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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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Some friends of mine got drunk a few months ago and wrote down a list of crazy things they could do when they had some spare time.

I’m not usually one for planned whimsy. I like dicking about as much as any human being alive and spontaneous adventurous lunacy is always the most life affirming activity one can possibly take part in. When you’re sixty years old you won’t remember every birthday party, every friday night after work drink up or every holiday but by god you will remember that time you all went skinny dipping or invented a new sport called “elbow cricket” or got lost and ended up having an outdoor picnic at midnight involving frightened horses and loud impromptu singing.

That said certain things do require a degree of planning but still fall well into the joyously pointless endeavours category and these would be the bulk of the now infamous list. I missed out on the first list based activity (constructing a hut from objects found on the beach and ordering pizza to it) but dammit I was not about to miss out on this one.

We were going to build a raft using trash.

Some of this trash we found on the notoriously polluted Suma beach however the vast majority of it was plastic bottles we saved up from our homes and dutifully dragged out to Suma.

Which yes, did mean I was dragging giant bags of trash around with me on the train. I apologise to everyone in Japan.

I arrived at about 12 o’clock by which point only a few of the eventual team had gathered and not much work had been done. Helping to devise a plan we swiftly set about the main construction.

For anyone interested in building a rubbish raft here is our technique.

First we attached two plastic bottles together with tape at the neck creating a seal.

We then got three of these sealed bottle sets and attached them together in a triangluar shape.

Once that had been done we laid them out in a line and taped them together creating long triangular tubes. We attached five of these tubes together arranging the triangles to make one larger triangle.

A quick test showed that this “pontoon” was indeed bouyant on its own.

Doing this 4 times gave us 4 basic pontoons 1 for each side of the raft and 2 in the middle for extra support in the centre.

Finding some string and wood on the beach we made cross struts sitting across the pontoons to hold the basic shape of the raft together.

So the basic shape was 3 pontoons linked by 3 bits of wood.

Then came the messy part.

With the basic raft shape in place we flipped it over and began filling any spare inch of surface with one of our sealed bottle pairs. Doing this we were hoping to just add more and more bouyancy by adding lots and lots of containers of air to our basic structure.

Finally we used litter bags and tarpaulins taped to the underside to make a skin to help hold all of the bottles together.

The end result being this.

My what sexy examples of manhood we are.

With the finishing touches of a flag and an improvised oar the maiden boyage of the S. S. PET was ready.

(PET in case you’re wondering is an acronym for the kind of plastic used in the bottles. No we are not that nerdy, everyone in Japan calls them that.)

This video records the maiden voyage and all our successive attempts.

A complete and utter success!!

In lifting two grown men and letting them sail out to the bouys and back the raft was an unqualified success.

So we let the girls have a go.

With three of them insisting on a trip at once they didn’t distribute their weight properly and consequently made a massive tear in the structure of the middle pontoon.

Still I was determined to have a go.

My trip was not so successful. My first mate abandoned ship when it was barely in the water. Moments after that one of the outer pontoons completely came loose. This meant rather than lying across the pontoons in the structuraly soundest position I had to lie along the length of the pontoons putting half of the raft in the air behind me.

Still I managed to get the raft working and out into the water about halfway to the buoy.

At which point…the central pontoon finally gave way along where it had cracked and the raft split in half.

This is all that remained of a once proud and glorious thing.

Still, we built a raft and it worked.

For a bit. Not bad for a Sunday afternoon’s work.

And yes, for those curious we did clean it up at the end meaning we also had a net result of a slightly cleaner Suma beach.

Rest assured panicked readers (hello Mum) I am not going to let my parent’s trip turn into another Tokyo, I do intend to eventually talk about all of it.

So let’s knock off a couple of quick ones now before we get into the real meat of the trip.

Eww, that didn’t sound nearly so dirty until I wrote it down.

Himeji Castle.

Hey look everybody its Himeji castle, a place I have written about several times before. Taking my family was fun but not as much fun as the first time I went. This is mostly because nothing about it had changed. Himeji castle was cool the first time and it is still a really amazing building offering a simply wonderful view but, well I’ve seen it now.

Also contributing to the slightly less fun-ness was the conflict between my Dad, who like me enjoys reading everything in a museum and my brother and mother who apparently like to whizz through it.

There was also the slight problem that it was absolutely packed to bursting with people! We went during what we thought was a regular day but Himeji-jo was absolutely rammed. The queue to get into the main keep was nearly 40 minutes! Every other time I have visited I practically walked straight in.

Even more strange but when we got to the top (having slowly trudged round for hours) no sooner were we at the top of the tower than a man made some kind of announcement in Japanese and everyone started to go downstairs again. My Japanese is improving but I had absolutely no idea what he had said, I just knew that there was simply no way I was going to go back down and leave the tower after spending such a long time waiting patiently to get to the top. So I did the only sensible thing in such a situation. I studiously avoided the man and feigned all ignorance of Japanese. Then when nearly everybody had left the tower he suddenly stopped directing people to leave. My initial thought had been that there was some kind of safety issue and a certain number of people had to leave for the floor to be safe. However, now he was no longer instructing me to go downstairs I was suddenly very curious about what the commotion was all about. In broken Japanese I discerned that we had elected to go Himeji on a very special day. For a limited period a room in the keep that is not normally open to the public was going to go on display.

And he had told everyone to go see it.

And we couldn’t go see it again for an hour.

Arse.

I can’t tell you what was in that room or if it is worth seeing because I never saw it. My family not wanting to wait an hour (rather sensibly I thought) we dithered at the top for a bit and then made tracks to the nearby Japanese garden.

Probably the highlight of that particular trip for me personally was introducing my brother to ramune. Ramune is a Japanese soft drink that is kind of lemon-lime flavoured but also has its own distinctive taste. The best thing about it though is the very strange bottle. Ramune is sealed with a marble and comes with a kind of plastic bottle stopper. To open the bottle you have to strike the bottle stopper very hard to dislodge the marble. The neck of the bottle is really thin so the marble rests just above the neck and rolls around making a noise when you drink it. It is entirely pointless. It obviously takes a lot of effort to make such a weird bottle and it is difficult to use and drink from. It has no benefits whatsoever except that…well, weird things are fun, aren’t they.

Actually it does have one cool use. With practise one can get the marble to sit into the seal again using your tongue. You can then carry the bottle around without it spilling or losing its fizz. My brother was fascinated by it, and brought a load home.

The main reason I wanted to talk about this trip to Himeji though was as an excuse to post a load of photos of Himeji castle when the cherry blossom is out.

I am totally and utterly infatuated with Himeji castle. I think it is the most handsome building in the whole of Japan, possibly one of the most handsome every constructed. It may not be the most ornate or striking; the architecture may not be the most original or unique but it is just striking enough, the architecture is composed just perfectly. Himeji castle harmonises its own aesthetics with the surrounding area like no other building I know of.

It is bloody gorgeous!

As such I will not pass up any opportunity to post photos of it. Enjoy!

Osaka Operations

I’ll spare you most of the description of my parent’s trip to Osaka because, well because I wasn’t there. I had to work that day and I showed up, very late, very frustrated with a phone charger I had bought, very tired and very wet at Osaka castle just in time for everybody to leave and meet me outside. I soon cheered up though.

I avoided some of the places in Osaka I usually frequent and instead directed everyone to head straight to the Umeda Sky Building for some fine dining and finer views. The Umeda Sky Building, as the name might imply, is in Umeda. Sadly this means that to get to it one has to walk through a long tunnel that goes under the river.

What’s so sad about that, you may very well ask. It is the smell. The foul stench of rotting eggs, presumably coming from the river, that hits you like an odorous brick the second you step into the tunnel and doesn’t let up until you well out the other side.

In fact it is worse than a brick. It isn’t just the initial shock but the persistent encroaching growth of the smell. It seems to enter into you and crawl all over you. Essentially it is a very smelly tunnel.

The destination is worth the discomfort though. The Umeda Sky Building is one of the many sightseeing towers that seem to spring up in every major Japanese city. Kobe has Port Tower seen in the above picture and Tokyo has Tokyo Tower and Tokyo View and is also in the process of building a new one, Tokyo Sky Tree. Apparently the thing to do in Japan is to go to a very high spot and look at it as these viewing towers are a major attraction in every big city.

Osaka has a few towers but the one offering the best view is the Umeda Sky Building. I mean, just see for yourselves.

The southern coast of Japan is basically one big metropolis, running all the way from Hiroshima on the Western tip to the North-eastern prefectures. It is the biggest single metropolis in the world. It is effectively the Mega City from Blade Runner in all but name (and flying cars dammit!). During the day and at ground level Japan seems very urban, complicated and built up but at night and from a high perspective it seems positively alien. Gazing out over the endless city is less like sight seeing and more like star gazing. The sky inverts so that the world you look upon seems to encompass a whole universe. It is astonishingly, unbelievably, uniquely beautiful. Romantic poets would be horrified at the lack of nature in all this but the metropolis possesses its own strange beauty all to itself.

My family and I wandered around for more than an hour just drinking this all in. It really is, in the real sense of the word, awesome.

And after the shock of the view had worn off there was still plenty of cool things at the top of the tower. There was this seat for example. Although we didn’t know it at the time this is actually a kind of love tester. Couples sit on the bench; hold each other’s hands and a metal pole. The harder you squeeze the bigger the heart gets. Sadly Fran and I didn’t work this out until after we saw the photo and so didn’t really try the game.

There was also a small dark room with couches and a screen on the floor. The screen made visualisations that reacted to how people moved on the couches. It is all too easy to imagine what three men got up to when presented with a toy that made colours and shapes in relation to how you bounced on a couch. Although the young Japanese couple in the room with us seemed positively embarrassed to play we were bouncing up and down like coke fuelled six year olds on a hotel bed. Joyous fun.

The building itself is an amazing piece of architecture too. It consists of two towers, joined at the top to create a kind of arch shape, but with a circular hole in the top section that makes the building look a little bit like a UFO. Going across the hole are two walkways which one has to cross to get to the viewing platform. This is great fun, even for someone with a minor fear of heights like me, as you can look through the glass bottom of the walkway to see the dizzying heights. Fran was less keen on it than I though.

This design, whilst cool, is hugely impractical. The building has a hug foot print consisting of both the towers and the viewing section at the top. But underneath the viewing section there is no more building. So the Umeda Sky Building wastes almost a good third of the potential space it could occupy. A third of the space wasted is simply atrociously bad architecture from a practical perspective. However, it does look cool. So sod the impracticality, I’m not paying for it.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that underneath the Sky Building is a faux pre-war Japanese street complete with fake shop fronts, fake posters, fake lanterns, etc, etc all trying to evoke that “Suki Wong” 1920’s eastern glamour. These are surprisingly popular in Japan and crop up in a fair few places but particularly in Osaka. The specimen beneath the Sky Building is nothing special but it did have a nice Okonomiyaki restaurant where my family got to try their first taste of this Osakan speciality. Verdict? They liked it but struggled quite a bit to actually eat it.

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