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Mama (and Papa), Welcome To Japan August 1, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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I’m a bad blogger. What can I say? It’s been almost 2 weeks since I last wrote, but I have been entertaining my parents like a dutiful son, so I hope you don’t hold it against me for too long.

My parents arrived on Saturday 19th July and I met them on the Shinkansen and brought them back to Kuga. They were tired, but we journeyed to Joyfull, a Little Chef type restaurant that sells edible food at incredibly cheap prices. It was there that my mum discovered a taste for a local tipple called umeshu which is plum wine.

The next day, we didn’t travel too far afield – into Iwakuni. We toured around the castle area and the Kintai Bridge. We had some sushi and that evening, a group of us went to Sanzoku to try the amazing chicken on a stick they serve.

Monday 21st was a bank holiday and we went to Hiroshima to pay our respects at the A Bomb Dome and visit the museum. We did a little shopping and generally strolled around and then went to Miyajima to see the Itsukashima shrine and the floating Torii gate. My mum got too hot, so my dad and I went off to walk around the mountainside town, taking photos of typically Japanese architecture. We got back to my house quite early, so we could pack for the next day.

On Tuesday, we were out of the house very early to get to Fukuoka to catch our flight to Naha, Okinawa. Okinawa Prefecture lies between Japan and Taiwan and used to belong to a Kingdom called the Ryukyu. At the airport, as my dad and I went to get my mum a drink, we saw lots of cameras and people crowding around the exit to an executive lounge. Hanging around just to see who it was, imagine our surprise when none other than the Emperor of Japan strolls out and boards a flight to Sapporo!

Anyway…Naha is similar to a lot of Japanese cities (which, on the whole, are ridiculously ugly), but it has a much more Asian feel to it. Everyone seems a lot more laid back than on the mainland and I now think I would rank it as one of my favourite Japanese cities. It was also where my parents discovered their secret karaoke diva sides!

The next morning heralded another early start. Our ferry left Naha Port at 8:30am, bound for Kumejima, a small island 4 hours off the coast of Okinawa proper. Along the journey, we saw a hell of a lot of flying fish and generally it passed without incident. We got to the hotel, checked in early and made our way to Eef Beach. Supposedly one of Japan’s top 100 beaches, we had a good time, but the beach was littered with coral debris and the water was very shallow, no matter how far you went out. That said, the waters were as clear as you could ever want and as warm as a bath. I did some snorkeling and saw a puffer fish and an octopus. All in all, despite a little sunburn, a great day.

The next day, we lounged around inside; the midday sun being much too strong for us to venture outside. Getting the free bus that our hotel ran, we went onto Ojima, next to Kume, to see the Turtle Conservation Project where we got to see baby turtles. We also visited Tatami-ishi, which are pentagonal and hexagonal shaped rocks that stretch out into the sea. Apparently it was caused where lava solidified and then melted and solidified once again. Either way, it was quite impressive and we swam off the coast from there. Everyone was agreed that it was better than Eef Beach. The sea was as warm as the day before, but this time we could stand up and the water would cover our shoulders. I did some more snorkeling and that evening we enjoyed another good meal at the Eef Beach Hotel.

The following day, the 25th, we were back on the boat and into Naha. Cue another meal out followed by karaoke. That was our last night in Okinawa and on 26th we made our way back to Fukuoka. On the train back, we changed at Tokuyama, where there had been some type of festival. The train was packed, but in true Japanese style, no one had enough courage to sit next to me, the foreigner!

We spent a lot of the next morning packing everything up as it was the last time my parents would be in Kuga. Loaded up with bags, we travelled to Osaka, saw the castle and the Aquarium and had an amazing meal out – sort of a Japanese tapas. The next day, Monday 28th, was a bit of a washout. It started brilliantly and we went to Universal Studios, enjoying the first 3 rides we went on. Then a thundercloud broke overhead and we were held for an hour inside, unable to throw off the guard keeping us there for our own safety. Eventually, having escaped, we found that most of the park had been shut down with no real chance of them opening anything back up again. So we spent about £50 for 3 rides. Not the best day of the holiday, if I’m honest.

Kyoto was our destination for the next day. We made the trek out to the west edge of the city to see the Golden Temple, Kinkakuji. Coming back into the central area, we toured some more and I bade my parents farewell and came back to Kuga. They have since made their way to Tokyo and will be on a flight shortly after I finish this.

Back here, I’m just wrapping things up – closing accounts, paying final bills, packing. I feel very lazy because I’ve not done a lot of that stuff just yet, but I know that I’ll have to get my arse into gear at some point and do it. Ah well – once Tuesday rolls round, I’ll be saying goodbye to Kuga and getting the Shinkansen up to Tokyo for my last night in Japan.

Till next time!

The Point Of No Return July 3, 2008

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan, Travel.
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Wow – how incredibley lazy have I been? It’s been a whole week since I last wrote a blog entry!

Well, last Friday saw Brooke and I waking up really early and trekking to the station through the hordes of my students on their way to school. Needless to say, it possibly wasn’t the best time to wear my new t shirt, emblazoned with the words “Baka gaijin”, which means ‘stupid foreigner’. The journey to Tokyo was relatively incident free. There were a few quick changes, but on the whole, we made everything and arrived at the time anticipated. The travelling is easy but long – it took about 7 hours for us to get there. And we weren’t actually going to Tokyo proper, rather Fussa, on the outskirts, where there is a US Air Force Base. Brooke’s cousin is in the Air Force and had booked us a room in the hotel on base. It was possibly the cheapest, nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. There was a double bed in one room (given to me as it was my birthday weekend), a pull out sofa bed, a TV, a DVD player, a fully functional kitchen with an oven, a bathroom etc. The reason I mention the oven is because I’ve never been in a Japanese kitchen that comes equipped with an oven. It was great. And kind of scary – I’d not seen one in so long, I was worried I wouldn’t know how to work it. Luckily, the only thing we cooked there, was taken care of by Brooke.

So when we first arrived, we had to kill some time until JJ (Brooke’s cousin) had finished work so she could sign us onto the base as her guests. We strolled around the department store right by Fussa station and I bought some traditional Japanese sandals called geta. However, when I was practising walking in them the other day (they’re really weirdly shaped and actually quite difficult to negotiate), I forgot to take into account the fact that they raise me up by a good 3 inches or so and so cracked my head on the door frame. Not good. I also picked up a copy of 春の雪 (Haru no Yuki – a book by Mishima), in Japanese. Japanese books are relatively cheap and, even though I’m unable to read it, it’s still nice to have it in the original format, so to speak.

We met up with JJ at the Visitor’s Centre and had a chat with the two Japanese guards there. They were both amused by my t shirt, especially as I knew what it meant. They regaled us with stories about American soldiers getting kanji tattoos that meant nothing or, in worse situations, something rude. We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and then went for dinner. Now, when I say the words Taco Bell to people from America, they go mental. It seems it’s somewhat of an institution there. However, for those in England who can remember when they were open on our humble shores, you’ll probably be reminded of chips covered with plasticky cheese, second-rate tacos and fried pig covered in cinnamon and sold as cinnamon twists. Needless to say, the presence of Taco Bell has long since disappeared from the UK. That said, I was still willing to give it a try, the Americans having made such a fuss. And it was good. Maybe not good for my bowels, but on the whole it was a good food experience. Not very Japanese, but, hey! I was technically in America (OK, it’s not America at all, but I was surrounded by American things – people, products, food – what’s a (fat) boy to do?). We then went over to JJ’s house where I met her dog, Rebel and her husband, Brian. The latter was kind of drunk when I met him and, when I asked for some Bailey’s (my first in over a year), he gave me a glass. Full. It took me a while to get through, but get through it I did. It would make my mother proud!

The next day, we were up early once again and on the road. Brooke and I travelled to Gotemba and then onto Yamanaka Lake, which is at the foot of Mount Fuji. It was a pretty miserable day, weather wise and so we didn’t get to see much of Fuji, save the very top on the way home. But we did go and do the thing I wanted to do – we went to the Mishima Museum. Now, it was small – very small. It was pretty much just one room, maybe a little bigger than my main room in my apartment. But there were original manuscripts and pictures and other such things that only a fan could take enjoyment from. Even though it took us 5 hours to get there, I was happy that I had made the effort. That said, it was great when we found that there was a bus almost directly home that only took 2 hours.

That night, I tried Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits. The biscuits in the name refer to overly buttery scone-type things that you smother with honey. The chicken was ridiculously big. I ordered 3 pieces and was shocked to find that America must have some breed of mutant chicken. We also went to the cinema – again, my first time in almost a year. We saw the film Deception with Hugh Jackman and Ewan McGregor. It’s not bad, but the most interesting part of the night was the fact that the American National Anthem was played before the movie and everyone had to stand up for the duration of the song.

The next day, my actual birthday, was a little less successful. We went to Tama Reien Cemetery in order to find Mishima’s final resting place. I was told that his grave was in plot 13. How hard would it be? Well, given that Tama Reien Cemetery is about the size of China, very. We strolled around plot 13 for about 2 hours before the rain got to me and we gave up. We headed into Shinjuku where I bought myself a birthday present (a new external hard drive) and then travelled back to Yokota Air Base. Brooke and I sat in, ordered pizza and watched movies long into the night.

On Monday, we had to leave. Again, our journey back home was easy and we made all of our connections. In the hour or so we had to wait in Iwakuni, I headed to an electrical store to see if I could get a transformer so my hard drives work when I get back to England. I found an inexpensive one, but also found some hard drives stocked there that were a little cheaper than mine. I take comfort in the fact that my new one matches my laptop.

So that was my trip to Tokyo. I decided that I’m not actually a huge fan of Tokyo proper, but had a great time exploring the suburbs of the city.

This week has gone quickly since then. I’ve been at the ESIDL and am pleased to report that today was my last day there. It wasn’t a joyous occasion, but I wasn’t actually all that sad, especially as I wasn’t presented with an honorary plaque or at least a bunch of flowers. No kids cried. One kid showed me a dead baby bat. That was the only emotion anyone really showed. So I’m here at home now, cursing my other elementary school for the schedule they’ve just sent me. At that school, the 5th and 6th graders are one class ahead of the other kids and so I knew that I would have to plan another lesson just for them. But, looking at my schedule this morning, I see that they have put me in two more classes with each of those years, meaning I now have 2 more lessons to plan. As much as it sounds like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, the fact is, I like to teach my kids useful things that they’ll be able to use in conversational English. My lessons actually run together and they rely on the kids remembering what we’ve already covered. Which means that I now have to think of something else they can focus on, as I was just going to play games with them as way of a farewell.

That said, I only have 11 more days of school and then my teaching career is over. It’s really relieving to know that it isn’t that much longer before I can say goodbye to this profession that I hope never to come into contact with again.

Till next time!

A Seoul New World May 7, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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I’m back at school after possibly the best trip away I’ve had since I’ve been here in Japan. On Friday morning a group of intrepid adventurers set out from Tokuyama with a common goal – to have a great time in the capital of South Korea. Arriving in the mid-afternoon, we made our way to the hostel that we had booked. Situated near Hongik University, StayKorea was basically just a house. But it was comfortable, clean and owned by an amazing couple. Just to jump forward a little; as we left, everyone agreed that it was one of the best places we’ve ever stayed in.

We caught the subway into Meyong-Dong where the streets were abuzz with people. Luckily, it seemed we wandered into Seoul just as lots of festivals were taking place. Cue busy streets, packed markets and more food stalls than you could possibly hope to visit in a few days. As we strolled the streets and browsed the shops, we came upon two Korean schoolgirls who came and introduced themselves to us. After marvelling at their good grasp of the English language (especially in contrast to the kids we teach in Japan) we got them to lead us around the area a little. After they had tired of the tourists, they left and we settled into a roadside cafe to enjoy seafood pancakes, mussels and the local tipple – soju. We then headed up to the Seoul Tower and looked out over the city at night. Whilst we were there, there was a laser show, which we all enjoyed before heading back down. Lucy, Daniel and I then headed to the IceBar where we enjoyed cocktails in big blocks of ice, whilst dressed in furry ponchos and gloves. All in all, a great first day.

Despite the early hour at which we had to rise on the Friday, Saturday did not herald a well-earned lie in. Instead, we were up at around 5:30am once again in order to clamber onto a bus and drive an hour north to the border between the two Koreas. First of all, we visited a viewpoint where you could look out over the demarcation zone (DMZ) towards North Korea. A short journey down the road and we were over 70m below ground in a tunnel dug by the North Korea troops. It was supposed to be a tunnel all the way to Seoul in order for another attack to take place, but it was discovered before it could get too close. We then had lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant and everyone agreed that the food was amazing. It was around this time that I decided that I liked Korean food much more than Japanese.

After lunch, we changed tours and were driven to Camp Bonifas and the Joint Security Area. There, we got to see the two sets of border guards. Apparently, the rules for the southern side are much stricter – no camera bags, no gestures or pointing at the northern guards etc. But we were told that the North Korean tourists are allowed right up to the actual demarcation line. We were ushered into a building where meetings sometimes take place and were allowed to step over the line and into North Korea. Technically I can now say that I’ve trodden on North Korean soil, so that was a highlight. We then stood on a pagoda-type thing and took photos of the North Korean border guard watching us relentlessly and then got back on the bus. Picking up some North Korean wine on the way, we headed back to Seoul and got ready for a night out. Unfortunately, most of it was spent with a group of people I didn’t know. They were nice and friendly, but for most of the evening we did karaoke, which seemed a tad too Japanese for my liking.

The next day Lucy, Daniel and I set out to do a spot of sightseeing. We walked around the palace grounds of Deoksugung. Even though it was extremely Western, it was nice to wander through a park and afterwards we saw the changing of the guard outside. That evening, we all met up and went to a cultural performance called Miso (which means ‘smile’ in Korean). After the show, we were all in high spirits, fuelled by the fact that we had our photos taken with the performers. After dinner, the group split with Lucy, Daniel, Brooke and I heading towards Itaewon for a rather raucous night out.

The following day was Monday. We wandered pretty aimlessly around the city and saw Dongdaemun, which was an ancient city gate that was burnt down recently. After sampling the sights and sounds of the hiSeoul concert, I headed home to listen to some Wagner and go to bed. One of the reasons for the early night was the fact that Asiana Airlines had rung us that day and told us that they’d moved us to the early morning flight and that they’d refund part of our money. Upon returning home, I was informed that our flights had been changed back to the original time and that in order to make up for the inconvenience, they were bumping us up to business class.

So, yesterday, we headed to the airport, enjoyed the business lounge and marvelled at how little difference there was between business and economy, once on the plane. The flight was uneventful and I got home safely last night.

Now, I’m sitting at school, waiting for the day to end. Going away and coming back has really knocked me out of joint and the last thing I want to do is spend another 10 weeks in a dead end job. That notwithstanding, it is only 10 weeks, which does make me slightly happier. Seoul is my favourite city of places outside of Japan that I’ve visited since I’ve been here. The animosity between the Japanese and the Koreans is infamous, but I’ve not held back. I told all of my teachers that I absolutely loved Seoul and was kind of sad to come back. My teachers being quite young and chilled told me that they too loved Seoul and so totally understood. They also empathised with the ‘coming back to school’ blues, but seemed pleased that I’d made the effort to bring them back some Korean chocolate. In return, Julie presented me with a Ritter Sport – she’d heard that they were made in Germany and told me that she hoped it reminded me of there. See, that’s the thing – everyone here is so nice, but the job is just so mind-numbingly boring that it makes me want to leave. But, as I said: 10 weeks to go before school ends. How strange. This year does seem to have flown by, but then I suppose they always do.

Till next time!

Mud In The Water April 10, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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I’m back from my whirlwind trip to Kuala Lumpur (the city’s name means Muddy Confluence, as it’s built around the meeting place of two rather muddy rivers). To be honest, it wasn’t really all that whirlwind, but it was a rather roundabout trip getting there and back.

I left my house on Friday 28th March and went to Shimonoseki where I stayed at Louise’s, despite her having a really leaky kitchen ceiling. Having had the best sushi in Japan followed by some great drinks, I headed to bed with a book that Kate had given me called The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynn. Check it out – it really is absolutely brilliant and it had me hooked so much that I pretty much finished it on the plane.

Early the next morning I had left the safe confines of Yamaguchi prefecture and was headed into Fukuoka. Arriving at the airport, I tried to withdraw the copious amounts of money I was sure I would need to, you know, live whilst I was away. Funnily enough, Japan tends to fail me more on technology than anything else (heating, ATMs) as ATMs don’t work until certain times. They close. Which means you’re left penniless if it’s between the hours of 9pm and 7pm…

So I had no money. Having checked in and being told that I would have to collect my luggage in Hong Kong and then check it back in again straight away if I wanted to leave it there overnight, I sat around, waiting for the damned ATM to open. When it did, I found that the exchange place in the airport wasn’t equipped to sell me Malaysian Ringgit, so I had to make do with some Hong Kong dollars and get my ass to Customs. There, I was told that my overnight bag was full of liquids that were very likely highly dangerous. Yes, my Superdrug Vitamin E cream is really a killer. So I had to check my second bag in.

Fast forward a bit and I’m sitting in Taipei. Why they felt the need to stop in Taipei is beyond me, but I got to see a bit of muggy Taiwan from the plane window. I had the option to get off the plane, but I was reading the aforementioned book and just couldn’t be arsed. And it was only for an hour.

When we landed in Hong Kong, I stood and waited for my bags with everyone else. An hour and a half went by and everyone had gone, but I was still standing there, waiting for the bags so I could check one of them back in, retaining my overnight bag because I was staying, surprisingly, overnight. I went over to the Baggage Information Desk and asked them what had happened to my bags, picturing them still in Fukuoka or, worse, somewhere else in the world, going round and round on the carousel. But no. The man told me that they were in Hong Kong, but they were on my plane going to Kuala Lumpur. Good, in theory, but my overnight bag had all my instructions on how to get to the house I was staying at in Hong Kong. So I had to request them to get it off the plane. Which meant another hour and a half wait. Of my 15 hours in Hong Kong, the first 3 and a bit were spent wandering aimlessly in the capacious baggage reclaim bit of the airport. Fun.

I eventually got to the house and was given directions on how to get a to a bar called Mes Amis that the people I was to meet would be at at 8pm. Leaving the house, I found 300 Hong Kong dollars on the floor. This consequently meant that I spent hardly any of my own money on drinks that night. I wandered around the streets of Hong Kong for a bit, warding off the women who tried to lure me into their strip clubs, killing time until I was to meet Val, Tom and Lucy. Val and Tom are my brother’s girlfriend’s parents. Lucy is her sister. They had been at the Rugby Sevens all day and by the time I met them, they were kind of steamed. But it was OK – I knew I had to maintain the good name of the Wilsons and catch up. So I did. The bar was really expensive, but opposite was a 7Eleven, so we would take regular trips over to the convenience store, stock up on beer and then just drink it outside. All in all, it was a good night out. But not so great a morning.

I woke up before 6am, still drunk and took a shower. Val got up and saw me out and I made my way to Hong Kong Airport once again. Actually, at this point, I just want to say that I had an absolutely amazing breakfast at the airport – smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, an English muffin and a hash brown. It was great!

When I got to Kuala Lumpur, I was kind of miffed to find that my friend (with whom I lived for two years at Uni) wasn’t there. Cue another long wait at an airport whilst I tried to figure out what to do. Eventually, I got my money changed at the bank their and got on the internet. Luckily, she’d sent me her phone number, so I was able to get in contact with her and eventually procure a taxi to get me to her house. The driver charged me double, but me, being unsuspecting, handed the cash on over. This was the first but definitely not the last instance of cab drivers ripping me off.

That night, we went to a BBQ at the poshest house I’ve ever seen. I could have quite happily lived in the pool house, it was so plush. There was a pool. There was a porch/BBQ area that was bigger than my house. There was convivial company. And there was food. From Tesco. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the wonder that is Tesco has made it all the way to Malaysia. It’s kind of different in ways, but it’s still Tesco. I even took a photo of the only one I went in whilst I was there. This may sound strange to those of you living in the UK, but I’ve not seen one of those bad boys for over 8 months now. It was like a breath of fresh, smoggy, English air.

We also went for sheesha and got to sit in a really cool Arabian tent outside whilst we puffed away, ate great food and chatted. By this time, I was starting to flag a little and the next morning didn’t see me at all, as I slept through it.

I won’t go into what I did every day in detail, because that would make this post ridiculously long. Remember how long the Vietnam entry was? I was in Malaysia for so much longer, so I’ll spare you the boredom.

But, I did explore the shopping centres of Kuala Lumpur (they’re SO huge and so well air conditioned), I went to the Aquarium (kind of pricey, but good fun, especially as I saw the shark feeding), went to the cinema 3 times (Japanese cinemas are expensive and they don’t really show English films), went to the Sky Bridge in the Petronas Towers (featured in the film Entrapment with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery).

I also took a day trip to Melaka, which was colonised by the Portuguese and the Dutch and is very pretty. I managed to get sunburnt there, actually. Hiza (my friend from uni) took me clubbing too. We went to a club called Frangipani and then to another called Mansion. Mansion was really expensive to get in, but one of her friends knew a guy with his name on the door, so we got in for free under his name. We then proceeded to help ourselves to the drinks they had constantly brought to their table. The thing about Kuala Lumpur is that the best, biggest, poshest, richest houses are right next to shanty towns. There’s a lot of money to be had in KL, but also a lot of poverty. Because of the influx of ex-pats, a lot of areas have seen huge expansion and property price booms, meaning that more and more Malaysian people who can’t afford there are forced out.

I also got to experience a Muslim wedding. Hiza’s cousin got married and we went to give our congratulations. It was ridiculously hot and, as it was outside, there was no air conditioning. We stayed for some food and to say hello to Hiza’s relatives but then made a speedy exit to an air conditioned home and numerous episodes of Friends.

Oh Friends. How I’ve missed you. I managed to get quite a few DVDs whilst I was there. For under £80, I got:

  • Grey’s Anatomy Season 3
  • Nip Tuck Seasons 3, 4 and 5
  • Desperate Housewives Seasons 2 and 3
  • Friends Seasons 1-10
  • All 21 Bond movies
  • An 8 film DVD with The Departed, Babel, Blood Diamond, Happy Feet, The Last King Of Scotland, The Queen, Pan’s Labyrinth and Dreamgirls
  • La Vie En Rose

Not too shabby, really, bearing in mind that normally, one season of Nip Tuck costs around £45.

The day before I left, I went to Lake Titiwangsa, in the north of KL and got a good view over the city. I also went up to Batu Caves, which is, as the name suggests, a complex of caves that have been turned into Hindu temples. All very colourful and absolutely full of monkeys.

So, yeah. I had a really great time and it was really relaxing. I don’t feel like I saw everything that could be seen in KL, but nonetheless, I had a really enjoyable trip away and saw what I went to see. It was great seeing Hiza again, too, especially as the last time we met up was before I went to Germany.

When I got back to Fukuoka, I was waiting for Customs behind a lot of Japanese people. They all went through seamlessly. It got to me; the white person, and suddenly the man had to go through all my bags. Every single one of them. He unpacked them and then left me to repack them. When he stumbled across the hoard of illegal DVDs I had stashed in my bag, he didn’t even raise an eyebrow. He was obviously just being a racist son of a bitch and he put me in a foul mood, one which I was not willing to hide. When he thanked me for my time in Japanese I stormed off, really annoyed that he had seen the need to rifle through all my belongings. It’s things like that that assure me that leaving after one year is the right thing to do.

And now I’m back in Kuga. I took the rest of the week off because I knew I would be knackered and that I’d have a hell of a lot of washing to do. But it’s all done now. I’ve unpacked. I’ve done all my washing. So I’m now just chilling out before my weekend starts. Another weekend away, in fact.

This weekend I’m off to Shimane prefecture to camp in Mongolian hut things and watch yabusame. Although I’ve mentioned before, this is samurai on horseback shooting arrows at things. Accompanied by a lot of drinking (on our part, not theirs I should hope). Should be good fun.

Having just tried to add photos into this post and failing miserably, please feel free to browse through the 3 albums of photos I took by following the links below.

Till next time!

Malaysia: Truly Asia I
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2148601&l=47391&id=61306034

Malaysia: Truly Asia II
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2148602&l=d479f&id=61306034

Malaysia: Truly Asia II
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2148603&l=bcbcb&id=61306034

There’s No Cure Like Travel March 27, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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Just a short one to say that tomorrow (Friday 28th), I’m off to Shimonoseki for a night, so I’m closer to the airport for Saturday morning. Then, I’m off to Kuala Lumpur, staying for a night in Hong Kong on the way.

Expect a full update upon my return – 8th April.

Till next time!

Saigon, That Queen Of Sin – Renamed For Ho Chi Minh December 29, 2007

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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Well hello from Saigon. Needless to say, I’ve had nothing but tunes from Miss Saigon running around my head, especially as I wandered aimlessly around District 1 yesterday, getting myself ridiculously lost, sweaty and disgruntled. But where are my manners? In the words of everyone’s favourite Julie, I’ll start at the very beginning.

Thursday 20th December
Having bade farewell to Kuga Junior High School, I attended my last adult conversation class. Much to my surprise, I was presented with a handmade hat (came in very useful up the mountain), a homemade brooch, some cake and a 5000 yen note. We sat around and had tea, chatting in English and talking about traditional Christmases in England. Afterwards, I was handed a bouquet of flowers that are now probably rotting in my apartment, stinking the place out. But still, it was the thought that counted.
Following this, I made my way home, finished packing and tidying my abode and left for the station. Fast forward 3 hours and I arrived in Shimonoseki and, more specifically, Louise’s house. We sat around, played Scrabble (I still despise it with a passion) and MarioKart and generally acted excited about our impending trip.

Friday 21st December
Waking up under Daryl’s kotatsu (the Japanese heated table), I readied myself for the day of travel ahead. Having got ourselves all the way to Fukuoka with plenty of time to spare, it came as a major shock to find that my employers had neglected to pay me. I rang my supervisor but am still unsure as to whether or not he understood that I was majorly pissed at this oversight, especially as I would have no other chance to get at these funds once out of the country, Japanese accounts being only accessible inside the country. Phoebe came to the rescue and lent me a huge sum of money, despite the fact that it cleared out her account almost entirely. Needless to say, upon my return, I will be reimbursing her before I do anything else.
The flight to Bangkok was relatively inauspicious, but we were all delighted to be presented with a small corsage of flowers upon our exiting the plane. We all milled around Bangkok airport, having said goodbye to Monica who was off to work with Thai orphans for a few weeks, and eventually boarded our Hanoi-bound plane.
Once we arrived in Hanoi, we were picked up by a taxi driver who was more than happy to chatter away in English, telling us lots of things, many of which I doubted were true. We made our way through the shanty outskirts of the city until we arrived in the shanty interior of the city. Checking into our hotel, we decided to wander the streets of the Vietnamese capital, even though at one point Louise slipped and submerged her foot in a deep puddle of piss.

Saturday 22nd December
The four of us (Daryl, Phoebe, Louise and myself), spent the entire morning with our tour guide, Thuong, who organised everything for us – our trip up the mountain, our excursion to Ha Long Bay and my flights to Ho Chi Minh City. After this, we had a traditional Vietnamese lunch and set about exploring the city. Unfortunately, we missed the viewing times of Ho Chi Minh’s body, which was really the only thing I had wanted to do in Hanoi, but we still went and had a look at the museum about him, which, as may be expected, was all very one-sided. After this, we had dinner and made our way to the tour guide’s office, where we readied our things for the hike ahead of us. From there, we took a sleeper train to Lao Cai, arriving at 5:40am the next morning.

Sunday 23rd December
It was dark when we arrived. But there was so much life. People trying to bustle you into taxis, people trying to flog you stuff that no one would ever have need of and people trying to sell you drinks, food and other perishables. Making our way onto the already crowded minibus, the four of us were very much awake. No one else seemed too happy at that prospect, as we chatted away, excited and scared about the mountain that loomed before us.
Winding our way through the North Vietnamese Alps was a sight to behold, the sun rising over the hills, illuminating the terraced rice paddies below. It is the Asia of which people dream. We then arrived in the mountain village of Sapa; the epitome of a tourist trap. Tribes people try to tempt you with locally made produce and clothing and the children of these people just engage you in conversation, happy for the chance to practice their almost perfect English that they have only picked up on the streets. We strolled around the local market, looking with interest at the dog carcasses that were being prepared in front of us.
We were then introduced to our guide – Hais. He was to accompany us up and down the mountain and in return we taught him such useful phrases as “‘Ave it!” and “Get out of my face, bitch”.
Having made yet another journey in yet another minibus, we were finally at the point where we were to start hiking.
For four hours we walked, keeping our spirits high by stopping every now and then to take in the scenery or chow down on a much needed Snickers.
Eventually, in what didn’t seem like too much time, we made it to base camp, at an altitude of about 2000m. There we met two Dutch men called Marten and Gerard, one of whom had been unable to complete the climb, it being far to difficult, despite his apparent athleticism. Needless to say, it put the fear of God into us all. However, Phoebe and I, being the least competent of the group, made a pact that unless we were faced with unconquerable odds, we would do it. Fie in the face of the sporty Dutchman!

Monday 24th December
Daryl woke us all up by telling us that he had had food poisoning and had been up all night, vomiting and generally being ill. That said, the Canadian took it all in his stride and was determined to do it and beat the Dutchman who did make it. We all set out, determined to give it our best and take it as slow as we needed, much to the dismay of Hais who just wanted to get it over and done with, apparently.
It took us about 7 hours, all in all, to make it to the top. We did it though! We scaled Fansipan and the outer-lying mountains to an altitude of 3143m; the highest mountain in Indochina. Louise, a veteran mountain climber, told us that it was the hardest climb she’d ever done as it wasn’t a simple case of climbing up. It consisted of climbing up, then down, then up, then across, then down, then up, then down, then up. Pretty much a case of two steps forward, one step back. Surprisingly it was Daryl who made it to the top first, with Phoebe and me, rather predictably, bringing up the rear. When we got to the summit, we were greeted with a huge collection of Vietnamese people, celebrating, shouting, photographing, littering, cheering, stripping, eating and generally ruining any ambiance that we could have felt, having forced ourselves up a bloody great big mountain. Eventually they left and we all huddled around the fire, shivering in the gale force winds that pounded the top of Fansipan.
Following lunch, we started our descent. What made Fansipan ridiculously hard was the fact that towards the top, a lot of it was just rock. Sheer rock that we had to scale. Funnily enough, going up was easier, as it only involved grabbing onto where you could and hauling yourself up. Coming down left us much more vulnerable and if we had slipped, there was quite often an immeasurable drop below us. As we made our way down, Louise also succumbed to illness, which made the journey back more arduous and much slower. As darkness fell on the mountains, Hais suggested that we sleep in the open and finish the climb the next day. None of the three of us (Daryl having made off at an unbelievable pace yet again) even contemplated that idea and we all soldiered on, sighing with relief when we were greeted with a form of mountain rescue that had been sent out to collect us!
Getting back to the camp, we all just collapsed, refusing any food that was offered to us, favouring falling into deep and uncomfortable sleep.

Tuesday 25th December
Waking up as stiff as the boards we had slept upon, none of us relished the journey back down, least of all Louise who was still feeling the effects of her illness. But make it down we did, trekking, once again, through the Vietnamese rainforest. Weary, sweaty and horribly gross, we all made it in one piece back to where we had started the day before, keeping our morale high by singing songs from The Sound of Music and a rather infectious ditty called Charlie Had A Pigeon:

Charlie had a pigeon, a pigeon, a pigeon
Charlie had a pigeon, a pigeon he had
It flew in the day and it flew in the night
And when it got back it was covered in
Charlie had a pigeon…etc

Back in Sapa, we relaxed in the hotel, enjoying the shower that was, in all honesty, the worst shower in the world. I’m pretty certain that everyone of us had a post-Fansipan nap and we spent most of Christmas milling about the town in a daze. That evening we met up with the Dutchmen, rubbed it in Gerard’s face that two fatties had made it up and he had failed, and had a few drinks.

Wednesday 26th December
Not much happened on Boxing Day, other than the fact that we left Sapa and made our way back to Lao Cai for the sleeper train which would return us to Hanoi. On the way down, I started to feel bad and spent most of the night expelling my internal organs into the train sink.

Thursday 27th December
We all arrived back in Hanoi at a ridiculously obscene hour in the morning and made our way back to the hotel where we were allowed to sleep until our tour started. Fearing I would be unable to take part in our excursion, I bought some 7Up, let it go flat and slept, sipping at it at regular intervals. Waking up feeling a little better, we collected our luggage and got on another minibus to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Taking a boat tour around the bay, exploring the caves and enjoying (well, I hardly touched it, being still a little queasy from the night before) an extensive seafood feast, we whiled away our last day together as a group. We bade each other farewell at Hanoi airport and I was left alone.
Making my way into the airport, I checked my ticket and had to wait around for a couple of hours. When the check-in desk screens changed, I noted in horror that it seemed that they had missed my flight. It was then that it dawned on me – my ticket had been booked for the morning, not the evening. Our tour guide had got it wrong. I rushed over to the desks to see if anything could be done, but to no avail. I had to buy another ticket to Ho Chi Minh City. Luckily, it wasn’t all that expensive, but needless to say, it wasn’t really what I wanted to happen. It wasn’t all bad though, because once I got to HCMC, I was met by the taxi that I was promised would be there. He drove me to my hotel in the centre of Saigon and I passed out in the hotel, having just seen on the news that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated.

Friday 28th December
As the title of this entry says, Saigon was renamed in honour of Ho Chi Minh, founder of modern Vietnam, after the fall of the South. Most people still refer to it as Saigon or District 1 and so I thought I would need to make a short aside to explain that all 3 refer to the same area that I explored.

I woke up late, following the news in Pakistan and getting myself ready for a day on the town. I left my hotel, had breakfast at a cafe called Allez Boo and got myself totally and thoroughly lost in the city. Eventually I had to call upon the services of a motorbike taxi to take me to the War Remnants Museum. Travelling like this is an experience as road rules are pretty much non-existent here. Bored of a red light? Just go! Don’t want to ride your motorbike on the road? Mount the pavement and ride there! This also goes for pedestrians as well. Why bother waiting for a green light when most drivers won’t obey it anyway? All you need to do is wander out into the road, making your way steadily into the path of oncoming traffic and you’ll be fine. Apparently Saigonese drivers are masters at avoiding objects. They must be – so far I’ve not been hit and I like to do as the natives do – it takes a bit of getting used to; launching oneself into the way of a huge bus, but you get used to it, I suppose.
The War Remnants Museum used to be called The Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes, but they changed it to make it a little more foreigner friendly. Now it serves as a reminder of what a dirty war the Vietnam War was. There are photos and models of torture methods and devices used by the French, American and Chinese forces. There are pictures and videos and interviews with survivors of Agent Orange which, although primarily used as a defoliant, marred and deformed children following the war. Indeed, there are many people on the streets of Saigon that seem to be the victims of this chemical warfare: as I walked here today, one man asked me for change, his face almost unrecognisable, looking more like the skin was melting off his skull.
After the war museum, I walked over to the Reunification Palace where the South Vietnamese President resided until the Northern Communists won the conflict. Having studied the war in History, it was amazing to see the tank that famously crashed through the gates and to be in the place where the South Vietnamese government that was only 42 hours old told a North Vietnamese soldier “We have been waiting to transfer power to you”, only to be told that there was no question of them transferring power as “You cannot give away what you never had to begin with”.

Saturday 29th December
Well, here I am now, sat in this Internet cafe, having written well over 2500 words on what I’ve been up to this festive period. This is pretty much all I’ve done, other than eat breakfast, say “no” to lots of people offering me things that I really don’t need (yesterday I got into the habit so much that when offered a motorbike taxi, I continually said no, despite the fact that I was very truly lost and much in need of someone to take me home!) and parted with some cash. I found an illegal DVD shop that stocked a lot of new films on DVD/VCD. However, having a download hub at my fingertips, I don’t need to fritter away my money on new movie releases. Instead, I managed to pick up all 7 seasons of the West Wing for about £16 and all 8 seasons of Will and Grace for about £10! Not too shabby!

Tonight I will make my way back to Tokyo via Bangkok, arriving tomorrow morning for a day in the Nihon capital. I will update you all once I get back to Kuga, I’m sure.

I hope that everyone had an amazing Christmas and has lots of exciting things planned for the New Year.

Till next time!

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!

Could We Go Again, Please? September 18, 2007

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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Well, I returned last night from a little bit of a trek around Western Japan. On Friday evening I left my apartment in Kuga and travelled to Tokuyama. From there, I met up with Lucy and we had our first experience of the Shinkansen. Stopping and changing at Shin-Yamaguchi, Nicole joined us and we journeyed to Hakata in Fukuoka.

Fukuoka is on Kyushu which is the large island to the west of Honshu (the main island of Japan that is sort of shaped like a question mark). I’m in love with it. Leaving Hakata station, I was exposed to the first major city I’ve seen since Tokyo, all those many weeks ago. There were neon lights (not just on the pachinko dens, but just on general buildings). There were people. There were cars. There was an excess of life. In contrast to Kuga, there was no carpenter, no blacksmith, no dependence upon antiquated local trades. I was in my element.

Splitting with Lucy and Phoebe (who we met at Hakata), Nicole and I set off in search of the hostel I had tried to book on the internet. Getting there, we were happy to find that there was space for us, but we’d have to change rooms for the second night. At about £16 each for two nights, we were hardly about to complain. That said, when we opened the door to the first bedroom, there was a rather large cockroach on the wall. The lovely lady on reception handed us a can of killer spray, so we attempted to gas it. Then, a rather smelly, overweight Australian came into the room and stamped on it, smearing it across the floor. He left, having received tentative thanks from us, and we were left to clean up the mashed body parts and air the room of the stench of both the insecticide and the man in need of a couple of showers.

We dumped our bags and set off in search of food. I always thought that I would go out of my way to eat Japanese cuisine, but it really hasn’t turned out like that. In reality, the moment I see a place selling Western food, I normally make a bee-line for it. Being in Fukuoka made no difference. After a “Freshness Burger”, Nicole and I found ourselves supping liquors at an Irish bar. There we met a Japanese woman who gave Nicole a tea towel. Me being the cynical Londoner that I am, was convinced that she was trying to sell stuff, but in fact, she was just being friendly.

The next day, Nicole and I wandered around trying to find somewhere to grab some breakfast and, having been turned away from one place at 10.30am as they had “stopped serving breakfast”, we found Canal City (or, in the local dialect: Canaru City) a rather sizeable, labyrinthine shopping centre. Complete with a Zara, a GAP and a Lush. £20 later at Lush, and I knew I needed to leave, lest I spend all my money. We strolled some more around Fukuoka (in particular, the area of Tenjin) and found a Japanese branch of Harrods where they were handing out free samples of tea.

That evening, we met up with Phoebe and Lucy, had dinner and returned, once again to the Irish bar. The next day, we bade Fukuoka farewell and set off in search of more homely climes: in the shape of Shimonoseki, the largest city in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Another was added to our group in the shape of Kate, who we met outside Shimonoseki Aquarium. Walking through the door we were presented with English guides and set to seeing what they had on offer. They had a dolphin show, for one! It was very impressive, but left the girls in two minds as to whether or not they should have enjoyed it, the dolphins being in captivity and forced to perform and all. To be honest, my opinion on the entire matter is: they’re fed well, they’re kept well, they’re entertained and they have company in the form of other dolphins. I’m all in favour of zoos.

Moving on – we met up with Louise and Wakako that evening and had a really nice Italian meal. From there, we split as a group; Nicole, Kate, Phoebe and I heading back to Kikugawa; Lucy, Louise and Wakako staying in Shimonoseki. Once in the small township of Kikugawa, we forced the Antipodeans to watch Peep Show and then Phoebe and I sat up to the early hours of the morning chatting and mucking about on the internet.

Yesterday, we all left, making our ways back to the various corners of Yamaguchi. I stopped at Iwakuni, instead of Kuga, initially to go Christmas present shopping and bummed around until it was dinnertime. Then I got back to my apartment in Kuga only to find that having not been in it for 3 days had made it smell as bad as it ever smelt. I wasn’t too impressed, but I’ve started to resign myself to the fact that it’s probably never going to go.

Today I had my final day of elementary school for the month, having spent over a week at two different schools, dealing with really little kids that have no idea what I’m talking about and teachers who are pretty much in the same boat as the kids. At times it’s a lot of fun. At other times, it really isn’t and I’m longing to get back to the older kids who are cynical, jaded and embittered by the education system. They’ re more my cup of tea – I can relate to them!

What really gets to me about one of the schools is the fact that I’m expected to clean the school after lunch. So it’s apparently not enough that I have to create my own curriculum, sort out my lessons, deliver my lessons and hope to God that the teachers are able to translate what I want the kids to do, otherwise they’re just going to be sat there doing very little! No, that’s not enough. I have to go outside in the midday heat and on bended knee, cut the grass. By hand. The kids today were giving little scythes with which to trim the grass. It was indicated that I should just pull up mounds of it by hand. Oh, and there was a really large ants’ nest under this patch of grass and they were pretty pissed that we were making so much commotion. However, I refused to do anything until I was given a tool. They seemed to get the idea and I set to work. It was then that I noticed that all the kids were working at half the pace I started at. Instead they were having a chat, pestering the ants and generally mucking about. So I slowed down and taught them the word ‘ant’ in return for them teaching me the Japanese equivalent. Then, I went inside, red-faced and sweat-soaked and had to teach a lesson. It must be really attractive to see an overweight foreigner, sweating like anything, at the front of a class trying his best to get the class motivated enough to shout “Big Ben” at him, without transforming it into “Big Penis”. Where they learned that word from, I really don’t know, but I’m in two minds about whether I should chastise them or praise them for inventiveness.

The other thing about the elementary school that I was at today is: the food. I have been told that I have to eat with the kids and must pay for the pleasure. So far, all of the food I’ve had has been surprisingly nice, especially seeing as it’s given such a bad reputation by the other JETs. This school, however, lives down to this rep. Today I told them that I wasn’t very hungry and that’s why I left a lot of the food. Somehow I stomached the fried fish in lemon aspic, but I think that was only because I soon rid my mouth of the taste with the satsuma (mikan) jelly (advertised in ‘Engrish’ on the side of the pot of Mikan Jerry).

Anyway, the others here seem to have realised that I do a lot of moaning (most of it isn’t serious; I just hope they understand that!) and it seems that the end of this blog entry has ended with me back at what I’m best at. All I can say is: I’m British and that’s what we do. Somehow, methinks this will be a popular excuse this coming year…

Till next time!

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!

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!