Monday, 31 August 2009

Sushi firsts

Last night we sampled Shimojo village - a nice, long soak in the onsen overlooking the valley and mountains, then to a rather exquisite sushi restaurant, tucked away from the main road.

We sat ourselves down at the bar, ordered, and watched the chef do his thing. He later told us from all the different places the various sushi came from, although my memory isn't good enough to remember.

Most will know I'm not a big fan of squid, so when the first piece was served I was a little upset to find my delicious bed of rice topped with the fattest and whitest chunk of squid I've ever seen on sushi. I reminded myself just how much this was costing me and down the hatch it went. I have to say though, it was quite nice, not unpleasant at all.

A first for me was salmon eggs. These small orange eggs burst in your mouth when you eat them - quite a sensation. I also tried flying fish eggs too. These are about 6mm in diameter and perhaps a dozen or so are sat on rice and wrapped in seaweed. Again different, but not unpleasant at all. When crunched they have a creamy sort of texture.

Sea urchin was an interesting one. If I had to try and describe how it looks I would say like a thick orange paste, pitted (not unlike an orange skin). The taste is also difficult to describe, as to label it just 'fishy' does it an injustice, but neverthless it does have a salty/sea twang to it.

All this washed down with the tastiest iced green tea, then hot green tea. The price is a little steep for Japan, but about what you'd pay for a lobster dish at a family restaurant in the UK. Well worth it, and we'll definately be going back.

Fat and content.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Taiko 太鼓

Above: my first Taiko experience at Achi-mura Obon Festival

Last week I started Taiko, the Japanese drumming martial art/dance/music form. I discovered that drumming is a lot harder than it appears, especially when you have to play in time with ten other drummers. The big drums are hit with bashi (sticks), a pair of which I bought last week. They are about 15 inches long and about the width of a broom handle.

This week I was able to participate a lot more with the rest of the class, all of whom have been playing for at least two years. Our sensei is Art Lee, a professional American Taiko artist who was the first non-Japanese to win the Tokyo National Wadaiko Competition in 2005. I find him a remarkably unassuming man, lightly spoken and of a very calm and balanced disposition.

Anyway, I'm finding the Taiko great fun and a great workout every week (despite the fact that this week I managed to smash my thumbs until they bled). A little pain is supposed to keep you sharp, right?

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Tempura 天ぷら

Today Bryce, Nic and me went to Kin Man (金万; a thousand gold pieces), a great tempura restaurant in Iida. We all opted for the giant prawn dish and consumed at speed. Japanese food is so delicious!

The Kanji for Kin Man can be seen above.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Keitei snaps I

I've managed to snap a few nice pics with my keitei since I got it a couple of weeks ago, so here is a selection of what I expect will be an ongoing collection...

Iida Ringon Matsuri (apple festival) taiko drumming.

Pachinko parlour.

Confused bat on window screen.

Bus ride to Nagano city.

Nagano city manhole cover.

Japanese lantern.

Obon Hanabi caught mid-supernova.

Sunset on rice field next to my house.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Ganbatte, kudasai - がんばってください!

Any visitor to Japan may well be familiar with the expression "ganbatte, kudasai" or "ganbatte, ne". It is incredibly common - I hear it several dozen times a day at least, and as a new ALT, it is often said to me, en mass. The direct English translation is an encouraging "please do your best!", although I feel certain this translation doesn't carry across the sentiment that seems embedded in the expression. It is used for encouragement and support in any activity, from teaching to drinking to sports to really simple things such as following directions after someone has given you them. This expression really seems to reflect the team etiquette that is prevalent in all aspects of Japanese life, and serves to boost all members of society in their daily activity.

I recently read an interview quote from Formula One driver Timo Glock, who currently drives for Toyota. The exchange was:

Q: You currently drive for Toyota. The Japanese company boasts its very own management philosophy, but can you name one component of the ‘Toyota Way’?
TG: Kaizen, which is continuous improvement.

Indeed, kaizen ( 改善, lit. "good change") is the Japanese way.

Cleaning time

Now, we don't have "cleaning time" in schools in the UK. Instead we hire cleaners who clean the school outside of standard hours. In Japan, every staff member and student is a cleaner at a certain time of every day. It is infact scheduled into everyone's timetable. Everyone dons bandana's and grabs a broom, duster or cloth, and gets to work on their classrooms, homerooms, the toilets, etc. Perhaps it is because there is no UK equivalent to this that I find it so surprisingly fascinating to see (and join) everyone scurrying around to and fro, doing their bit.

I learnt that cleaning time is usually after 5th or 6th period every day, but as today was the first day back, an extra cleaning time was slotted into the morning schedule. What I struck me most was the students' willingness - or lack of reluctance? - to involve themselves in this activity. Everyone works together as a team. This is how they do everything in Japan.


The word genki is often thrust upon foreigners, but until you teach a class of Japanese first-graders you don't really appreciate the meaning. It essentially means "full of life and enthusiasm" - finally, a concept I can understand! My classes are certainly full of genki students. I hope I can keep up!

My first day teaching

Above: My JHS office. My desk is in the foreground with the laptop.

Above: View from the office window.

Sweet jesus, I'm knackered! The killer combination of Taiko last night, a bad night's sleep, and a hot and long day at work has left me sat here at 18:16 completely exhausted.

However, my fingers still work thankfully, so I can manage a couple of blog entries. Let's start with school then...

I started work today. It was very much a day of firsts. Well, every day is a day of firsts here, but it was certainly a lot more evident today.

My alarm went off at the unholy time of 6.45, and after a quick breakfast and shower, donned my suit for the opening ceremony of this new term at school. Although I don't usually sweat much, the crazy Japanese humidity (Japanese: mushiatsui, or むしあつい) had me rather clammy by the time I drove into the staff carpark. Buying a sweat rag was definately a wise move!

The ceremony caught me off-guard. I stood with the Principal while the students filed in, and after a brief introduction by the Principal, I took to the front of the hall to introduce myself in both English and Japanese. I'm used to standing in front of large crowds, but the butterflies were doing a conga inside me. Thankfully I didn't fluff my speech, and I turned from the microphone to much applause.

My schedule today (worked out by a complex and confusing series of cross-referenced tables) gave me just two lessons, both of which I used to introduce myself to the first-graders. It's true what is said about foreigners becoming celebrities in schools here, especially if you, like me, are tall or have big feet. The students wanted to arm wrestle me, compare hand or foot sizes, or try to jump higher than my height. I'm certain one student called me "Schwarzenegger" and another called me "Terminator." When I hummed the theme to the movie they erupted with laughter and cheering.

In my time between lessons I have been studying Japanese, drafting these blogs, and altering my introduction lesson for the classes I am to teach. Every Friday I am to visit two Elementary schools, and have a full day of lessons! I only hope I don't run out of genki (see blog) - a lifeless ALT wouldn't last 5 minutes with these kids!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Takagi-mura Hanabi

This weekend is Obon, the Japanese national festival of the dead. In short, Obon is when Japanese people commemorate their ancestors and the ones who passed before them. It is believed that during this weekend the spirits of the ancestors return to this world to visit their living relatives. Many Japanese return to the place of their birth during this weekend to pay their respects.

Tonight we went to my village's Obon festivities to sample the food and watch the hanabi (fireworks; lit. "flower fire"). We weren't disappointed! Check out the video above for a sample of the display. Watch carefully for the giant strawberry fireworks towards the end. Amazing.

Below is Iida block (l-r: Nic, Bryce, Kasumi, me, Emma, Dan, Marion, Ben).

Friday, 14 August 2009

A walk around my home in Japan

Enjoy my iffy video-editing!

A day at home

I went into my BoE today to discover all but two staff members had taken the day off as holiday. I was informed that this weekend was Obon, the Japanese festival of the dead (blog coming soon), and that I could take the day off.

I'm now by the screen door or my front room, fan blowing gently, listening to the wonderful sounds of the Japanese inaka outside. My current state of mind is so incredibly peaceful and relaxed right now. I can hear the little stream outside my window trickling gently, as well as birds, cicada's and other wee beasties making their calls and cries.

As you can see in the photo above, the view is wonderfully green and tranquil. The green is a paddy of ina (rice plants; the processed grain is called gohan). The little drainage stream is between the ina and the dried grass in the foreground. In the background you can see some Japanese homes in my village.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Onigiri and Enkai


Yesterday morning I visited my elementary school to join in with the opening festivities. In truth I spent much of my time running around being chased by dozens of children. We eventually took a break to make our own onigiri (rice balls with filling), my choice of fillings being flaked fish and salmon, and sat down to eat them with chunks of tomato and cucumber with miso dip. Mmm, oishi deshita!


In Japan it is traditionally to have a party, or enkai, for new staff members. Typically these are an opportunity for people to let their hair down and go a bit crazy, the bottom line being that what goes on at the enkai is not mentioned afterwards. No doubt many people have gotten in trouble before. It is often mentioned that coworkers 'open up' at these parties whereas they can be shy or retiring in other social or work situations.

My enkai was held last night at a Japanese restaurant bar in Iida. Plates upon plates of food were brought out, my favourite being three types of katsu (deep-fried cutlet), kagi (chicken), and edamame (a type of pea). These were washed down with plenty of Asahi beer, sake (rice wine) and Argentinian red wine. In Japan it is traditional to fill a cup or mug when it looks a little empty, so you can imagine how the party played out. Thankfully my colleagues all seem genuinely open and amiable anyway, so it didn't get too crazy.


In the UK the worst natural disasters we have to deal with are usually floods, politicians or over-abundant patriotism, but at 5.07am Tokyo time this morning I was rudely awoken by an earthquake measuring around 5.0 on the richter scale. According to wikipedia it would take approx. 32 kilotonnes of TNT to reproduce a similar force.

The quake lasted maybe 20-25 seconds and felt as though a giant hand had grasped my little house and shook it. Nothing fell over or was damaged thankfully, I just sat there in my bed swaying with the house and wondering what the heck was going on.

I've barely lived here a week and already the experiences are mounting up.

Update: According to reports the epicentre was 20km below Shizuoka prefecture, which borders Nagano. I live to the north-east of the epicentre and in the red zone on the map above.

Monday, 10 August 2009

My new car

Unlike a lot of rural JETs my house is so rurally-placed there are no buses or trains at all nearby, so today I opened a rent-account with a local garage. My new car is an automatic silver Mitsubishi Lancer (see pic).

The transaction itself was an experience! Picture four Japanese people with limited English skills trying to convert a Japanese contract for a guy who doesn't know any 'business' Japanese... it was surreal in a way, but we all thankfully saw the funny side of it.

To my delight I discovered the payments I'm now making cover collision insurance, tax, shaken (2-yr MOT), tyre changes (for winter driving) and general maintenance. I'm just glad I only had to sign one lot of papers.

So finally I have some freedom. Iida City here I come.

"Welcome to Japan" news


6.9 magnitude earthquake shakes central and northern Japan, Aug. 9th
At 7:56pm, August 9th (JST), an earthquake measuring at a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale shook central and northern Japan. The earthquake's epicenter was located south of Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean and at a depth of 211 miles, according to Japan Meteorological Agency. No reports of damage or injury have been issued yet, but bullet trains heading north from Tokyo were briefly stopped.

12 killed, 10 missing as typhoon hits Japan, Aug. 10th
A typhoon slammed into Japan's west coast on Monday, bringing heavy rain that triggered floods and landslides and left at least 12 people dead and another 10 reported missing. Typhoon Etau killed 11 people in Hyogo prefecture, around 310 miles (500 kilometers) west of Tokyo, police official Shigekazu Kamenobu said. He could not provide details but said many were caught in raging waters.

If I hadn't read this on a Japanese news site I wouldn't even have known about it. I hope all new JETs in these prefectures aren't too shaken up. Although I'm sure Nagano isn't earthquake-proof we are quite far from the sea, so will hopefully never experience the typhoon or the tsunami firsthand.

My new Keitai (cellphone)

On Friday I managed to secure myself a means of communication, the Casio Exilim W63CA camera flip phone... jeez what a mouthful!

Although the phone has an English setting, for which I am very grateful, the manuals and user guides are all in Japanese. Before coming to Japan I have many-a-time bought a new electronic gizmo and quickly passed over the Japanese part of the user guide. Now it's the only option available to me. I'm sure there's irony here somewhere.

The Keitai boasts a whopping 8.1 megapixel camera with a variety of anti-shake and image capture options, all of which don't particularly concern me really, as I brought a fairly decent camera with me. What is interesting however, is the built-in TV, the Japanese-English/English-Japanese dictionary, the barcode scanner, the infra-red data transfer device, and option of two different email modes. Phew! It goes without saying that the dictionary has been the most useful so far, as well as the infra-red data transfer device.

On the downside it doesn't recognise my macbook as a valid bluetooth device, nor can I seem to find the usb port to transfer my data to my macbook (yes, it does come with a cable!).

Everyday things are such a wonder when you have no idea what they do.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Iida apple festival - りんごん!

I had my first real taste of Japanese festivals last night with Iida city's annual apple festival, Ringon Matsuri (りんごんまつり). The city is known for the apple trees which line it's streets, and as such has adopted the apple as it's symbol. Every year 10,000 people take to the streets, dressed in their various groups' (defined by place of work, sport team, and so on) outfits.

We arrived in the early afternoon to take a look around the various festival stalls; sampled the various foods as takoyaki (octopus), chocolate bananas, ika on a stick (squid) and grilled soy corncobs. After a few beers and a quick tutorial from Bryce, our block leader, we were ready to do the Ringon dance.

For the next 2 hours we pranced up and down the main streets in the city centre, chanting "ringon ringon", cheering the 10,000 locals and admiring the various groups' team outfits. I saw ninja, giants mascots, clowns, etc... which made our 'costumes' of apple bandanas seem rather tame, but at least we added to the colour. Beer and sake flowed, we danced some more, and a great time was had by all.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

I'm living in Japan!

Finally I have internet! Finally someone has thrown a light down the technological well in which I seem to have sat for two days. Ok, perhaps that's a little melodramatic.

So 'what is Japan like?', I hear you cry! Right well, let's break this entry into a few sections to help me deal with the experience rollercoaster I've been strapped to this past week.


After a tense but uneventful 12 hour flight, all new JET ALTs arrive in Tokyo Narita last Sunday and were systematically ferried to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo's Shinjuku ward, a bustling and vibrant part of the megacity. A 2 day orientation followed, throughout which waves of information - detailing how to get on in Japan, social faux pas's, expectations, customs, and so much more - were set upon us. During these two days we were turned loose on Tokyo in the evening.

Monday night was prefecturial night, so I got to meet all new JETs bound for Nagano, as well our PAs, all of whom are friendly and ultra-helpful. First we headed to a great restaurant for a selection of Japanese delicacies. If gives you a rough idea of how tall the city is when most restaurants are only accessible by lift/elevator. After food we headed to a karaoke bar, where our big group crammed in and sung the night away.

On Tuesday night UK JETs got to visit the embassy in Chiyoda-ku. Food and drink was provided throughout the evening, during which our host (the Vice-Ambassador to Japan) gave a speech and wished us well. We also had to the chance to sample Taiko - Japanese-style drumming - so naturally I stepped up and made some noise!


On Wednesday it was departure day. All Nagano JETs and PAs piled into our own coach and headed to our new homes. A big cheer ensued when we crossed the border into Nagano, and we soon stopped for lunch in Suwa, where our rest-stop lunch overlooked an amazing lake and mountain range. It was at this point it started sinking in just how wonderfully picturesque my new home was going to be. Aside from the views it became inavoidably obviously how incredibly humid the Japanese summers are. Stepping off the an airconditioned coach was like stepping into a blast furnace.

A short while later I arrived at my stop and awaited a representative from my Board of Education, my new employer. UK JET Ben and USA JET Nic - two guys I've met throughout this initial journey - are living in the area near me, and so disembarked at this point too. A few minutes later I was met by my Junior High School Principal - Makoto-san - and BoE Supervisor - Masami-san - and we left for my village in the south of Nagano.

JETs are often told they may be the only foreigner in the area they live and work in, and so may become somewhat of a celebrity among the community. I didn't realise just how true this was until I arrived in my village. I was immediately introduced to my BoE colleagues, the village Mayor and Vice-Mayor, school colleagues, and anyone else who happened to be walking by. Makoto-san and Masami-san seemed impressed I could manage a decent self-introduction in Japanese and so ensured I spoke to as many people as possible!

Masami-san came back to my home (up the mountains around my village) to translate the Japanese on my appliances and utensils etc, and took me out to get my first load of food shopping. At this point I didn't have the internet so I was feeling somewhat isolated and quite homesick.

On Thursday I met Bryce, my block leader here in the south around Iida City. To say the guy is a legend is an understatement. He helped me sort my bank account, personal papers, keitei (cellphone) and took me and Ben out for lunch and shopping in Iida.

Yesterday (Friday) I visited one of my Elementary Schools for the first time. You'd have thought Superman or Batman walked in when those kids turned around! I was an instant hit, with the kids pulling me around, wanting to play with me, and calling me Paul(poru)-sensei. I was then taken out to lunch by 2 of my BoE colleagues, Naoshi-san and Hiro-san, who spent the lunchtime helping me with my Japanese.

To conclude this first Japanese blog entry, I cannot express how incredibly lucky I feel to be here. Everyone I know is polite, helpful, and so wonderfully accommodating. Masami-san is a gem, and has been taking me out food shopping until I get my car next week. Her english is better than my Japanese, so between the 2 of us we manage to communicate in both languages. To top that off, I feel my Japanese improving already.

The area I live in is so breathtakingly-beautiful, I can barely believe it. It's like something out of a fantasy movie. Just the other day I came out of a supermarket with Masami-san and the view of mist pouring off the surrounding mountains literally dropped my jaw. I will post a blog soon with pics and video.

My home is Japanese-modern and really really nice, with the traditional entrance (take your shoes off!) and tatami-mat rooms. Again, I will post a blog soon with pics and video.

I'm so glad to be here!