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Monthly Archives: November 2007

Nara represents a huge milestone for me as it’s the first significant travelling I’ve done in Japan without anyone to help me. To most normal people this isn’t that impressive but I’m facing the handicaps of a) not speaking or reading the language b) not really understanding how the train timetables work c) having the worst sense of direction of any human being ever and d) being generally without feck.

Only one of these setbacks significantly affected my journey and that was my inability to understand how train time tables work, a problem that caused my trip to Nara to take about 3 hours.

When I got there though, more than worth it.

Nara famously has wild sort’ve tamed deer roaming the streets. These animals are held sacred in the Shinto religion as messengers from the gods. It is said that the city was founded when a god riding a white deer landed on the spot of the shrine and pledged his protection to the people if they would build him a shrine there. Consequently deer have always been kept in Nara rather than hunted as they are in the rest of Japan.

I knew all of this from the guidebook but it doesn’t really explain quite how many deer there are. I assumed they would be confined to forest areas and park land but they wander about the open parks and the city proper fairly freely. And there’s thousands of them! You can barely go 10 ft without crossing a deer, they’re literally everywhere you look. It’s a totally disconcerting experience but very, very cool.

You can buy deer biscuits for the almost nothing price of 150Yen but as I didn’t have anyone with me feeding deer seemed a little bit of a waste. I spent plenty of time watching the various tourists feeding deer though, including 2 memorable girls. One of whom was really, really freaked out that deer were coming so near her and started running, but as she still had food in her hand the deer gave chase and so she ran faster leading to the deer running even faster. God only knows what would have happened if her boyfriend hadn’t calmed her down.

The 2nd happened later in the day where I saw a Japanese girl being swamped by at least 15 deer and probably more. They were inches from her butting up against her body trying to get at the food in her hand. She was squealing like a cartoon character faced with a mouse, needless to see both me and her friends thought this was piss funny and howled in laughter. Problem was the girl was stood in front of a shop which was being overrun by deer and the shopkeeper was significantly less pleased. He was screeching at her to go away and she was both terrified of the deer and him.

There’s not many places you can see a 3 way battle between deer, scared girls and shopkeepers.

Also some of the deer have learned to bow over the years too and that’s phenomenally creepy. Really they bow when you give them a biscuit. This isn’t training as such, it’s a learned response which is the same principle you train animals with but nobody set out to teach the deer to bow, they just… do. It’s really weird but more than a little bit cool.

Anyway having taken 3 hours to get there I briefly refreshed myself with lunch of Tempura (basically anything deep fried in a really light batter) and Miso-shiro (soy and fish stock soup) before I set out to explore Nara proper.

My first stop was the Todai-ji temple complex , home to Daibutsu-den, literally “the big Buddha hall”, the largest wooden building in the world.

Daibutsu-den is impressive enough on its own. It’s a truly gorgeous building and rises with a sort of stately grace from the surrounding countryside. Nara is a lot more park-like than other Japanese cities with lots of open grass areas, something you almost never see in Japan and all this wide open space really suits Daibutsu-den. It makes it look huger and even more impressive.

But the real draw would be the big Buddha the building is named for. The big Buddha in this case daibutsu (which means great Buddha) is actually Dainichi, the Japanese name for the Buddha that represents dharmakaya. Dainichi is not a Buddha proper but rather an unmanifested aspect of Buddha. He belongs to a section of Buddhism that functions a bit like agnostic christianity. Basically Dainichi is the sum total of everything in the entire universe but is simultaneously empty (because in most Buddhist thinking the universe doesn’t exist). He is for all intents and purposes god and when all things in the universe die or decay they become Dainichi.

Inside Daibutsuden is a statue of Dainichi and it is the largest image of Buddha in the entire world. To give some sense of scale one of his fingers there is the size of a grown man. He is enormous! He is also incredible to look at and simple breathtaking. Daibutsu is easily one of the most stunning, awe inspiring purely amazing sights I have ever seen in my life. He doesn’t quite top the Basilica De San Marco in Venice but he’s certainly right up there.

Dainichi is seated on a lotus leaf with 7 petals, 7 in Buddhist numerology being a symbol for infinity and symbolising that all if infinity is contained within dainichi. Behind him is a golden wheel featuring numerous Bodhisattva’s (basically trainee Buddhas or saints to Buddha’s god). This symbolises the sun and also that all the aspects of Buddha stem from Dainichi.

Size aside he isn’t much of a looker. There’s not a lot of detail and his face is frankly pretty badly done but this detracts not one bit from the experience of looking up at him. Truly one of the wonders of the world.

Alas because he is so big and high up and because the temple is so under lit my camera’s flash couldn’t penetrate the darkness and get a photo of him. I could see the statue perfectly well but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get a photo, so I’m resorting to nicking one off the internet.


This was the best I managed.

And while the lighting was not conducive to photography it certainly helped the impact. Todai-ji uses the temple trick of putting wooden bars across all the windows. This means even in bright light the light in the temple is slanted slightly and everything is a little indistinct. This helps give a really holy mystical air to the space and really enhances the impact of this enormous statue.

Seriously, It’s big!

One thing I noticed again was the horrible capitalist money grabbing of the temple. There stalls inside the temple gates outside Daibutsu-den selling tat which I didn’t mind but there were tat stops right inside Daibutsu-den practically next to the statue in the same general space that Buddhist services were held. I don’t look it when catholic churches do it and I like it even less with something so magnificent within spitting distance.

I did buy a few postcards though…..I mean I had no pictures did I.

there are also 2 enormous Nioo guardians protecting the Buddha inside the hall. But frankly while they are really impressive they suffer a little by comparison.

After Daibutsu the rest of Nara is a little bit unimpressive. It’s a really nice place for a walk full of gorgeous autumn leaves, deer and glorious views but it’s all a bit second rate after the big Buddha. Still I was there and it is a really lovely city, or at least the parks in the centre are.

The main attractions after the big Buddha are an enormous bell affiliated with the temple and the Kasuga Taisha shrine.

The bell is in all fairness properly enormous and apparently takes 17 monks to ring it but again suffering by comparison next to the enormous statue.


Kasuga Taisha is the shrine. Typically in Japan shrines are affiliated with Shinto (which was the dominant religion in Japan for centuries) the pagan religion which ancestor and pagan god (kami) worship ideas in Japan stem from. Temples are associated with Buddhism which was imported from China. At some point the two separate religions got smooshed together into the pseudo religion which is the most common religion in Japan. Kasuga Tasiha is a Shinto shrine and the origin of all the deer roaming about. Sadly despite it’s historic import (of which I know little) it’s a pretty poor shrine in my view. The approach to it is lovely though. A path winding through the forest surrounded by deer and lined on every side with stone lanterns. In certain festival every single one of these lamps is lit and the effect must be quite dazzling. I’ll try to check it out.

A bit tired of temples and shrines by this point I decided to do some museum hopping and managed to see a collection of ancient Japanese statues in various materials (interesting…but not for very long) and lots and lots of swords and armour (extraordinarily cool).

During my museum hopping i managed in the course of taking off and putting on my shoes (a little tip to anyone who visits Japan. Buy shoes without laces.) to tear a big gash down one side and having done a full day of walking about my feet were in agony so I headed off home.

On the way I stopped to pick up some Doriyaki from a street vendor.

Doriyaki is a Japanese dessert that is the favourite food of flying blue robot cat and Japanese cartoon character Doraemon. He’s onto something because Doriyaki are amazing.

They consist of 2 little discs a bit like pancakes but tiny and much thicker. The 2 discs form a sandwich with a filling of “an”. An is a sweet red bean paste that gets used in a lot of Japanese desserts. Basically imagine really sweet kidney beans. I go back and forth on an. In some places I really like it but other times its just waaaay too sweet. The an soup that Japanese kids eat sometimes is just waaay too sicky sweet but Doriyaki are amazing. Just the right sweetness, cakey but always moist, warm and filling but small too. I love Doriyaki.

Anyway I finally got to the train station and headed home.

Of course this time I knew what my time table mistake was and cut an hour off my return journey.

Right then, time for a bit of a re-think methinks.

Its become painfully clear by this stage that the schedule I set for myself originally simply isn’t going to work, especially now that I’ve taken on more commitments in the evenings. Between starting a Japanese language course and needing to complete an essay to get re contracted my free time on an evening is significantly more limited. The official goal now is to get a blog post up on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a possible bonus post Saturday/Sunday. Hopefully if I’m limiting myself to set posting days I won’t feel so tempted to just bunk off and not bother.

As for where I’ve been? Well I’ve had computer troubles recently, all self-inflicted and all now thankfully in the past but nonetheless really frustrating. If my computer breaks I’m cut off from my Cd player, telly, DVD player, games console, word processor, access to the Internet, phone and radio. Other than books (and books are English cost mucho moolah over here) that’s all my entertainment options removed from me in one go.

But to make up for it during the days I have been doing EXCITING THINGS! mostly involving travelling and taking lots of photos.

So to make up for being so crap at blogging and apologise to my fans (or at least fan, hello Uncle Dave) this week I aim to have a post up every night and next week We’ll be switching to the new schedule.

So enough apologies what’s this about EXCITING THINGS!

EXCITING THINGS 1: HIKING TO SUMA

It seems that all the best things that happen to me in Japan happen entirely randomly with no planning from me or indeed any idea that I’m doing it until a few hours before it happens.

Both seeing the danjiri and going to Yamasaki would fit into this category of “what’s happening, oh that’s cool”.

And so it was last Wednesday when, quite randomly, I went on a school hike up a mountain and to Suma temple.

It wasn’t entirely random, I did know the ichinensei were going on a hike but as I teach all three years and had 2 other lessons that day I assumed I couldn’t go.

However on the day before the hike through various circumstances I found out that all my lessons for the day had been cancelled, so I got told literally moments after I finished work to bring a lunch and sports clothes to work because I was going up a mountain.

So in the morning I got sent off to follow some students with no map, a hastily scribbled itinerary, most of which didn’t make sense to me and no idea where I was or where I was going.

It all worked out okay though, I just followed some students and hoped they knew what they were doing. This is pretty much my technique for getting anywhere. My sense of direction may be worse than any human being on this planet and my map reading skills aren’t much better. I was more than comfortable entrusting my fate to a bunch of 12 year olds.

I was amazed that the school just lets the students loose like this. Admittedly they had to follow a specific route and be at checkpoints by certain times but they were literally given a map, dropped off in a city and told to get to the top of a mountain. In England that would be the last the school ever saw of most of those kids, either because someone abducted them, they wandered off to a chippy, went home or in my case got hopelessly lost and started planning how I was going to live in the woods forever. But the kids all made it up the mountain, no stragglers, no missing kids, no one gone home. I was amazed.

The day was unseasonably hot, this was November 7th and the sun was blazing down and both me and he students had unwisely chosen to wear jumpers. But other than the heat it was a really pleasant climb. The mountain, when we got to it, had wooden stairs cut into it so it was a really easy climb. Steep, a long way and very tall with big steep, certain death drops on either side of the path (again which unaccompanied students were walking on) but not difficult to climb. And it was absolutely beautiful. The woods were simply stunning with the bright sun shining on them. It made great shafts of light appear in the distance and lit up the canopy so it was a really vivid kids crayon green. It looked like a cartoon forest, it was almost too perfect.

The view from the top was magnificent as well. Stretched out before me was pretty much the whole of Kobe city at once and off in the distance was the nearest island, Shikkoku, the next major landmass of Japan. I was mesmerised and spent so long simply staring at the view that I was soon left behind by the troop of kids I had joined and had to wait for the next group passing to figure out where I was going.

The harbour was absolutely teeming with ships too, hundreds of them. Alas my photos don’t really capture the ships that well but it was really fascinating to just sit and watch them. I could have sat there all day just staring down. Indeed if I didn’t have to follow people to have any chance of getting home I probably would have.

But the best part of the day was just talking to my students. With no distractions around and no JTE to help them cheat my kids really tried to communicate with me. And they did it excellently. No books, no teacher, no assistance whatsoever and we had honest to god conversations. I was so proud of them and really happy, it made the walk infinitely more enjoyable.

The usually pattern of conversation went like this.

Students go into a huddle muttering Japanese and English trying to figure out what to say. I pick up quite quickly what it is they’re trying to ask but wait patiently.

One student finally is nominated by the group who asks me a question.

I answer and ask that student a question back.

More huddling.

The answer to my question.

I then ask the rest of the group.

They answer.

We walk.

After a bit the huddling starts up again and they figure out the next question to ask me.

Not exactly deep conversation but it passed the time.

When we finally got to the top there was a picnic ground and a building. The students sat down and ate and made me eat with them (and unlike when I tried doing this at school they actually bothered to talk to me). They all seemed very surprised to learn that I had made my sandwich myself. Now this is something that always throws me. I know that Japan is a lot more gendered than the West and most Japanese men either get their wife/girlfriend or mother to make their meals but there is a phenomenally large amount of Japanese men living on their own. They must be able to cook something. But every Japanese person I mention that I cook to seems slightly taken aback.

Anyway my kids got to chatting and I set off to explore the mysterious building. It was, alas, shut, presumably to keep the tribes of children converging on it from wrecking it. What I did manage to work out was this.

The building was split into 3 levels.

The top floor was an observatory, a sensible thing to put at the top of a mountain and was full of high powered telescopes to let people look across the harbour to Shikokku.

The bottom floor was a café, again a perfectly sensible place to put a café which, when its open would provide sustenance and drink to any weary hikers. It had a distinct 1950’s feel and a had a Jukebox filled with famous and obscure 1950’s bands including many from Japan. It also had a window filled with 50’s and 60’s record sleeves.

But then the 2nd floor was an arcade.

An arcade.

Up a mountain.

A mountain only climbable on foot.

Who climbs up a mountain to go play computer games?

This is a curious habit of the Japanese, putting useful things at the top of mountains so it is difficult to get to them. The same thing occurred in Yamasaki where at the top of a mountain (which admittedly could be reached via mono-rail) there was an adult education centre hosting some gardening class.

What is the thinking behind this? Well I can sort of reason the Yamasaki building, Presumably they built the strange eco hut to show off and to have a place for hikers to rest and refresh at the top. Having built it someone somewhere went; “right, now what’s it for” and someone decided to use it to host evening and weekend classes.

But why an arcade? Who is the customer for this? Imagine this conversation.

“Hey do you want to catch a train into Sannomiya to go to one of the incredibly high tech arcades.”

“Nah, I’d rather walk up a mountain for 40 minutes until I’m knackered and go to a much smaller and older arcade.”

Actually I reckon I know the target audience. Kids dragged along on hikes they do not want to be on who need entertaining whilst their parents recuperate in the café below.

At the bottom of the building was a bunch of old kids toys that my students set to playing with immediately. I managed to impress them by playing a ring toss game. While they struggled to get even one ring over the hoops I managed to get every single one of mine on hooks. I’m guessing my abilities had more to do with the fact that as I’m 6ft I can basically just lean over and drop the hoops straight down but I wasn’t going to let them know that.

Ah and we saw a dead cat……..and had an impromptu burial for it. Which was a little bit odd I must say.

Anyway cats aside refreshed and rested we set off on the next stage of the hike, down the mountain, always the best part.

This time around I got sucked into following one of my JTE’s, Kosuga-Sensei and my kids were a lot less eager to talk to me. Anything they said they just translated through her. This is the most frustrating thing about being a teacher. It’s not that students can’t do things they think are difficult if they try, it’s that they’re all lazy little gits.

Irony of Ironies of course when I attached myself to an adult what happens, why we get lost of course. Instead of taking the lovely scenic planned route we ended up tramping through very dark and imposing forest and emerging by the side of a dusty and noisy motorway. Still we couldn’t get too lost when the general route is “downhill” so we eventually met up with everyone else.

I’d like to take this opportunity to complain about Japanese spiders. Now the problem with Japanese spiders is not that they’re deadly or scary or anything like that. The problem with Japanese spiders is that they build webs higher than the height of the average Japanese person but right at fucking face height for a European. During the hike through woodland I walked into no less than 6 cobwebs. 6! Think how many cobwebs you’ve walked into in your entire life. Unpleasant weren’t they? Well imagine doing that with stronger and bigger webs 6 TIMES IN THE SPACE OF HALF AN HOUR!

Bloody spiders.

Moving down the coast we stopped off at a couple of smaller temples on the way to Suma. One of which is in the picture below. This is the grave stone of a famous warlord from the area (though not famous enough that anyone I asked could remember his name) and the shapes represent the 5 Buddhist elements. From bottom to top Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Air (sometimes given as Heaven).

Eventually we got to Suma temple and I can honestly say I was impressed. I’ve been to some of the bigger and more famous temples in Japan but I really liked Suma. There was a lot to see and lots of little things of interest. It was, insofar as a Buddhist temple can be so, quirky.


Super-Buddha

My particular favourite thing was a row of Buddhas all in really happy poses. One is doing the peace sign that all Japanese people do in photographs and one is starting a Mexican wave.

Other items of interest are a famous hill nearby that was the site of a historic cavalry charge. 2 families fighting for the right to rule Japan fought in Kobe and the winning family executed a cavalry charge down the hill winning the battle.

There was also a kind of prayer mill. Basically a tower on wheels filled with pieces of paper. The thinking behind it is that people write prayers to Buddha on pieces of paper. They then hand these to the temple monks who memorise them. The next day the monks place the paper in the mill and turn it chanting the prayers that were given to them yesterday. This action sends the chanting to heaven where Buddha will hear the prayers.


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Whilst at the temple I managed to cause a small scene with the ladies running the fortune stand. Japanese temples and shrines are notoriously mercenary and sell a huge variety of stuff, from scrolls and wooden sticks you can write prayers on to fortunes to generic horrible tat like keychains featuring little plastic chibi-buddhas (which I bought naturally).

Anyway the ladies at the fortune booth overheard me talking in English and were really amused by this. They kept trying to get my kids to ask me questions in English and translate Japanese for them, most of which was waaaaay too advanced for my first year students. Eventually they decided to give me a fortune for free because I’d amused them so much and handed me one of the most mesmerisingly ugly things I have ever seen in my life. Just look at it.

I mean I have seen uglier things in my life but for some reason this thing captivates me. What is it? Why does it scowl so? Why would anyone want one?

Inside was a fortune that was waaaaay too complicated for my kids to translate (the best they managed was “snowfall”) but which I was assured was a fantastic fortune so I had to keep the thing and take the fortune out of the temple to take the luck with me.

I promptly lost the fortune of course and have no idea what it says.

So other than the fun of rounding up a 100 kids (and we did finally lose some, we found them eventually) that was my hike to Suma.

Hope you enjoyed it.

Tomorrow I nearly get skewered by wild deer in Nara*

*not really

So according to my girlfriend my attitude to Japan had been appallingly negative recently, so in an attempt to redress the balance of my “10 things I miss about England” here are 10 things about Japan that are so terrific that every other country in the world should adopt them immediately.

1. Various Flavours of Kit-Kats.

Kit-Kats are a wholly different thing in Japan. In England they are a relatively standard chocolaty treat consisting of wafer covered in chocolate. This straddles the line between exciting and dull so finely that it is nigh on the perfect biscuit. Nobody’s favourite biscuit, certainly but think of the sheer versatility of the Kit-Kat. It is equally at home in a lunch box, beside a cup of tea, on its own (certainly a rarity in the biscuit world) or comprising as the slightly more exciting part of an Easter Egg, a situation unheard of in the biscuit world outside the Kit-Kat.

Some evolutionary adaptations have occurred, notably the move down from the more individually satisfying 4 finger Kit-Kat to the more versatile 2 finger variety and the strange offshoot that is the Kit-Kat chunky which many biscuitologists argue is not a true Kit-Kat at all but possibly a variant of the Yorkie or Drifter that superficially resembles the more common Kit-Kat.

However, generally the common Kit-Kat remains a stable part of the British biscuit tin. Some more exotic varieties have been seen at times, principally the seasonal appearance of Orange Kit-Kats and the elusive Mint Kit-Kat but the population is overwhelmingly comprised of common Kit-Kats.

In Japan however the Kit-Kat has developed an enormous variety of shapes and flavours to fill every evolutionary niche. Japan is shockingly devoid of the Kit-Kat’s 3 normal environments, biscuit tins, lunchboxes and office vending machines and so the common or garden Kit-Kat is rarely at all glimpsed and has been supplanted by the white chocolate or “snow” Kit-Kat in almost all areas that one would expect to find the common variety. Furthermore the unusual habitat has forced numerous mutations in the size of the Kit-Kat, generating a pygmy species of 2 finger kits kats much shorter than one would expect and even a single finger kit kat small than 1 individual finger of the common 2 finger. Most intriguing of all is the propensity for 2 2finger kit kats to band together in packages that give the illusion of them being a 4 fingered kitkat. Such symbiosis is rare amongst biscuits and more properly reflects the behaviour of the garibaldi.

Furthermore numerous flavours have flourished here ranging from the rare vanilla bean flavour to the common but seasonal melon, strawberry, kiwi and chestnut Kit Kat. Indeed there is not just a variety modelled after (ume )or plum but a variety modelled after a type of cake flavoured with plum.

And that last one tastes bloody fantastic with a cup of tea.

2. Bento Boxes

Bento Boxes (or Obento) are basically a summary of the Japanese approach to cooking. Lots of little things. Whereas in the west mea and 2 veg and some kind of sauce is the standard in Japan its rice in one bowl, a little plate of pickles, maybe a few plates with some veg on it or tofu and then a plate with fish on it, possibly prepared in a sauce and misosiru (miso soup) to drink. Usually you then also have a separate plate for wasabi/soy/ponzu or any other sauces you are using.

Obento are like that except they’re lunchboxes with little compartments to separate ot the various bits. For examples my lunch today consisted of.

Spaghetti with tomato and bacon
Some kind of chicken in breadcrumbs
A spare rib
Some kind of Japanese style fishcake
A purple pickle I was unable to identify but which tasted lovely.
Potato salad with sweetcorn
A sort of hard set jelly tofu with sesame seeds sprinkled with fish flakes
Assorted veg in some kind of slime (which I ignored as I always do. The veg our Obento place does reminds me of my Grandmas) sprinkled with shredded hard tofu and deep fried tofu (which I did eat)
Rice

As with any food you can scale it up or down according to the desired fanciness. Our usual place does ‘em cheap and cheerful but its filling and tasty. But at Bunkasai we all got treated to a special Obento for free that contained rice sprinkled with fish and beef mince to form a contrasting pink, yellow and brown striped pattern, gorgeous tempura, unagi (eel) and other very posh Japanese foods.

Obento are simply awesome, easy to eat, attractive to look at and they provide a real variety in only one meal. They’re usually full of things that are good for you too.

3. Warm Coffee Can Vending Machines

By which I mean a vending machine which dispenses a small can which is both warm and contains warm coffee.

Now obviously all of you are thinking that you can already get coffee in vending machines in the U.K. However what I am describing varies in a number of regards.

1. Vending machines the U.K. are usually only found in some government
buildings, bus and train stations and in offices. In Japan they are
everywhere. In the city centre most corners have a row of vending
machines and nearly all of them will serve coffee. This means that
your access to coffee is greatly enhanced.
2. You may expect a coffee can to be hot and hurt the hands. In fact it
is warm to almost the perfect temperature, as is the coffee inside
it. Holding the can warms you through gently whilst the coffee warms
your insides. In the U.K. vending machines will dispense coffe at a
scalding temperature which is undrinkable until you have cooled it
down first, usually by swapping the cup from hand to burning hand.
3. It tastes nice. The cans are all mixed by major brands in Japan such
as Boss or Fire, in their factories and so have the same consistent
quality one expects of a soft drink. In Britain vending machine
coffee tastes of very hot water.

4. Syabu Syabu

Take a pot, fill it with flavourful stock and place it over a low heat. Chop up loads and loads of stuff, negi, onions, cabbage, mushrooms, beef, chicken, meatballs, pork, leeks, different kinds of mushrooms, fish, prawns, etc etc.

Then get friends to sit around the pot, present them with all your chopped up things and some chopsticks and sit down. You and your friends should immediately begin picking things up and dropping them in the simmering stock. Whenever picking up meat be sure to swish it in the stock and say “shabu shabu” in a fashion that amuses everyone.

Cook and eat until entirely sated.

Awesome.

5. Syabu Syabu Restaurants

Much like Syabu Syabu except

1. They do the chopping for you
2. They provide a wide variety of stocks including the mysterious thing
the English menu described as “addictive sauce”.
3. It’s usually tabehodai, or all you can eat. So replace “cook and eat
until you are entirely sated” with “cook and eat until you feel
nearly sick but dammit they gave you a box of beef each and dammit
you are going to eat all that beef if it kills you”

Tabehodai doesn’t actually mean all-u-can-eat in the sense that we’re used to it. Rather you rent a table for a set period and during that period you can eat as much as you like. At the end of that period you can either pay for more time or they kick you out of the restaurant.

But usually they a lot 2 hours and that is plenty of time to eat until you don’t want to look at food anymore.

And tabehodai isn’t just restricted to syabu syabu but can be enjoyed in a wide variety of restaurants. Japanese people love a gimmick you see and some of the many ways you can enjoy food in Japan are

Yakiniku – lit fried meat. You and your friends sit in front of a massive bowl shaped hot plate built into the table. Your host presents you with vast quantities of raw meat which you fry on the hot plate along with vegetables. Various sauces are on your plate for when you’re done cooking.

There is also variants of this which replaces the hot plate with a sort of fondu-esque bowl of boiling oil which you fry your meat in.

And even an all you can eat deep-fried yaki-niku. Bowl of boiling oil, container of batter, another container of breadcrumbs and food already helpfully on sticks. Get your food on stick, dip it in the batter, then the breadcrumbs, then the oil and learn what its like to be Scottish for the day.

6. Nomehodai

This means all you can drink. That is for a small fee one may consume as much alcohol as one desires. You can’t see it really working in the U.K. can you? Normally this is a feature of the above mentioned restaurants, you can pay an additional extra to get all you can drink beer or chu-hi with your all you can eat meal. Like the meal there is a time limit when you have to relinquish the table. This is a fine thing and should be adopted by more restaurants.

However sometimes the same offer is open in bars. Pay a set fee for a limited amount of time (say 2 hours) for all you can drink. Usually this just covers beer and chu-hi but sometimes it covers certain spirits as well, sometimes it includes whiskey. This is obviously an evil thing sent by Satan to kill the poor helpless Brit who is suddenly faced with the overwhelmingly temptation to see exactly how much whiskey he can consume in 2 hours before either death or embarrassment occurs.

7. Japanese children.

At some point in the 1950’s a law was passed that forbade any Japanese person to give birth to a child that wasn’t diabetes inducing cute. Japanese people being very law abiding have dutifully stuck to this and thus every Japanese kid you see is so cute that they could and have made fully grown men (men I have seen running around forests with guns, men I have known to drink heroic quantities of nomehodai whiskey, real manly men, Scottish men, mean men, men of enormous height) say “awwwwwww I could just eat it up with a spoon”.

Even the fat ones are cute.

Scratch that the fat ones are especially cute.

8. Towels

The Japanese are certainly a bunch of hoopy froods who know exactly where their towel is, as typically they carry one everywhere.

Towels in Japan are not simply a device for the drying of one’s self when one is moist but an all purpose tool.

They come in a range of sizes from very small ones, about the size of a flanel, which are used to mop one’s brow or as a substitute handkerchief to enormous ones the size of 2 beach towels which presumably can be fashioned into a tent in an emergency.

The most common variety is roughly the size of a hand towel but thinner and twice the length, amongst its many uses are.

1. Worn around the neck in summer it stops the back of your neck being
sunburned and you don’t look stupid because everyone else is doing
it.
2. It can be used to wipe up the copious amounts one sweats in Japanese
summer.
3. Tied around the head it becomes a sweatband.
4. During rain, worn on the head it helps keep your head dry. Even if
other people are doing this, and they frequently do, you always look
stupid.
5. To cover the mouth and become a rudimentary filter in smog.
6. Folded up it becomes a pillow at concerts and other outdoor events.
7. Rolled up it becomes a weapon against evil Japanese deadly insects.
8. The Japanese all know some weird trick to turn it into a bag by
tying the corners. This is a traditional Japanese thing and thus
confounds me but it’s cool, cultural and useful so I intend to learn.
9. Folded up it can be used as a sort of cushion in the traditional
Japanese way of sitting.
10. You can dry your hands with it. Often crucial because toilets in
Japan usually don’t have hand dryers, towels or paper towels.
Presumably because everybody carries a towel everywhere.

9. Taco-yaki

Little balls of batter containing a bit of octopus tentacle. Much, much nicer than that description makes it sound. Especially sprinkled with ponzu sauce and negi.

10. Hyaku-en Shops

Hyaku-yen shops need to become a feature of all cities everywhere and soon.

Hyaku-en is 100 yen which is about 40p. Hyaku-en shops are the equivalent of pound shops in that everything in the shop (with a few exceptions) costs 100 yen.

Here is the twist, hyaku-en shops are full of very, very useful stuff.

Amongst the things I have bought from them are

Glasses, plates, knives, forksm spoonsm chopsticksm cooking chopsticks, bowls, all the cleaning supplies I ever use including bleach and washing up liquid, headphones, speakers, lunchboxes, very sharp cooking knives, chopping boards, pans, wrapping paper, toys for use in teaching, towels, hangers, a suit cleaner, brooms, mops, torches, batteries and a metric ton of storage racks.

You can buy bras for god’s sake, BRAS!

For 40p!

And its all decent stuff easily the equivalent of going to wilkinsons or woolworths for it all.

I will sorely, sorely miss them when I move home.

So not much blogging went on last week did it.

In all honesty the schedule I set for myself is seeming less and less realistic as the weeks drag on so I need to rethink how this blog is going to work.

In the meantime here’s more of my kids work on the “Who is it?” game.

He flies
He likes fight
His hair is yellow
He is a hero
He likes Adam

I didn’t realise that Goku held me in such high regard.

He’s live in U.S.J.
He’s a star
He’s a bog
His friends yellow bard
He’s a white

This would be Snoopy. As amusing as “he’s a bog” is its the fact that he lives in U.S.J. that always gets me. No he bloody doesn’t.

He is delicate eye
He is golden hair
He is delicate clothes
He is don’t show off
He is a planet

Also Goku. Now I know Dragonball Z pretty well but I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what this kid was trying to say. God only knows what he thought delicate meant.

He likes flying
He doesn’t like water and kabinranrun
His favourite pet is cheese
He is from a bread factory
He is a hero!

How can you not laugh at “his favourite pet is cheese”. And yet this is entirely true, as Anpan Man has a dog whose name is cheese.

Japan worries me sometimes.

He is handsome
He is a soccer player
His a wife is cute

David Beckham, and that’s the first time I’ve heard anyone call Victoria Beckham cute in quite a while.

He is a baseball player
He like baseball
He live Amerika
He is left handed person
He is a human being player

It was all going so well until that last line wasn’t it.

He was a member of Orix Bluewater
now he is in marihazu
laser beams

I guessed in a bit that marihazu laser beams is a team name but I prefer to imagine that the kid got bored and started thinking about laser beams.

a girl
girl works for a superman
it so cute

………..not a clue but vaguely sexist I think.

He is a baseball player
He plays baseball

profound!

He likes imerg

This was Snoopy and frankly I don’t know where to begin.

An exercise I’ve been doing with my kids recently is to take a cartoon character and have them use 5 sentences to describe the character. i.e.

I have a good friend
He likes flying
His favourite food is dorayaki
He is blue
He is a cat
Who is it?
It’s Doraemon!

They must use he/she likes and his/her favourite is for at least one of the sentences. Fairly standard stuff all told and most of the answers range from terrible to similar to my example.

But some of the responses are utter genius so I’m sharing them with you all.

He became a rubber boy.
Suddenly with eating a nut.

This is for the one piece character Monkey D. Luffy. It’s entirely true but a) I’m surprised that any of my kids knew the word “suddenly” and b) its just a joyous pair of sentences.

His head is very decious
He is a hero
His friend is jamojisan

This is for Anpan Man a super-hero whose bread is made of an-pan (bread filled with a sort of sweet bean paste) so yes I guess his head is “decious”.

He can change face to face
He can fly
He can eat face
He likes to fight
His favourite attack Anpunch

And apparently Anpan Man can eat his own face. Japanese entertaiment everyone, self-cannibalism.

He is a bear
He is yellow
His favourite food is honeys
He is fat
He is handsome and cute

In case you didn’t guess, this is Winnie the Pooh (whom the Japanese know as Pooh-San). What you might not know is that my students think my father looks like Winnie the Pooh. Well cheer up Dad you are both handsome and cute. And fat apparently.

He is food
He doesn’t like water
He has a round face
He is the world a hero
His rival is baikinman

Anpan Man again. I just laugh at “he is food”.

He likes peach
He doesn’t like koopa
His favourite food is mushroom
He is from mushroom kingdom
He is a game player

This one impressed me because Mario wasn’t even one of the characters I gave for them to use. It also impressed my students because I guessed it was Mario with the first 3 lines and they had no idea anyone outside Japan knew who Mario was.

Cat look like
Your in ninja
Girl a disguise!!

High Surrealist poetry clearly. And those exclamation marks are in the original too.

Well, that would have been a long time between posts.

Woah, almost two weeks.

Right, quite frankly that won’t do.

If you all want the excuse, basically I’ve been a combination of ill and busy. Not a fine combination, you need to do stuff, you don’t want to do stuff, you end up doing none of the stuff you either need nor want to do. Certainly blogging gets left out in the rain.

But excuses are for whiners and the past. Honest guys from this point on I try harder.

So anyway what have I been up to.

Well mostly a lot of very dull work related nonsense, which accounts for the busy part of the combination of busy and sick. The sick part is the result of a recent visit to a Japanese Elementary School, also known as FACTORIES OF DISEASE!!!

Honestly, the kids at Elementary Schools are ridiculously cute, painfully cute, so cute there should be laws against it but they are also filthy little bastards crawling with deadly viruses.

And every time I go there I walk away feeling like crap.

I do love going to Elementary Schools though. You remember how fun it was to be a kid? Being around that level of super-excited children is the closest thing to experiencing that fun again, without resorting to strange hypnotic pursuits.

And the kids are always unbelievably excited to see me. They just don’t ever get the chance to interact with foreigners at all, especially not white foreigners. One girl was so excited she was literally shaking when trying to ask me a question.

And they were very, very excited at lunch when I opted to eat with them. Not that I got to eat much, I spent most of my lunch break signing a piece of paper for VERY STUDENT IN THE BLOODY GRADE.

It took a while.

When I did finally get to eating the teacher expressed surprise at how well I used chopsticks.

I explained that I have lived in Japan for 3 months now. I can use chopsticks.

Well actually I made up some bull about learning to use them at home. But I wanted to say something like “I’m not an idiot, I can learn to manipulate sticks that I use to eat with at nearly every meal woman.”

Honestly there is nothing more patronising than when someone goes to get you a knife and fork in a Japanese restaurant. Admittedly some things I can’t eat with chopsticks but still. Grrrr.

So other than going to an Elementary school, what else?

Well my school has been busy with 2 things recently. Bunkasai (Culture Day) and a singing contest they insisted on referring to as a “school contest” despite the fact that it took part on a Wednesday afternoon.

School events have a weird effect on my work. Theoretically they cut down on my work hours because I have cancelled classes. In reality they seem to create more work because my schedule is so messed up that I have extra classes I wasn’t expecting. Bunkasai also had the added joy of taking place on a Saturday, meaning at one point I had a 6 day working week in addition to extra classes and some illness.

Joy.

But the actual events themselves are usually worth all the effort. I thoroughly enjoyed the singing contest (and more on that later in the week) and Bunkasai was, well it was okay.

Basically it came in 2 parts. The day before the students decorated their rooms with lots of their work from the previous year, some of which was from normal classes and some of which had been made especially for Bunkasai. In the morning the students got to walk around these rooms and admire their and each others handiwork.

For all of 20 minutes.

Which is a stupidly short length of time for all that effort. And I know I’m right because Kosuga-Sensei was loudly moaning about it, and Japanese people never, ever moan so if they start complaining you know it’s a problem.

The 2nd part of the day was a long (3 hours, 3 HOURS!) presentation by the teachers and students with a wide range of topics.

It started with a slide presentation all about the school because coincidentally this is the 30th anniversary of the school. Needless to say I didn’t understand this but I squeezed some interest from the pictures.

After that there were a lot of speeches (dull) some singing (quite good) a play (strange) the band playing (not as good as the singing) more speeches (dull and only midly diverting in that both my Kocho and Chotto-sensei were wearing coats with really, really long tails. I wonder what that is all about?) and finally more singing and band playing and….well 3 hours of sod all basically.

The absolute highlight was a chorus of ichinensei (Year 7) singing some kind of choral version of the canon in D. Whch was both conceptually interesting and quite well done, although apparently nicked from the film “Mononoke Hime” which I’ve seen but don’t remember having that song in it.

The other memorable moment was the play. Specifically one of the actors, who seemed to be dressed as some sort of psychedelic chef. He had a tall chef’s hat, an enormous moustache and dozens of differently coloured pockets on the front. In fact here’s a picture of him.

Later on when someone said “Koi-San” I twigged. He was meant to be a Koi Carp. His chef’s hat had eyes and a mouth on it and the pockets were scales. Moreso he was a talking carp, and a time travelling carp because the plot of the play somehow involved time travel through the history of the school.

Other than that the plot of the play escapes me. And I think it is highly illuminating into the Japanese culture that the only thing I understood was that there was a magic talking time travelling koi carp.

Regardless I survived.

Then comes the truly horrible bit.

They do the whole thing again for the parents of the older children.

That is the whole thing again.

THE WHOLE THREE HOURS OF IT AGAIN!

WITH NO CHANGES WHATSOEVER.

I have never before wished for death quite so fervolently.

Well no, melodrama aside, I at first just struggled to stay awake and then made my excuses and escaped to go look at the rooms.

Wherein I saw something that made the whole day worthwhile.


“Don’t travel with a friend who deserts you in danger”

Sensible advice.

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