Tokyo on Wednesday 8th August, I was flown to Yamaguchi Ube airport where I was picked up by a man called Wakabayashi-san and his friend (whose name eludes me), who drove me to Kuga, my home for the next year.

Kuga is situated in Eastern Yamaguchi Prefecture, which lies at the very western tip of Honshu, the main island of Japan. Kuga itself is much bigger than I thought, just going to prove that Japan in general is ridiculously overpopulated. It lies on a plateau and so is surrounded by imposing, tree-covered mountains that get misty with the humidity. The town, although well inhabited, is still very rural with lots of houses doubling up as workshops for local craftspeople. It has an abundance of women’s clothes shops and barbers and its own little station that has a two trains (almost) every hour; one going to Tokuyama (haven’t been there yet) and the other to Iwakuni City. Iwakuni is about 35 minutes east of Kuga and is home to a US Marine Base. Therefore, there are a lot of Americans milling around there and a lot of the people that work in shops have a very basic grasp of English. It’s also just more lively than Kuga is and so I’ve been there twice already on shopping jaunts and just to kill time. Work doesn’t start until 1st September and so I’ve not really got that much to do. Luckily my predecessors have left an array of literature here that I’ll no doubt wade my way through over the course of the year.

On that note, let’s talk about how things started badly. When I first arrived at my new home, all I could focus on was the smell of mould that pervaded the entire apartment. That and I’d not had that much sleep, had travelled well over 13,200km in the preceeding couple of days and was bogged down by the heat and humidity. After Wakabayashi-san and his friend left, I burst into tears because all I wanted to do was leave my mouldy apartment, bid Japan a not very fond farewell and return to my life in England.

The next day, I was transported to Yamaguchi City for yet another couple of days of orientation. I met some more people that live around the Iwakuni area and then all of the older JETs that have been in this prefecture for at least a year. We all went out that night and had a great meal, got drunk and sang karaoke. Just for the record, it seems my new karaoke song is Feeling Good by Michael Bublé. It was actually a lot of fun. However, when I finally got back to my smelly apartment, I rang my mum and burst into another bout of hysterical tears telling her that I was giving it a month and then deciding whether or not to stay for the entire year. What didn’t help was finding two cockroaches on two different nights in my house. Mitch’s Tip: don’t try and drown cockroaches because the little bastards can swim. The first one, I beat to death with a brush and it spilled a lot of eggs out the back of itself. Luckily, that was the one I tried to drown, so the eggs ended up in water and were then washed down the plughole in a very uncerimonial manner. The other one moved too fast when I tried to throw a bowl over it and was caught under the edge and bisected. As it turns out, not even this will kill them as the head end continued to move until that got bashed in. Seems this year will be nothing if not an education in how to dispose of huge bugs!

Just as an aside, to explain the second word in my title – spiders. I don’t kill spiders as a rule in England, because they’re small and do good, i.e. kill flies and other annoying flying things. That said, Japanese spiders are a little different. Well, I’ve only encountered one, and it was small. Some might even say tiny. The reason I couldn’t stand to let it live was the fact that it jumped. Don’t confuse that with moving quickly like a cockroach – the spider that was in my house jumped. Not fast or far enough it would seem, as it soon received a headache from which it was sadly never to recover.

One of the first things I had to do when exploring Kuga was find the station just so I knew that I could escape from this rural ‘paradise’. Since then, I’ve been to Hikari which is an hour west of here and is on the beach. Last weekend, I went to visit my friend Lucy who is living there. There was a beach festival which culminated in an hour and a half’s worth of fireworks over the sea. Then we sat on the beach, drinking, before going back to hers and drinking some more. The next day, she came to Kuga and we threw away a lot of mouldy stuff and generally started making the apartment mine.

This week has had its ups and downs, but I’ve also visited Iwakuni twice. The first time I went, I discovered a huge store that sells electrical things, DVDs, CDs etc. Therefore, I’ve started a DVD collection here in Japan, especially as Japan has the same region code that Britain does, so, in theory, I can take them all back with me when I return next year. There was also another festival going on when I first went to Iwakuni and I took a video of a young guy dancing and throwing a sword around. I also went in search of an internet cafe which I duly found only to be turned away as I didn’t speak Japanese. Yes, Japan is quite xenophobic, but xenophobic in the literal sense – they’re scared of foreigners.

Today I also went to Iwakuni, returning to the electrical store to go in search of a plug adaptor. Basically, I sent over a box full of my stuff that was due to arrive a couple of days after me. That didn’t happen as the box has been continually delayed. It’s now in the country and should be arriving sometime this coming week. Anyhow, I found a plug adaptor and am therefore able to sit here, writing this, whilst stealing internet from an unprotected wireless network in my building – my laptop battery had run out and I had no way to recharge it. However, the irony of this story is that my mum also sent over a package last Friday with some stuff in it for me which seemed to have gone AWOL until I returned from Iwakuni, chuffed with finding an appropriate plug adaptor, to find that my mum’s package had arrived, complete with British-Japanese plug adaptor! Still, if I hadn’t bought it today, I know that mum’s package probably wouldn’t’ve arrived at all.

Anyway, I think that should be enough for the time being to keep you up to date – now that I have an internet connection of sorts, you should expect more frequent posts! I hope everyone is doing well – the weather here is scorching, but not in a good way. Thursday was one of the hottest days they’ve had in a while, apparently. It got up to about 40° and about 70% humidity – not very pretty, I can tell you!

Well, I’m settling in a bit, after a few initial set-backs. I may have wanted to come home, but that isn’t an option, so Japan has me for a year and better take advantage of that situation!

Till next time!

The Heat Is On In Japan August 6, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan, Travel.
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Well, hello from Japan. I am currently sitting in my hotel room having spent a day wasting time listening to seminars that consisted either of common sense declarations or ridiculously mind-numbing lectures about how lucky we are to be here and how much fun we’re going to have. Oh, if only this mythical fun would start.

However, please don’t for a minute confuse me for someone not having fun. I’ve met a lot of people who will be stationed in the same prefecture as me and tonight we went out together. Admittedly most of them were lame and cried off, but a brave few ventured out with our prefectural guides, into the heart of Tokyo (actually, not the heart of the city at all, seeing as it seems much too large to even contemplate!) for a proper Japanese meal. Now, I did go out for a proper Japanese meal last night as well with a group of guys (some of whom I’m sharing a room with). This included sampling such delights as fried chicken gristle and sea urchin in a box. Doesn’t that all sound very appetising?

Tonight we had ‘proper’ Japanese food which consisted of lots of raw fish, some deep fried, fatty pork, noodles, rice, vegetables and beef that you cooked at the table, shrimp and a whole lot of beer. We then went in search of one of Tokyo’s answers to Picadilly Circus but were thwarted by the fact that we had no clue where we were going. We ended up in the hotel bar just chatting to some Americans.

Onto Japan itself. We landed at 3pm on Sunday to heat that was uncomfortable but bearable. A two hour bus journey followed in which we saw lots of things in between Narita Airport and Shinjuku (the area of Tokyo that we’re staying in), including Tokyo’s Disneyland. We then had time to unpack some of our stuff and head out for a dinner of the delights mentioned previously. Whilst walking through the streets of Tokyo, one of the guys I was with managed to knock an old man off his bike and as we passed a massage parlour, the old woman who was standing outside yelled at us “No sex! Massage only!”. We then wandered into a pachinko arcade. Pachinko is basically the only form of gambling allowed in Japan as all things like that are strictly illegal. However, one doesn’t play for money, but for silver balls that are exchanged for a gift – therefore this is tolerated. This gift can then be exchanged outside the premises for money, but this is overlooked, seeing as these entertainment joints are normally run by the Yakuza. The Yakuza are the Japanese mafia who “do not exist at all”. We have be told that they should never be brought up in conversation with a Japanese person and so, not wanting to piss anyone off just yet, I’ve decided to take that advice.

Japanese toilets – when they’re westernised, they’re a little different to English ones. First of all, the moment there is pressure on the seat (more often than not this heats up as well), water is sprayed into the bowl in order to hide any other noises that may be being made. One can also choose to play music through the lavatory. There is then a high powered spray to help…cleansing, as well as a less vigorous bidet option. I’ve not ventured into trying these, but they strike me as a little weird, especially seeing as I know that a lot of Japanese places still use squat toilets. It seems the two extremes meet here! Oh, and the flushes go the other way. I don’t mean the whole “it’s in the Southern Hemisphere and the water moves differently”; the flushes generally lift instead of being pushed.

People are polite. Way too polite. They also seem so impressed that you can mumble “good evening” in Japanese. And their food is weird, but I’ve decided to try as much as I can in the vain attempt to find something I’ll like. I know I will, but at the moment, they seem to like fried fat a lot.

I’m trying to think of more things that I can tell you about Japan, but it’s almost 1:30am here and I’ve got to be up early tomorrow for breakfast (today we had toast, scrambled eggs, chips and boiled broccoli…) and then another day of seminars. However, the evening is capped off by a party at the British Embassy. What could be better than that? I hear you cry. The Americans don’t get one.

Till next time!

All I Want Is A Lounge Somewhere August 4, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General.
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Dear all,

This is only going to be a short entry as I have a plane to catch, but I write this to you from the Executive Lounge at Heathrow Airport. God, it’s not what you know, but who. It turns out a friend of a friend works for Japanese Airlines and booked me into the lounge. Having bought a new fragrance in Duty Free and spent a bit of time with some fellow JETs, I decided to ditch them and go in search of some pampering. Well, it’s not so much pampering as it is just a bit comfortable with free drink. May try to smuggle some onto the plane, but may get chucked off, thus causing the international incident my mother has been so worried about me invoking!

Well anyway – how classy is this? What a good way to start my new life in Japan than kicking back with a Heineken, watching the planes roll by from my air-conditioned paradise. There are also some free nuts that I may have to empty into my bag.

Check in went well even though I was a bit over the limit. Then I bid a tearful farewell to my parents and wondered off into the labyrinthine maze that is Heathrow Customs and Passport Checks. After having removed my shoes, had my bag rifled through and been asked to belch the alphabet (both Roman and Russian) I was finally let through, only to find the wonder that is duty free shopping. I didn’t go too mad, but bought some aftershave after some woman accosted me and sprayed me with numerous fragrances. Needless to say I now smell like some cheap hooker. Well, even more so than I may once have done. Either way, it’s all be pretty plain sailing. I feel a little bad at having left the other people from JET in the Irish bar downstairs, but when am I next going to experience a lounge?

Well, I better sign off. Hope everyone is fine and enjoying their lives, even if they aren’t in the JAL lounge like me…

Till next time!

The Last Night Of The World August 1, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General.
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Well, we all knew this time would roll around at sometime, but it seems to have accelerated its dawning just for me. Actually, I’ve been back from Uni for 5 weeks now and as I’ve been working, it hasn’t gone by as fast as I’m sure it could have, but this last week has just rushed by. Tonight is my last night in Prickwillow – tomorrow I’m leaving the security of this sleepy country idyll for Bournemouth and then London to say goodbye to both sets of grandparents. On Saturday, I have to be at Heathrow Airport at 3pm in order to bid the life I’ve known in England goodbye for a year. I’ve been in contact with people that are already in Japan and who are loving their time there, so I’m quite looking forward to it. But I’m also a bit sad – it’s definitely the end of an era, as this marks the true end of my University life.

But everyone has to move on and change is hard and painful and I also suppose that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. I was the one who signed up for this Japan malarkey and so I’m going to see it through to the end because I don’t do quitting.

My Japanese learning has gone a little to one side at the moment which is worrying, but I’ve got a minimum of a year there, so I’m sure that it’ll get better when I have to use it every day.

Today I’ve taken the day off work (making yesterday my last day at Melrose Books) to get up-to-date with my ironing just so none of my clothes are left behind. However, I’m only allowed 20kg worth of luggage which will require quite a serious amount of scaling down. Luckily I’m having lots of stuff shipped out so my year’s supply of toothpaste and deodorant will get to Japan eventually.

For those of you who are interested, the first few days of my life in Japan will be spent in the Keio Plaza Hotel, in Tokyo. If you Google it, you can have a look at the accommodation they’re providing me with for my Orientation. Then I get flown over to Ube Airport and let loose on the Japanese countryside – thank God for my little digital camera for snapping sights that I’m sure I’ll tire of over a year but on first sight will be breathtaking. Well, here’s hoping anyway.

Right – I’m going to sign off now to carry on with my packing (well, actually, I’m going to go start packing!) I hope everyone has fun this weekend – think of me on a 12 hour flight sat scrunched up, dying for a wee but scared to disturb the sleeping person next to me…

Till next time!