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Everything’s Up To Date In Osaka City November 30, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan, Travel.
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I was the perpetrator of a “Greeting Hit and Run” today. The police are now tracking me down, having left an old woman in a state of shock. Prime Minister Fukuda is looking into taking international action. The crisis that my parents feared me causing is upon us.

As I left my house this morning, wincing as the frigidity of the weather made itself known, I heard the familiar cry of “Ohayo gozaimasu“, meaning “Good morning!”. It’s now instinct to respond in the like and so I did, turning round as I did so to see who had addressed me. I’m pretty certain that I live quite near an old people’s home and so there is a plethora of oldies for me to greet, doff my hat at and smile inanely at. However, upon turning around, I found that there was, in fact, no octogenarian present and that I had, in fact, shouted my greeting at an old woman addressing someone else. When I caught the look of surprise and horror in her eyes, I carried swiftly on my way, leaving the helpless old thing to her business. If questioned by the police at a later date, I’ll be sure to play the ‘stupid foreigner card’ that is so often used these days.

In other news, it’s well and truly autumn here. The mountain behind my apartment is a variety of different colours. It seems that summer left and all of a sudden Japan came to life. Colours are everywhere, thanks to the densely forested mountains that are ever present wherever you are here. There are even colours that you never knew existed that are suddenly in bloom, thanks to the turn in the weather. Yeah, it’s changed. The numbing heat to the numbing cold. It seems Japan isn’t happy unless it’s suffering from extreme weather. That said, it’s not as cold as in England. What makes it colder is the lack of insulation. What makes that even colder is the fact that they seem to have never heard of central heating. Apparently one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world (for the record, I’m yet to see evidence of this, but, being in a rural area, I suppose that is par for the course) that is subject to, by all accounts, vicious winters doesn’t see the need for “pansy-ass heating”. Especially not in schools. It’s not enough that the kids barely get a weekend, trekking to school on Saturdays and Sundays for their incessant sports trainings. No; why allow the kids the luxury of being warm whilst learning. On that note, why not put two great big kerosene heaters in the staffroom and watch as the kids tear up over the fact that they are banished to icy classrooms. I’m not actually complaining because one of the aforementioned heaters is right next to me. I do, however, feel it’s mildly unfair that kids are forced to wear 10 layers just so they don’t perish at school. The teachers here can’t believe that there is heating in every room at schools in England. They also can’t believe that schools hire cleaners as opposed to them, who make their kids do it. Having chatted at length on the subject with some fellow JETs, we’ve noticed that the schools are never really clean, because they’re too tight to get proper cleaners to do it and the kids, being kids, just can’t be arsed. Anyway…I feel I’ve dwelt for too long on the matter.

The weekend just gone (although it’s not just gone, but whatever) heralded my visit to Osaka. A dirty, bustling metropolis, I loved it. I was vaguely upset by the fact that it seemed to unsettle me – this living in the sticks malarkey seems to be messing with me. On the Friday, Brooke and I shink’d it up (as in, we travelled on the Shinkansen bullet trains) to Osaka, chatting with some various Japanese people, testing out my new linguistic skills. When we arrived, we met up with Lucy and Kieran and made our way into town. Once there and checked in to our hotel, we wandered over to see Osaka Castle and then on to the aquarium. We took a look at the Whale Shark they have there, who we lovingly dubbed Derek. Having spent quite a few hours strolling around and taking in everything that was on offer in the, quite frankly, huge aquarium, we decided to make Kieran confront his fear of heights and we went on the Tempozan Ferris Wheel, which afforded us great views of nighttime Osaka.

The next day saw the group split. Kieran and Lucy opted for the cultural sights of Kyoto. Brooke and I, the heathens we are, felt the need for some good old fashioned American-ness. We headed over to Universal Studios Japan, which resides in Western Osaka. Cue behemoth queues, Christmas carols playing until you want to shoot someone and good, unadulterated American crap. One of the best parts of the day was watching their (abridged) staging of ‘Wicked’, the musical about the witches of Oz before Dorothy. Part Japanese, part English, it was a fun addition to a great day. The worst part? Waiting in line for over 2 hours for one ride. That said, the ride was widely agreed to be the best in the park and so it wasn’t too much of an effort. The next day, we made our ways back to our separate domains, only to begin another week.

That week is now, thankfully, at an end. This weekend was going to contain a visit to Nagato, on the Northern coast of Yamaguchi. However, I’m not going to be able to make the train in time for the 5 hours journey! Because there’s a rather large mountain range that runs through that part of the Prefecture, travelling to the Northern bit is very difficult and convoluted. So it’ll be a quiet one, spent either exploring Kuga (there’s more to it than I originally gave it credit for!) or heading eastwards for Hiroshima.

Till next time!

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My One Big Mistake November 20, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan.
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My house has been invaded. I woke up this morning and went about my morning business: shower, brushing my teeth, checking my emails. I was oblivious to the fact that I had, in a way, been robbed. Burgled whilst asleep by a creature of the night. It was only upon leaving my humble abode that I discovered the intrusion.

I opened my door and was met with the sight of torn open bin bags, scattered rubbish and upset dreams. Having missed the non-burnable rubbish that went out on Friday (Japan separates their rubbish into things that can be burnt and those that can’t), I had stacked the bags outside my front door so as not to make my apartment smell anymore than it does already. That, my friends was my one big mistake.

Even though I never saw the culprit, I know in my heart of hearts who it was that attacked my home. It wasn’t a dog or a cat. It wasn’t even a rat or a fox. No; the thing that scattered my refuse around my front porch was the infamous tanuki.

The translation of tanuki into English is a little misleading, if I’m honest. Apparently, this rather cute (but annoying and rubbish-consuming) critter is a known as a raccoon dog. This is a misnomer just because it looks nothing like a dog and probably shares very little common ground with our faithful friends. Raccoon, I’ll allow, but dog? No. It’s sort of like a cat and a raccoon with a bit of rat thrown in there. It’s Nature’s hodgepodge – an experiment in gene-splicing gone wrong, if you ask me. The Japanese, however, have a tendency to revere them. They’re known for being quite Tanuki - Cute But Deadlyvirile and having rather large testicles. Therefore, there are numerous statues available in the form of a tanuki, complete with oversized balls. I’ve heard tell that these statues have something to do with fertility, but I reckon the Japanese people just want big-bollocked raccoon dogs adorning their homes. A Pottery Statue of a Tanuki

Having cleaned up the rubbish as best I could, I rushed off down to my elementary school. Luckily, this is the one I like and I had a really good day there yesterday. My lessons all worked perfectly as planned and the kids actually learnt something that they could put into practice. Today, however, has turned out to be a little less successful.

I wandered into my 4th grade class today, fully prepared to impart to them the days of the week and the names of the months. When I started off with “In Japanese you say Nichiyōbi and in English we say…” I was cut off by the class saying in chorus “Sunday!” My stomach felt like it dropped out my arse. They knew it all. I went through all 7 days and they knew every single one. No Japanese accent on the words (well, maybe a little, but that’s beside the point). They knew it. I had conversation exercises planned and everything and with one word this class had taken my lesson plan, shat on it, screwed it up and set fire to it in front of me. They didn’t know the names of the months, so I got to teach them that, but my lesson was seriously lacking, if I’m honest. Luckily, I’d anticipated that something may have gone wrong, so I just recapped on the names of some fruit and we played a game that I’ve been playing with the younger ones. So now I’ve got to plan an entire new lesson for the older kids as I have two more classes with them tomorrow. Not really what I wanted to do, but I can’t go in there with nothing. Back to the drawing board it is!

Now all I’m doing is sitting around the staffroom (the warmest place in the school) and wasting time until lunch. After that, I get to go out and play with the kids on the swings and roundabouts etc. and then I’m free till tomorrow! However, when I get in, I do have to plan a new lesson, so I’m not that free. Yes, the staffroom is the warmest place because, ladies and gentlemen, winter is here in Japan. Walking home the other evening, I was shocked at how cold it was, but put it down to it being night and me not wearing a substantial jacket. That night was the first night I’ve slept with a quilt since I got to Kuga. I even went so far as to put another futon on my pile, so I’m further from the floor. When I got in from school yesterday, I slipped on a jumper and slippers. Even this didn’t warm me up, so I dragged out the halogen heater that has been sitting in a cupboard, collecting dust since I got here. I’ve got to say, this is one of the best inventions. It’s like an electric fan. It even spins around, dispelling warmth to all areas of the room. You can set the temperature and sit back and warm up. It’s great! I’m yet to see its impact on my electricity bill, but to be honest I could see me perishing in my apartment without it. I survived the air-conditioning electricity bills, I’m sure I can survive these ones as well! It seems I’m destined to always be paying a lot for electricity here, as I’ve either got my heater or my air-con on!

This weekend I’m off to Osaka and Kyoto, which will be a lot of fun. I’ll also get to see the whale shark that they have at Osaka aquarium. I’ve heard that it’s very impressive, but the enclosure it’s in is way too small for what it contains. But altogether, this weekend will be a lot of fun. I’ll get to meet up with people I haven’t seen for a bit, people I first met at Tokyo Orientation and even new people that I’ve never come into contact with before. It’ll be expensive, but I get paid tomorrow, so what the hell?

Anyway – I’ll leave you all to your own devices now and sign off. Till next time!

Another Day November 15, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan, Random.
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I’m not sure what I’m going to write about in this blog, but seeing as I haven’t written anything for a week, I felt sure that you’d all be pining for more about me.

Well, since the last entry, my apartment was subjected to an onslaught of chavs. Big chavs, small chavs, chavs dressed in all-in-one leopard-print body-suits. It was messy, I won’t lie. There was even a trip to the local convenience store involving a minor car accident. All in all; a good night.

Waking up the next day and wondering what type of woodland creature had expired in my mouth, the first thing I noticed was the general littering of bodies on my floor. People crashed out on the floor, on futons, on makeshift structures that looked more than a little dodgy. There were even (shock horror!) people slumbering in the mouldy bedroom, of all places. My thoughts were then turned to the fact that it was, in fact, before 8am on a Sunday morning. Why in God’s name was I stirring at this hour? Well, I’ll tell you, lads and lasses. The Yamaguchi Prefectural Culture Festival.

There is a prefectural culture festival every year, but this year it was taking place on my very own doorstep. Well not really, because it didn’t, unfortunately, happen in Kuga. I feel there was some oversight here. However, Iwakuni (the actual venue) isn’t too far away at all and so I volunteered to go. Yes, that’s right. I volunteered. To get up at the crack of dawn after what I had anticipated would be a heavy night. To give me my dues, I’d forgotten that the culture festival and my chav party were sharing a weekend until the last minute, so it really wasn’t done out of some kind of masochism. No: just stupidity.

As everyone knows, misery loves company, so I made Brooke tag along with promises of a fun day out with a quick-witted Brit. Being slightly hungover and feeling a little ill, the quick-witted Brit wasn’t really on form, so she had to make do with the entertainment on offer.

By all accounts, a brilliant day was had by all. After suffering through the opening and tuneless recorder orchestras (not the best idea when you’ve got a headache), we were presented with a choir. Who could sing. In harmony. With each other. I was shocked. Brooke was shocked. The Japanese were shocked, I’m sure. What followed was, by far, my favourite event of the day. Out strolled the kids in their black jackets or blue sailor suits, carrying their brass and wind instruments. What followed was one of the best orchestral performances I’ve ever witnessed. Not only was the playing impeccable, but they danced. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the instrument-playing, cuter-than-cute Japanese kids danced. Whilst playing! It was all very impressive and put a smile on my face for the rest of the day. Needless to say, nothing else lived up to the high standard they set and so I won’t bother elaborating on what else happened. I do remember taking a nap at intervals and also skiving off for a long lunch.

In lieu of this extra day I spent ‘working’, I’ve been granted tomorrow free. So the weekend starts here, people! I’ve just finished my adult education class for another week, as well as my time at the school I like the least for November. I’m happy! Tomorrow I’m off to Shimonoseki, where I’ll be trying the sushi delights off the city. Including blowfish, the local speciality, apparently. Having asked one of the English teachers at my Junior High School about fugu today, she questioned the science teacher about the poison content of the meat. I’ve now been professionally informed that if you do consume fugu that is served incorrectly, you may not die. You probably will, but it’s not set in stone. And I asked how many people die from eating it every year. My teacher couldn’t answer me, but assured me that they hardly ever hear about it in the news, but she estimated that people died from eating it all the time. I don’t want you all to worry that I’ll perish eating a bit of fish, as my friend Phoebe has consumed it no less than four times and has lived to tell the tale. She recommends it fried, by the way.

And now, I’ll leave you with an image of me. As a chav. Enjoy!

Me as Pimp Daddy Chav

One Beam Of Light Is Enough To See Where You’re Going November 9, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General.
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I’ve had a bad day. So bad, I got close to leaving the school and chucking it in for the day. In fact, when I was confronted by some of the teachers, I got ridiculously close to tears of frustration. Consequently, today is the first day in a long time that I’ve wanted to be back home and have rejoiced the fact that I’m only going to be here for a year. I’m sure once I explain the cause of my consternation it’ll seem petty, but in a country where I have to deal with daily obstacles just to live a comfortable life, the small things amount to huge big deals that make or break my days.

I spent quite a long time planning my lesson about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. I taught my teachers at Junior High School all about it and had them translate a simple version of it so I could tell my kids at Elementary School. I made flash cards. I had games with a November 5th theme. Everything was going to be grand.

Then I get into my class, tell them that I’m going to tell them about a party we have in England every year on November 5th. Passing the teacher a copy of the story in Japanese, I made my way to the front of the class and started. It was then that the teacher stopped me and told me that the content of my speech was “too serious”. She basically scrapped it all. “Tell them about the party though, because that’s fine”. Right…so I’m supposed to explain why we set off fireworks and burn a life-size doll of a Catholic on a huge fire, without giving them any explanation? I mean, I know they’re kids, but even they need some sort of background to why we do what we do.

So I couldn’t tell them about this quintessential British celebration of success over terrorism. Which means I couldn’t play the games I had planned. Which means that all my planning was a waste of time. She then asked me to just do something else, effectively asking me to plan a lesson off the top of my head. Now, as weird as this may be, I don’t actually have an army of replacement lessons to hand. So I told her I couldn’t do anything with them as I didn’t have anything planned. I made them colour in my bonfire and fireworks pictures and then sort of just eeked out the rest of the lesson.

Then, afterwards, she got the teacher who’s best at English at that school to come and explain it more. However, this being Elementary, the teachers are quite inept at English and so she frustrated the situation more and told me that I shouldn’t tell kids about that as a story of such violent content is unsuitable. When I explained that children in England know that Guy Fawkes wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament by the time they’re in kindergarten, her explanation was “Well, that’s in England”. It’s not as though I was about to go into detail about how the group of traitors was sentenced to death because, I agree, kids don’t need to hear about hanging, drawing and quartering. Not just yet, anyway.

I was also told that I was not allowed to play Sheriff as it encourages the kids to shoot each other. Besides the fact that I wasn’t handing my first years firearms and asking them to take out their grievances on each other, everyone can play Sheriff! It’s not a difficult game and the pupils enjoy it.

So I now have been given the impression that Japanese kids can’t hear about anything bad in the world. The existence of guns is prohibited until they’re old enough to wield them. People don’t do shitty things to each other. This in the country that still has the death penalty…

But it was all made better when I met a student who I’ve not seen or had interactions with before. We’ll refer to her as Erin. After lunch (actually, it was quite good today, even though I’m at the school that usually serves the worst food) Erin walked past me and said “Hello! How are you?” This in itself isn’t too surprising. Most kids know this. However, the fact that when I answered her question and reflected it back at her, she was able to answer straight away instead of looking blankly at me, muttering something in Japanese and walking away, bemused – the normal response, was something quite special.

At the end of my class with her today, she came up to me and said to me “I have a baby sister”. Seeing as this girl is 6 or 7 and compulsory English education doesn’t begin for another 4 years, I was impressed, but was then hounded and literally scaled by a rather boisterous young man (it was like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I swear!). However, she was persistent and in the end I granted her the entirety of my attention. This is what she said (pretty much verbatim):

I have a baby sister and I love her very much. When she gets older I will take care of her and be her friend. I want to teach her English and be there for her because I am her older sister

Aside from the fact that this is an incredibly sweet little speech, she said it all on her own and wasn’t acting as though she was just reciting it. There was feeling in her words and she knew exactly what she was saying. This wasn’t some rehearsed speech that she’d picked up online or from the telly. This was her, communicating with me in a language that is alien in more than one way to most of the kids I come into contact with on a daily basis. She spoke with better clarity than the oldest kids I teach and had better pronunciation than one of the English teachers at my school. I wanted to tear up and give her a hug, having finally found someone who had a natural talent and thirst for language learning. I remember when I was at secondary school, I was always asking questions that stumped my German teacher – finally, I’ve found my protege.

I found out after that she has been taking lessons outside of school, but seeing as she isn’t half English and isn’t exposed to the language very often, I’m still ridiculously impressed with her. That event in itself was enough to make me forget about the teachers ruining my lesson plan and has put a smile on my face that will be there for the rest of the day!

Till next time!

Eye Of The Beholder November 7, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General.
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I’ve had a gammy eye for the past week. I woke up last Tuesday and wasn’t able to open my eye properly. Leaving it a day to see if it developed and I was able to recognise it as a mosquito bite, I was a little shocked when I woke up the next day to find that it had worsened. Now, as much as I didn’t really want to have to go to a Japanese doctor whilst I was here (let’s face it – what were the chances of that happening?), I didn’t relish the thought of parading around school looking like Shrek. So I made my way down to the local practice. Unfortunately, no English speaking teachers were able to accompany me and so I left school, armed with a bit of paper stating my symptoms in Japanese and took my life in my hands. Assured that doctors in Japan are fluent in German and that communication with him would therefore be easy, I wasn’t fearful. In fact, I was quite thankful to my swollen eyelid for giving me a chance to have a chat in German.

But, nothing goes as planned in this country and it turned out that he could speak no more German than I can Japanese. After saying a few monosyllabic words to the effect of “You’ll have to wear a patch” and “Don’t rub it or you’ll go blind” (I’ve heard that one before), I was escorted to the pharmacy, sporting my new, fashionable eye patch. Not a cool one with a skull and crossbones on it; no, they’re reserved for the cool Nihonjin kids. I was given a charming white number which stretched across the entire width of my face. Needless to say, I looked hot. In fact, I’m now in talks with Dolce, Gucci and Primark over me being the new face for patches. Watch this space.

Luckily, the dude in the pharmacy was able to speak OK English and so was able to tell me the dosage I needed to take of each of the 413 different drugs I was given. I made my way, tentatively, home, hoping to dear God above that all my kids would be home by that point and therefore not in the street, waiting to jump out at me and ask me for money or food, as they’re so wont to do.

I got home safely and decided that the doctor was just exaggerating by telling me to wear the patch for 24 hours. So I wore it for 14, deciding that I’d prefer to take one of my few days of leave than venture into the lion’s den wearing The Monstrosity. I followed his advice and didn’t get it wet in the shower (my eye, that is. I took the patch off pre-shower), but was screwed if I wasn’t going to wash my hair, as he also suggested. Let’s just take a moment to examine the outcome, had I followed his instructions. I would have, firstly, worn a bright white, surgical patch to school. I would also not have had a shower or washed my hair either. Did he want me to be a minger for an entire day? Believe me, I have no trouble making myself look a twat at school – I really didn’t need any help in that matter.

Having taken most of my pills (I was supposed to finish the course of drugs on Monday, but I forgot to taken them a couple of times and so the ones I take after lunch today should be the last ones…unless I forget again) my eye has now returned to normal and I can blink properly, open my eye fully and even rub it when the feeling takes me. Life is once again OK.

This weekend just gone, I went to Shimonoseki, which, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, is the largest city in Yamaguchi. In fact, it is home to the only Starbucks in the prefecture (still haven’t tried it out, Starbucks being much of a muchness wherever you are in the world). A group of us were there to celebrate Phoebe’s birthday in style – okonomiyaki and karaoke: could we be more Japanese?

That said, this coming weekend will see a resurrection of Englishness. I’m hosting a Chav Party. My costume is finished, complete with earrings, bling and a cap. To be honest, I think the only thing that could make it hotter would be if I wore my patch…

Till next time!

Me and the Patch