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School

Japanese schools seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing things which gave nothing to do with lessons or education at all. I could go on to describe how this is a feature of the Japanese education system and helps to instil a strong sense of community, culture and group think in Japanese students but frankly I’ve already discussed that on this blog.

Anyway the upshot is that working in a Japanese school means that sometimes all the classes get cancelled so we can all do something cool.

As was the case last Friday when school was cancelled and instead we all played games and ate soup. Yay!

Around this time of year there are a few traditional cultural activities. I have done one or some of these at both my previous schools but at Iwaoka they decided to roll them all together into one big day of Japanese winter fun.

The first of these is that at pretty much every school in Japan the kids will play karuta. Usually only the first graders will play but at Iwaoka the entire school shuffled into the freezing cold gym to sit on the floor and play some cards.

Karuta is just the Japanese word for cards but there is a specific card game by that name too. Basically it is snap but rather than trying to match a card your opponent has just revealed you instead listen to what a speaker is saying and try and find the card that matches. I use this all the time in my lessons (Mr. Adam says elephant and all the kids try and grab the elephant card at once for example) but Japanese people do it for fun too.

This particular karuta game though is very special. A speaker reads out the first part of a poem and students have to find the end of the poem on about 100 cards in front of them.

The game requires not only for students to have memorised 100 poems but to be able to listen, come up with the next part, scan for it and move at lightning quick pace.

Consequently even though the cards were printed in Japanese which I could read, the double disadvantage of not knowing any of the poems and having to read in a second language meant that I couldn’t capture a single card in my brief attempt at playing. So instead I mooched about for a bit, had a chat and tried to stay close to the enormous space heaters for fear of developing hypothermia.

The kids got really into it though. Its incredible how much they can memorise and how quick they are.

Seeing that I was not exactly thrilled to spend hours watching my kids play a card game I didn’t understand at all one of my teachers seized me and took me outside.

Where a Mochizuki was occurring.

Mochizuki, or making rice cakes, is a past time for communities in winter in Japan. It is usually done either just before or just after the New Year. Mochi is a kind of very sticky rice cake. Imagine PVA glue. Remember when you were a kid and you’d leave PVA glue all over the outside of the bottle and it would set into a hard rubbery substance? Well just before it set when it was still kind of stretchy, that is the consistency of mochi. That or play-do which is going stale but isn’t quite there yet. It is actually much nicer than I make it sound but I don’t quite know what is appealing about it. The taste is just white rice and the texture is not very pleasant and a bugger to eat. I think it might be that it provides a comforting feeling. It is, to use an expression of my mother’s, food that sticks to your sides. Like dumplings, or a sticky toffee pudding or a doughy pie. Your stomach just feels really full but in a pleasant way.

I don’t know why this time of year is associated with mochi but I suspect that in olden days it was a good way to turn rice from the harvest into something that would store better. Less surface area means it is less susceptible to mold and any rat trying to eat mochi would soon choke to death or drown. It could also be improvised as fly paper or to fill up the cracks in draughty farm houses. In fact, it would probably make a very good insulation, potentially even better than it would a food.

To make mochi first you boil lots of rice without washing it so there is a ton of starch.

Then you heat up a stone bowl using hot water until it is red hot so the rice will stay warm in it.

Then you grind the rice using a big mallet until the shape of all the individual grains is blurred and it looks like a big lump.

Then the important part, one person folds the mochi into the middle of the bowl whilst another hits it with a whopping great big mallet.

Observe this video of just that.

You need skill, speed, timing and trust to avoid getting your hand smashed in whereas the other bloke just needs tireless muscles and a penchant for the repetitive.

This is the second time I have made mochi but the first time I have made it whilst elderly Japanese men criticised my technique. Eventually they so tired of me doing it “wrong” that they stepped in and freed my cold and aching arms from anymore pounding.

I should probably feel ashamed that a tiny old man took over for my strapping young self but I am not because I know the secret of elderly Japanese people. They are not made of flesh and bone but stone and wood. Their skin is aged teak and their bones are granite. Old Japanese people are indestructible. When the apocalypse comes it will be them and the cockroaches.

Once the karuta game was finished the students came outside to watch a massive bonfire.

This bonfire had been assembled the day before of bamboo and various decorations left over from the New Year. New Year decorations have to be burned before the next New Year or else they will become evil spirits, or yokai.

There are plenty of yokai stories of possessed items. Most famously an umbrella with a single eyeball and a man’s leg instead of handle. When you abandon an umbrella in Japan it will turn into a monster and seek revenge. The same goes for unwanted decorations so instead they get burnt.

We all watched as the school principle went inside the fire holding a flaming torch (health and safety existeth notteth in Japan) and then came out again and lit it more safely from the back.

It went up like a shot. Within barely 30 seconds of lighting it there was a hole in the top and a stream of fire issuing forth. It looked like a volcano.

And the noise was incredibly. Presumably because bamboo is a grass and full of water deposits every time one of these pockets superheated and turned to steam it went off with a massive bang. It was like standing in the middle of a gunfight, or a firework show. I have never heard such a violent fire.

Before too long a small twister had formed above the hole and bamboo ash was being strewn wildly across the playing field, in our hair, on our clothes and basically everywhere. It was some sort of ash…like snow.

Hmmm, catchy name that. Would make a good song title.

All in all it took about 15 minutes for the enormous bonfire ( a good 20ft high) to be completely burned to a crisp.

Before the fire was over my students did various demonstrations to their classmates, the teachers, the local people and some school kids from the nearby primary school which had come to visit and watch the show.

Japanese primary school kids are absolutely adorable. Not only are they much cuter than western kids but this natural cuteness is amplified by the matching hats they are all made to wear when they go on trips. Me and most of my female students were in paroxysms of kawaii watching them.

Sadly I can’t show you the videos I took of the presentations for legal reasons. But they included live kanji painting and taiko drumming. Impressive taiko drumming too. I didn’t even know we had a club! They kept that one quiet.

Eventually everyone was released to go do the most important part of the day. Eat ozouni!

Ozouni is a kind of soup whose main ingredients are miso (a salty paste derived from soy and which turns into a soup when mixed with water) and mochi along with anything else you fancy putting in it. Ozouni is associated with New Year’s where everyone eats some for luck. I had eaten some at Fran’s relative’s house this year and the year before Fran made some for just the two of us. It is true comfort food. Warm, filling, sticky and made with all your favourite things.

Together we gobbled multiple bowls of the stuff graciously prepared by local volunteers. I stopped at two but some of my kids ate as many as five bowls! Japanese people can really eat when they put their minds to it.

There was also kinako ( a kind of sweet flour derived from, guess what, soy) flavoured mochi and mochi floating in a soup of red bean paste. I’ve had both of these before and find them too sweet for words. Except possibly words like coma, diabetes, help and blegh! They’re not horrible but they’re so ridiculously sweet so may as well just mainline sugar.

Finally two primary school kids were hauled up to give a speech thanking us all. It was, without hyperbole, the single cutest thing I have ever seen in my life. Any attempt to describe it properly will just end up with me degenerating into baby talk and saying things like “wook ad da widdle hats isn’t it cutes, isn’t it cutes??!” which frankly, nobody wants to see.

And that, bar an assembly, was that.

You’ve got to love Japanese schools sometimes.

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Too tired for a proper post right now faithful readers so it is odds and ends time again.


Beginning with yet more fabulous Engrish from my students.

This weeks offerings are statements written from memory that my students said to me during their interview tests.

 

“I am my grandmother”

 

“I helped cook my mother.”


“I exerted a cultural festival.”

 

And finally

 

“It was doog.”


Holy Balls of Fire Batman the Earth is Exploding

For those of you who don&t follow the news in Japan (and why should you really) a Volcano has just exploded in the Nagano Prefecture.

There is a video at the link with more details.

And this is a time lapse video of the actual eruption.

I was bitterly jealous that I was missing out on Britain’s worst snowstorm for 30 years but now I am excited again! I live in a country with active volcanoes.

Oh Crap.

I LIVE IN A COUNTRY WITH ACTIVE VOLCANOES!!!

(but seriously no damage whatsoever has been reported. Japanese people seem naively trusting of natural disasters but even here people tend to avoid mountains that hurl things at you periodically)

Shameless Shilling




A friend of mine living in Japan has recently launched a blog.

I’m adding it to the links roll. Go check it out if you’re bored at work, some of it is funny stuff.

Would you like to see a brain in a jar?

I seem to be posting a lot of links today but here is one more about haikyo, or derelict sites in Japan. Apparently this person found a derelict doctor’s surgery complete with medical instruments and a preserved brain in a jar in the middle of nowhere.

I can’t decide if this is the most frightening or the most awesome thing I have ever heard. I am however intrigued by this haikyo thing and I aim to do a bit more reading up on it.

In fact whilst I’m at it here is another haikyo in a hotel.

It’s fascinating that in a country with such a premium on space that this can happen.

Tomorrow; forget it baby, it’s China Town.

Hooray! Two posts in one week, I’m finally getting this baby back on track. In fact I’ve got a massive stack of stuff to write about now and plenty of free time at work to knock out some posts so we should finally be ahead of the game again.

Woo hoo!

Anyway today I just want to go over a few miscellaneous odds and ends that have been gathering up and need to be addressed.

New School

No photos as, well, it isn’t very interesting looking, but I have recently moved to a new school, Higashiochiai.

In contrast to my last placing out in the middle of nowhere Higashiochiai is smack dab in the centre of the kobe metropolis. Well, not quite, but it is decidedly urban. And whereas Iwaoka was an hour’s journey everyday Higashiochiai is less than half the time away. This is a massive boon to my free time and has granted me an extra half an hour in bed in the morning. Bliss! And no snakes either.

However I’m now in a decidedly weird situation. I will probably be moved from this school at the end of March and it is already nearly the end of January. I have barely 2 months left at Higashiochiai before I will be shipped out yet again to meet new teachers, get to know students and generally adjust. This means I’m kind of in limbo. Sure I work here but I feel like all of my efforts here are pointless. I don’t really have enough time to properly get to know anyone, students or teachers and I certainly don’t have enough time to train students up to my expectations of them in lessons.

Still everyone seems nice enough so far so I guess I’ll just enjoy it while I’m here and worry about the future later.

Sweet Potato Kit-Kats

I have been as lax with my kit-kat reviewing as I have with the blog in general but I intend to let this error persist no further. Already I have skipped over informing you people of the important evolutions of strawberry cheesecake and blueberry cheesecake kit-kats, cookie kit-kats and anko kit-kats. Maybe one day they shall return to stores and I can educate you as to their deliciousness or lack of delciousness. Alas, that is a dream for the future.

For now let’s talk about sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes are very popular in Japan. In fact potatoes of all kinds are fairly popular but particularly potatoes that are traditionally grown in Japanese soil, of which swete potato is one. In fact there are a wide variety of sweet potatoes native to Japan ranging from the purple skinned but orange centred imo to the wholly purple beni imo.

Sweet potatoes can be used a both a savoury option, in nabe (a kind of stew), roasted, boild or baked on its own or pressed into rice and as a sweet option, made into a dessert called daigaku-imo, sliced, fried and sugared or used as a starch in wagashi (tea ceremony sweets). There are even varieties of shochu made of it. And now there is a kit-kat version.

And it is delicious! Incredibly delicious. In fact it may be my favourite variety of kit-kat. The taste is incredibly nuanced and complicated for kit-kat. It’s mostly a kind of caramel flavour but a very rich caramel with nutty, earthy notes coming through too.

And it tastes, not even slightly, like a sweet potato.

Delicious though.

Umeshu

You may re-call from this post all those many months ago that I was making some umeshu.

Well here it is.

As you can see it has gone down in height by quite a significant amount. This is because I have been drinking it, not because of the ume absoribing the water or anything like that. The colour has obviously changed to a more recognizable ume tone and the ume have shrunk.

My how they’ve shrunk, and now they look like little brains. Tiny brains in a jar. I’ve always wanted to own some brains in a jar, now I can fantasise that I do.

The taste is, actually a little bit disappointing. It’s definitely umeshu but it isn’t as sharp as I usually like my umeshu and furthermore it is very, very sweet. To the point of almost being sticky. I aim to try again next year with much less sugar in the mixture.

I also aim to brew it for a whole year. We cracked open the jar around about Christmastime after a period of more than 6 months but I am now informed that a ful years wait is needed to make a fully mature umeshu.

I should point out that my girlfriend was very happy with it though, even if it is a little bit sweet for me.

Mushrooms

Until the next spring my attempt at making umeshu has drawn to a close but now I have a new project to divert me.

Growing shiitake mushrooms.

My wonderful girlfriend got me a grow your own mushroom kit for Christmas. After dithering with the Japanese instructions for a while I eventually figured out what to do and have been cultivating a patch of mushrooms in the same cupboard the umeshu used to live in.

My first mushroom was constrained by the shape of the bag and had begun growing before I had even opened up the kit. It went a bit strange shortly after I set up the kit properly and turned all watery and…odd. So I ripped it off.

Presently I am growing 1 single solitary but unbelievably massive mushroom. The biggest shiitake I have ever seen. I am going to eat it for my tea tonight in fact in the hopes that if I cut it off it will stimulate all the other spores to start growing.

I will keep you updated on further mushroom news.

Finally I like to end any odds and ends post with a video showcasing the madness that is my adopted land.

http://content.fliqz.com/applications/1f866af11db04864bca16236377b518f.swf

This is a trailer for the upcoming live action version of the yatterman anime. Yatterman is about a pair of super hero mechanics riding a giant robot dog who fight a trio of super villains who also have various robots, and a 3 person tandem (tridem?) The show is mostly about the villains and the comic relief they offer. In tone it feels like hannah-barbera filtered through Japan. And now they are making a live action movie. I have high hopes for this.

Okay, I concede I am not quite living up to my New Year resolution.

Still, let’s see if I can improve things from this point on; starting with an old favourite, amusing stuff my students have written recently.

I have recently begun working at a new school (again, gah!) and one of the first things the teachers at my new school did was dump a load of work on me that my new students had written over the winter break.

This was a comedy goldmine.

Apparently at my new school the teachers had been very good at introducing the students to some higher level vocabulary. Words like pleasure, one (in the sense of oneself or one does), restless, etc, etc. However the students weren’t quite so hot on how to properly conjugate these new words, leading to such examples as…

Well, see for yourself.

“I will pleasure me in winter vacation.”

“I will pleasure in winter vacation. I want come early.”

“I want to go to Okinawa because I want to raid a banana.”

“My dream is ueding dtheina. Becoues I think many peapol smailing get home. They’re get married to happy. They’re never happy mamols plezant for them.”

“I exerted a cultural festival.”

“I like my bedroom because it is very restless.” (he meant messy)

“”2nd term was great! There was field day, culture day and eisteddfod.”

Cue conversation between me and the Japanese teacher of English.

Me: What do you think eisteddfod means, I can’t think what English word it could be.

JTE: Hmmm. No, idea. I’ll read the Japanese version they wrote.

Okay apparently they mean music festival.

Me: How did they get eisteddfod from music festival? Does it sound similar in Japanese?

JTE: No, let me check my dictionary.

Me: What does it say.

JTE: Apparently it’s an arts festival in Wales.

Me: What! Wales!

(cue gales of laughter for ages)

There were two other entries that are absolutely heartbreaking too.

For example, one girl was talking about the Akashi suspension bridge and wrote:

“When I saw it, I was happy, for the first time.”

Now obviously she meant “when I saw it for the first time I was happy.” But even so

don’t you just wanna give her a hug?

The other heartbreaking one was in answer to the question. “How was your second

term?”

“What!!! How was it!!! It was terrible. Oh my god!!! I studied very hard but I love the

comic books too much. When my mother came in she yelled at me and took the comic

book. The next day, my mother took all the comic books. I was very sad. I didn’t get a

good grade.”

Awwww. Rest assured I gave you a good grade fellow comic fan.

I’m feeling fairly positive today despite having a bloody terrible week. So let’s examine some of the wonderful things about my country.

1. The Wildlife

This is one of those things I love about Japan that came as a complete surprise to me. You probably know that the southern coast of Japan is basically one huge metropolis. From Tokyo down to Hiroshima it’s all city, with no real gaps in between.

However while Japan is famous for it’s metropolises it’s easy to lose sight of why it is so densely urbanised. There is very little space where people can live and build and nearly all of it has already been re-claimed. This leaves an awful lot of space that is simply left over to nature. It’s easy to forget this when you’re surrounded on all sides by grey concrete stretching up to block the sun but it takes about an hour’s walk for me to get from my flat in a built up town and major transport link to a forest up a mountain.

Because of this there is a lot of large native wildlife in Japan. Far more than what I am used to in Britain. I have seen more large birds of prey in the year I have lived here than I have ever seen in my entire life before. I sit by a pond filled with turtles, everyday when I wait for the bus (which is also where I twice saw a snake), there are far more butterflies here than Britain, there are fearless little sparrows that bother you whenever you sit down and there are entrancing dragonflies and deeply irritating cicadas.

In fact let’s not get started on the bugs because if I do this quickly won’t be a “things I like about Japan” entry. Suffice it to say the butterflies and dragonflies are lovely and leave it there.

And these aren’t just limited to the forests but are a day to day part of life. However what does live in the forest are some truly amazing animals, wild boars, poisonous snakes, tanuki (sort of raccoon dogs) and bears. Bears! I never knew Japan had bears.

Mario here, dressed as a tanuki.

Living in Britain it is easy to forget about the natural world as bar trees and pigeons it hardly ever intrudes upon the everyday of life. British people may decry me for this because Britain ahs some of the greenest cities of any developed country. However the point is not so much the flowers and the grass but the animals. There aren’t really any animals jostling for space with people in Britain, bar birds, domesticated animals and bugs. Here exotic and interesting animals are something I see everyday and they’re one of the things I will miss most when I leave Japan.

2. Unicycles

Yes, unicycles. Yes, the bikes with only one wheel.

For whatever reason (and frankly I couldn’t even begin to guess why) unicycles are massively more popular in Japan than they are in pretty much every other country in the world.

Primary school kids in Japan are taught how to ride unicycles. In fact I think some schools have unicycles that the students can practice on. I know that when I visited a primary school once to teach an English lesson I spotted a rack of about 40 identical unicycles in one of the halls. That’s more unicycles than I’ve ever seen in one place before. That is more unicycles than really should ever be in one place. It looks deeply, deeply wrong, like stepping into a parallel universe that never invented the bike.

And they actually ride them for transport too. We’ve all seen circus performers prat about on the really tall ones, leaning backwards and making the wheel slide forwards and then doing the opposite. Japanese kids don’t do that. Instead they zoom past me like a tiny cheetah on their way to the combini (convenience store). It’s a truly mystifying sight; scores of children zipping about like mosquitoes, eating ice cream with their free hands and suddenly at adult height, despite being 5.

And the main thought it prompts is, why? Why unicycles? They ride bikes too, bikes are sensible, they get you places faster and you don’t fall off. Is space at such a premium in Japan that they can’t store a second wheel?

3. Okonimyaki

I’ve mentioned my deep and abiding love for ramen a coupler of times on this site and I stand by my position. Ramen is some kind of magic food that, despite being nobody’s absolute favourite meal, everyone in the world could happily eat every single day. Anyone who claims otherwise is just being contrary for the sake of it. What I haven’t mentioned much is another Japanese concoction that gives me a deep and satisfying pleasure, okonomiyaki.

The name comes from “okonomi2 meaning “what you want” and “yaki” a ubiquitous Japanese word that is typically translated to mean fry.

It doesn’t really, it just means cooked. Take takoyaki for example, the name implies that you’d be eating some kind of fried octopus. what it actually is, is a dumpling with a piece of octopus inside.

Anyway, okonomiyaki means “what you like fried” and as the name implies it’s a sort of bring everything you have left over and cook it up kind of meal. It’s sort of like a cross between a pizza and an omelette. The chef prepares a sort of omelette batter with flour and shredded cabbage. He frys this and then adds whatever toppings you asked for, usually in my case cheese, bacon and mochi (rice cake) because I am trying to toughen up my arteries with endurance training.

There are a million ways to cook and serve it and many famous variations (such as Hiroshima-yaki which features thin soba noodles and is prepared in layers) but the way most common in Kansai, where I live, is for the chef to mix up and prepare the batter, cook it, add the toppings and then bring it out to a hot plate where you are seated. The okonimyaki continues to cook on the hotplate whilst you add okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed, katsuobushi (tuna flakes), chilli powder and any other toppings that come to mind. Then you set about slicing it up, transfer a piece to a plate, eat it and then repeat.

As I understand it in most areas outside of Kansai you have to mix up and cook your own batter in the restaurant. Sod that, if I’m going to pay for the privilege of cooking my own dinner it better by all you can eat and it better be principally meat.

Okonomiyaki originates from the tail end of World War 2 (or the Pacific War as it is known here) when the rice harvest, already depleted because of all the young drafted men, was largely used for military purposes and much food was rationed. Deprived of their main staple food Japanese people in Osaka and the surrounding area started making pancakes with what they did have (eggs, cabbage and flour) and then covering it in anything that had a bit more flavour than cabbage and eggs. In fact enterprising women who had lost family in the war used to sell the basic pancake at the roadside cheap for labourers to buy for lunch.

The last time I went to eat okonomiyaki something rather odd happened to me. My girlfriend and I were enjoying a heart cloggingly thick and delicious okonomiyaki in our local restaurant. The only other people in there was a man in his 30’s or 40’s and this man’s daughter. They finished up their dinner and the daughter left and this man came up over and awkwardly tried to start a conversation with Fran and I. So far so normal, one of the negatives of being a foreigner in Japan is that occasionally very weird people will come up and try to talk to you. We politely answered his questions as to where we were from and then let the conversation drop so we could get back to our dinner.

When it came time to pay the waiter tried to charge us for the man and his daughter’s meal.

……

I was immediately very, very annoyed.

According to the waiter the man had said that we had agreed to pay for his dinner tonight since he didn’t have any cash on him. He would then come back and pay for the dinner the next day and then we could get our money back from the restaurant.

No, we said, we agreed to do no such thing.

Oh really, it’s just that Japanese people do this kind of thing all the time and we would eventually get our money back and…..

No.

Please.

If you carry on like this then we’re going to walk out of here without paying for either meal.

Eventually, after much cajoling from Fran and much angry glowering from me the waiter relented. I do feel kind of sorry for the waiter. He is obviously a really trusting and nice guy to believe the man and I do hope the man came back the next and paid for dinner. I highly doubt it though, and the waiter probably had the cost of two people’s dinner coming out of his paycheck. However sorry as I felt for him what an idiot. At the very least when he got this story from the man he could have asked us if that was okay. We’d have said no and then he’d have been able to get the money from the odd man.

4. Fruit

The fruit in Japan is incredible.

I don’t know how much the difference would apply to a South African, an American or an Aussie but in comparison with British fruit Japanese fruit is the nectar of the gods. It’s so much juicier, tastier, fresher and more refreshing.

I got my first taste of how bloody amazing Japanese fruit is on my first morning in Japan. The JET programme had arranged for new arrivals to stay in a very up market hotel in Tokyo. The breakfast the next morning was an entirely free buffet. I grabbed myself a cooked breakfast and, spying some pineapple, I added that to a plate as a dessert. Pineapple is my favourite fruit in the entire world. Much like ramen I am incapable of turning down the offer of pineapple. This also extends to pineapple flavoured things like sweets and drinks. I love it unconditionally* and so I was pleased to get some for free.

Words cannot describe the taste epiphany that occurred to me that day. It was a road to Damascus moment, well, road to Del Monte anyway, for I never realized fruit could taste so good.

For the next couple of days I gorged myself on the pineapple and melon marveling that I could live 21 years and never eat a melon this nice. However there was a melancholy edge to my gluttony, for I had sadly assumed that the fruit was this good because the hotel was very expensive and must order pineapple of a particularly high quality.

Happily I was wrong, fruit here is uniformly better than back home.

This is because, generally, it isn’t transported when it is waiting to ripen, and if it is it travels a much shorter distance than fruit to Britain. There are fruits here that are roughly the same or inferior to the equivalent in Britain, strawberries, oranges, lemons and limes; but they are completely unimportant to me compared to how good the melons, grapefruits and pineapples are.

*this is entirely untrue because there are two conditions of my love for pineapples. Firstly I have to be able to afford it and secondly I know that I can only eat a limited amount of it before my tongue becomes an agonising monstrosity for the rest of the day.

5. Arcades

I like computer games but I am not a computer/video games nerd/geek.

Allow me to clarify that.

I have zero issue with the label “geek” nor do I have any issues with using it as a term to describe myself. I’m just realistically stating a fact that compared to most of the people who have an interest in computer games I barely qualify as even a minor enthusiast. So when I say I like computer games I don’t really think I like then much more than your average British bloke of my age.

There is an exception to this rule though; I have a particular fondness for old games as most new computer games leave me completely flat. First person shooters do nothing for me, nor do modern adventure games (which feel more like poorly written stories than games), racing games are more simulations than games as is nearly every sports game ever produced and don’t get me started on the state of modern platformers. What I like are computer games that first and foremost are GAMES! That realise that setting out to simulate reality is a folly for an electronic medium and instead embrace their abstract nature and focus upon the experience they offer being first and foremost, fun.

It appears that the vast majority of console owners in Britain and America disagree with me. However in Japan the situation is very different. Here games are still principally about silly and abstract fun, normally with an Italian plumber in a land of mushrooms.

Moreover Japan has a similar love affair with “retro” gaming. There are shops in any of the major Japanese cities selling older consoles and vast collections of older games. It is the easiest country in the world to get a SNES and 10 or 20 games, probably for less than 20 pounds and happily entertain yourself for the next 4 or 5 years! If, like me, you are bloody terrible at computer games anyway.

And Japan never fell out of love with that most visible symbol of the older gaming culture, arcades. I can’t speak for America but I know that in Britain computer game arcades don’t really exist anymore. So called “Amusements” still proliferate at the sea side but these are mostly filled with shove ha’penny machines, slots, fruit machines and other cheap gambling diversions. Actual games, where the only goal is to have fun, are few and far between.

Not so in my adopted land. In Sannomiya alone I can think of about 10 gaming arcades most of which are quite close to each other. These still have a lot floor space given over to gambling machines (pachinko, horse racing, etc) and a vast swathe of space given over to crane machines but they make up for it by having a lot of actual honest to god games too.

Now you might be thinking to yourself, Adam, there’s a reason gaming arcades are a thing of that past. It’s because arcades were only popular because cabinets were vastly more powerful machines than home consoles so to play a good computer game you needed to go to an arcade. Nowadays consoles can equal and generally exceed the power of cabinets so why pay all that money for something you can get at home?

Well for several reasons my friends, several reasons.

Firstly, arcades just appeal to me. There is something about them that is relatively unique, the notion of a space given over to nothing more than having fun. They’re playgrounds for adults basically, a space where the only possible thing to do is enjoy yourself or leave. This is why I like the gambling style places much less. They have a sort of goal (make money) whereas arcades have no purpose other than to have fun.

Secondly, although arcade cabinets can’t compete with home consoles on a power basis anymore they can compete on the design of the cabinet and how you play the game. You can play racing games with actual steering wheels and chairs, music games with replica instruments (admittedly you can do this at home but it’ll cost you and how likely are you to buy a replica shamisen, taiko drum or drum kit?), surfing games on surfboards, rowing games on row boats, horse riding games on imitation horses! I don’t care how advanced consoles get you are never going to be pretending to ride a horse in the comfort of your home in any sort of console game.

Hell, there’s even one relatively popular game that simulates riding in the cockpit of a gundam.

Thirdly arcades are great for filling in a few minutes of time. Consoles are obviously the better place to play a long form story led RPG or to have some mates round and spend an entire evening trying to best each other at Mario kart. However arcades can fill in those 5 or 10 minutes when you’re waiting for a friend to meet you, or a film to start at the cinema, or for the beer garden to open. Just having them around makes getting through a normal course of evening’s events much more varied and interesting.

So now that I’ve rabbited on about how much I like them for long enough what are my favourite games to play?

Well I’ll start with my least favourite, the arcade version of Mario Kart. Despite Mario Kart being generally one of my favourite computer games ever (and Mario Kart Double Dash being basically how I spent University) I despise the Arcade version. This is partly because the game was farmed out to Namco from Nintendo and the level and weapon design is vastly inferior to what I’ve come to expect from this series but it is mostly because my girlfriend always beats me. Always! It is deeply annoying.


(I got this off the internet so i have no idea who this bloke is)

My favourite is easily the “taiko drumming game”. Taiko is a traditional form of Japanese drumming that I have mentioned on this sight before. Basically you have a single large drum placed on it’s side and 2 thick wooden sticks. Rythms are beat out on the drum itself and on the sides of the drum. In the game you beat out a rhythm to popular J–pop songs, anime theme tunes and computer game themes. There is little in this life more purely joyful than trying to play the theme to “Super Mario Bros” on a plastic replica of an ancient Japanese instrument.

6. Toilets

We all know about the Japanese technologically advanced toilets that clean your arse, play soothing music and even automatically lift the lid up if you’re approaching. These contraptions are ridiculous in every possible way and are rightly ridiculed. As well as being the ultimate symbol of the amount of conspicuous consumption in this country they are absolutely horrible for the environment.

There are however, three toilet innovations that I am prepared to give a pass to.

1. My own toilet, observe.

See that little sink there, when I flush the toilet the water from the pipe passes through the tap and into the sink before it drains into the bowl. This means that I use less water washing my hands because I don’t have to go to the sink to do so.

This would be a rare example of a Japanese toilet helping the environment. However it would be a very good example of the Japanese approach to design.

Design in this country is king. There is an insane amount of thought gone into how to improve every single aspect of every object you own and sue in daily life. Design is so worshipped here that people collect tiny replica miniatures of famous chair designs.

I’ll say that again. Entirely sane people collect tiny replicas of FAMOUS DESIGNER CHAIRS!

Yet, oddly, this makes not a lick of difference to the average person because Japanese people are so very keen on tradition. The cooking utensils, rooms, ways of cleaning and to a certain extent the clothes have not changed significantly in Japan for hundreds of years. Japanese people love a “right” way to do things and despite really liking good design they very rarely later anything traditionally Japanese. Case in point many places still use the squatting hole in the ground traditional Japanese toilet.

Yet, when you introduce something new to Japan, something we in the west have taken for granted for some time, they immediately take a good long hard look at it and re-design it so it is much more efficient and useful. My toilet is a good case in point. An incredibly simple innovation that saves the environment and which will never be adopted in Britain because we don’t care about good design.

2. The fluttering bird thing.

This gets a pass because it makes me giggle for a very specific reason.

It seems that Japanese women in public restrooms don’t like other people in the restroom to hear them, um, using it. Research discovered that a lot of women repeatedly flushed the toilet in order to hide the sound of them, um, yeah. This was obviously a very wasteful and inconvenient thing to do so some bright spark invented this.

It’s a little box that when an arm is waved in front of it makes a noise like bird song. Effectively hiding the sound of the, um.

The very specific reason that this makes me giggle is that I have a female friend (who shall remain nameless) who once explained to me that even in a cubicle she can’t pee if anyone else is in the toilet because she is so mortified that they might hear her. I found out about these boxes on Japan Probe and immediately cracked up thinking about what my friend’s reaction to these would be.

3. The toilet at my school.

It has a heated seat.

A heated seat.

For my arse, in winter, when it is cold. A heated seat.

I know this is terribly wasteful but it isn’t my toilet and it’s not like I’m going to convince Kocho sensei to install a new one. Besides do you have any idea how nice a heated toilet seat is? That my friends is true luxury.

BTW whilst I was looking for pictures of Pacman I found this.

How awesome is that?!

I put together a simply enormous post today at work. Unfortunately because I am an idiot I have left it at work. I shall probably post it tomorrow thought to make up for the missed post on Tuesday.

Until then here’s some work my students did recently.

The grammar point my san-nensei have been working on recently is passive sentence construction. The exercise they have been doing is to create their own countries and then tell me what food is eaten in that country, what drinks are drunks, clothes are worn, etc, etc. They can do anything they like but I gave them a hint sheet with some normal and some very odd answers.

Some of the answers were fantastic. For example, most of the boys said that curry was eaten in their country and beer was drunk in their country, a combination that made me feel so much at home. Oddly nearly every single girl opted for orange juice, what they have against tea, beer and wine I don&t know.

But best of all are some of the names for countries they came up with.
Here’s a short list.

Ringo-land – No word on whether that’s the Beatle or the Japanese word for apple.

Dream-land – Not very funny but I did a count and nearly 18 different kids opted
for Dream-land. I can only assume there is some anime or computer
game with a Dream-land in it.

Never-land – Similarly I lost track of all the Never-lands that I got.

Lucky-land – That’s Ireland, surely?

EVA-land – Where dragons are seen apparently, and not angels as one might
expect*

A land – Pragmatical at least.

Star-land – Hollywood right.

Stars-land – Ah, but somebody else went one better.

BIOHAZARD-land – BIOHAZARD is the Japanese game for the computer game we know as
Resident Evil in the U.K. and the States. Although I remember the
first one coming out when I was there age it’s still incredibly
popular with my kids. In BIOHAZARD-land Humans are eaten, blood is
drunk, suits are worn, Umbrella events will be held (the villains
in the Resident Evil games are called the Umbrella cooperation),
zombles (bless) are seen and oddly the Olympics were held.

As if BIOHAZARD-land weren’t disturbing enough, two different kids
in two separate classes came up with the idea.

Free-land – Where workers control the means of production!

Cat-land – Where people eat dogs.

Special Beautiful Island – Which is extra specially beautiful because we all dress
like pirates.

Beautiful-land – Sure it’s beautiful, but it isn’t special beautiful is it.

Atari-land – Finally, a country where I can be free to enjoy classic 80’s
gaming.

Smile-land – I don’t think I’d fit in there.

Future-land – Welcome! To the world of tomorrow!

Disney-land
Disney-sea
Disney-rina – They’re taking over the world!

Silent Hill – Apparently kangaroos are seen in Silent Hill. Now I don’t remember
any kangaroos but I do know about the evil nurses.

Scary-land – Sure they eat humans there and drink blood but how scary can it be
without evil nurses.

Tea-land – This sounds like my kind of place.

Japon – Bad spelling or deliberate humour, how would you mark it?

Peace-land – Peace-land apparently has dinosaurs and wrestling. I propose it’s
name be changed to awesome ruckus world.

Interesting-land – Ironically this sheet was otherwise very boring.

Ultra-land – Well that’s what I interpreted it as. The kid actually wrote Uruta-
land, which I initially read as Urethra-land because I have a sick,
sick mind.

and finally.

THE FRONT OF ARMAMENT

STEAK IS EATEN IN THE FRONT OF ARMAMENT

BEER IS DRUNK IN THE FRONT OF ARMAMENT

LEATHER JACKETS AND LEATHER PANTS ARE WORN IN THE FRONT OF ARMAMENT

TANKS ARE SEEN IN THE FRONT OF ARMAMENT

THE WARS WERE HELD IN THE FRONT OF ARMAMENT

THE VERY BIG WARDS WILL BE HELD IN THE FRONT OF ARMAMENT

I have no idea what game or tv show the front of armament is from but there is no way the kid made it up on his own. He actually wrote it like that as well, all in caps with no punctuation. Of course I had to mark him down for that but I really, really didn’t want to because THE VERY BIG WARS made me piss myself.

You want some more, okay how about this.

Let’s just all pretend last week never happened. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a bad week by any stretch of the imagination and gave me lots of blogging fodder but events were very complicated and blogging got left behind.

This blogging fodder? How does 2 trips to Kyoto sound to you?

But first let’s get the biggest and most important story out of the way, namely

MY NEW SCHOOL

So I am now working at Iwaoka Chugakko, my second junior high school in Japan.

Iwaoka is a pretty nice school so far and there are two main things you need to know about it.

It is very far away.
It is really, really far away.

In fact it is so far away it is very nearly not in Kobe at all but rather in the nearby city of Akashi.

I mean it, it is far. I have to catch a bus and a train and it’s an hours commute to get there. Okay that doesn’t sound too far but compared to my colleagues it is absurdly far.

And it’s nearly triple the length of commute as my old school.

And it is astoundingly rural. It’s not the most rural of schools (that I believe is Kande) but it is still pretty far out in the sticks. The surrounding area is full of rice fields and immediately next to the school is an enormous pond.

It is so rural in fact that as I was walking around the school grounds I saw this guy.

I was merrily minding my own business gazing at nothing in particular and barely registered the snake in my presence. Then it suddenly hit me what I had seen and I literally did a double take. A bloody snake! At school!

Further investigation reveals that in all probability the snake is poisonous. Not a mambushi (the most poisonous in Japan) but still not something you want to mess with.

And I nearly stood on it.

The school grounds are pretty nice though. The playing field is flanked by a row of sakura trees and it’s a much more scenic setting than my last school.

So far the people seem nicer than at my last school too. Last week I had two enkais (dinner parties) one after the other, the first with my new school and the second with my old school and the contrast between the two was really clear. The teachers at Iwaoka are much closer and friendlier with each other, they told more jokes and played more games at the enkai. For example, everyone had to make a speech and also do something entertaining. Since I hadn’t really prepared anything I just did my karaoke standard (Crocodile Rock by Elton John) but I know it went down a treat becausewhen I sat down and the outgoing ALT Peter said “that was rehearsed wasn’t it?”.

They also played a game where everyone had to eat a choux-pan (like a profiterole) some of which were filled with chilli powder. Mercifully I was exempt from this game but watching the contorting faces of surprised teachers was hysterical. I demand red hot chill choux pan Russian roulette become a televised sport immediately. Actually knowing japan it probably is.

In contrast the Fuluda enkai was nice but much less raucous, no games or singing and a lot less laughter. Mostly I had a chat with some of the teachers I will be missing and also kocho-sensei (who having steadfastly ignored me for a year decides that the very last day is the best one to make friends). Taniguchi-sensei gave me some bookmarks that my nakayoshi kids had made me and it was so sweet that a tear very nearly came to my eye.

Of all the things I will miss about Fukuda the nakayoshi kids are definitely the one that I remember most fondly.

One fantastic moment must be recounted though and ranks amongst my most surreal experiences ever.

After the fukuda enkai some of us went for a drink at an Izakaya (Japanese pub). I wasn’t asked to come so much as ordered by my noticeably tipsy Kyoto-sensei.

He then proceeded to get absolutely steaming and try and explain Shinto to me. Being drunk he didn’t really realise that he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know despite me repeatedly telling him this. He was trying to explain to me that in Shinto people worship nature as containing gods (which I know) and he was doing it in the following fashion.

Kyoto-sensei: (points at a pair of chopsticks) This, is god.

Me: Yes, I know.

Kyoto-sensei: No, no, (points at a pair of chopsticks) This, is god.

Me: Hai, Kyoto-sensei, wakata. (yes Kyoto-sensei I know)

Kyoto-sensei: No, listen, (points at a pair of chopsticks) This IS god.

At that moment my brain kind of had to step back and try and appreciate that I was being lectured by a drunken Japanese man telling me a pair of chopsticks were god.

I was worried about the staff at Iwaoka because I was told that there weren’t many English speakers there. This seems to have changed though. There are a lot of new teachers in addition to myself and most of the new teachers speak some English. The new Kocho-sensei, social studies teacher and maths teacher all speak good English. There is a new English teacher, one English teacher with phenomenal English and a home-economics teacher who lived in Kenya and speaks good English too. More importantly even the teachers who don’t speak English seem to want to talk to me more. All in all I think I will enjoy the staffroom at Iwaoka a lot more than fukuda.

The kids at my new school seem really friendly too. They are eager to talk to me and smiley and forward. They are however still little gits. When I met the baseball club on Friday I was treated to this exchange.

Me: Hello my name is Adam.

Kid: Hello my name is vagina.

Now as opening conversational gambits go this one was a masterpiece. I was absolutely floored by the bare faced cheek of it all and he knew it. I could not let myself be outfoxed by a child with only one utterance but If I didn’t recover the conversational high ground I would be in this kids power for the rest of the year. But honestly how can you come back to “my name is vagina”? He already compared himself to a vagina, where can you go from there? Any insult I make is irrelevant because he already called himself a vagina, and no joke is going to get me out of this because the word vagina has already been uttered and to a teenage boy nothing is more hilarious than a vagina.

As it was I think I did okay.

Me: (points at his lunchbox) What are you eating?

Kid: Egg.

Me: Oh, so vaginas eat eggs. I didn’t know that.

This got a big laugh from his friends and I think I have developed a new funniest thing in the world for teenage boys, the concept of vaginas as separate organisms that can eat eggs. Having made our positions clear we could move onto different topics.

The second time I met this kid he told me his name was vagina again, said “penis go in vagina?” and then later tried to grab my crotch to see how big it is. Clearly I have a nemesis at Iwaoka.

In general the English level seems a lot lower than Fukuda (students answer hello with konnichiwa for example) but the students seem happy to talk to me and I’m pretty confident I can raise their confidence.

A good example of the difference in levels is how the kids ask me where I am from. Now at Fukuda the kids just asked me “where do you come from?” or “where are you from?” Here it seems to be a guessing game where the kids tell me every country they can think of and I say yes or no. Weirdly the most popular guesses seem to be Canada, Russia and Italy. I can see Canada, they’re last ALT was Canadian and I do look sort of Italian (though much less so since I shaved my curly black hair) but honestly Russia? England was embarrassingly low down in the list of guesses for most students after Russia, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Chile (???), Spain, Australia, New Zealand and China (which came from a kid who either has a very cosmopolitan worldview or has no idea what Chinese people look like).

Weirdly nobody ever suggests America.


And while the English level is lower Iwaoka is phenomenally good at sport. The amount of trophies the school has amassed is quite breathtaking. The baseball, softball, volleyball and soccer teams (the former soccer coach is now a professional coach for Vissel Kobe) are all very strong and the girl’s volleyball team is the number one team in Hyogo and competes at a national level.

These spears are given to winning sports teams sometimes instead of trophies. The names of the members of the winng team are on the ribbons that dangle from each spear.

Another thing I like about the school is that a lot of the students ride bikes to school. Like nearly everything else in Japan there is a uniform and a proper way to ride a bike so all of the students wear the same helmet and they nearly all have identical bikes. Today was the first day of school for the students and some of the teachers had to check to see if their bikes are safe. Hundreds of gleaming highly polished bikes lined up in the glorious spring sunshine is a pretty impressive sight I must say.

So snakes and vaginas aside I am pretty happy with my new school.

I would be happier if it was a little nearer though.

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