Monday, 31 January 2011

Round 1

Round 1: Ding ding!

The end of January saw Molly's birthday being celebrated up north in Nagano city. After a delightful (tasty) party at a restaurant we continued our evening at Round 1, a large games area. You pay your flat fee at the door and continue through to more games than you can comfortably imagine: arcade games, shooting, archery, golf, tennis, batting cages, curling, bowling, mechanical bulls, rollerskating, mini-scooters, playparks (yes!)... I can't remember the rest! Great fun, and seeing as you've already paid your fee you feel obliged to act like a child for the night.

The Nagano Olympic Building (from Paddy's apartment).

Friday, 28 January 2011

Daikan and Rishun


According to a teacher at one of my schools, 19th January was "Daikan," 大寒 ("big cold"), and was supposedly the coldest day of the year. Ten days later and having repaired my cracked shower head no less than three times due to it freezing over night, I'm going to disagree with that speculation. Last years coldest point was early-mid February, and due to this year's winter being far more severe, I'll further speculate that I'm going to find more than just my shower sponge frozen solid in the mornings to come.


According to another teacher at a different school, 4th February is "Rishun," 立春 (first day of spring). I can't say I have much faith in this named day either. It is bitterly, bitterly cold in Nagano prefecture at the moment and every night falls very uncomfortably below 0 degrees. For the past two weeks I've been making my breakfast in the kitchen at a balmy -4 degrees, which wakes you up something awful. Amusingly, I wake in the morning to a bedroom temperature of about freezing, maybe a couple of degrees under, scuttle into the kitchen to make breakfast, then scuttle back again, only to find the bedroom temperature rather acceptable in comparison. Small mercies, and all that. It doesn't stop me using my glorious kerosene heater, though.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Climate bubbles & more cake!

On Saturday it snowed. Quite a lot. But not in my village. Not a flake. I crossed Ajimabashi to Iida and everything was white, as though an invisible barrier over the Tenryu river was stopping the snow in it's path. A climate bubble, no less.

The view from Maruyama park. Note the abundance of snow in the foreground and absence of it in the background.

On Sunday it was still snowing (across the river) so I wrapped up warm and headed out to one of my favourite parks in the area, Maruyama 丸山 in Takamori 高森, stopping on the way to buy a really cozy wool hat! I'm wild like that. I sat in the park watching families strap their cute toddlers to sleds and fire them down the hill before pulling out a book and taking some time to avoid this reality for a while. When the chill wind became a bit too bitey for my taste I retreated to the little cafe at the top of the park, where I sat and warmed myself by the stove as I scoffed cake and a Guatemalan coffee. And had another read, of course.

The taste of Guatemala! And other places too!

Fruity bridges In Takamori...

Apples design on bridge

Pear design on bridge

Persimmons design on bridge

Photo Exhibition

Last week the art teacher at my school asked me to submit some artwork for a local exhibition of art teachers' work, which was flattering to say the least. I selected three photos and mounted them in frames, and on Saturday went along to the venue (in the thick snow) to check out the rest of the exhibits. It was smaller than I'd previously thought, but packed with some varied and interesting works from local teachers. I was proud to be a part of it.

Photo's 1 and 2 I mounted in the same frame and called it "Country of contrast." Photo 1 is from the 2010 Nozawaonsen fire festival. Rural Japan is, certainly where I live, very quiet and peaceful, and I was struck at the time by how "violent" the festival entertain was. Looking back at my photos I was reminded of the show and shortlisted the photo from a few others. Photo 2 is from a tea ceremony I went to in Autumn 2009. The sakura in the bottom of the tea cup looked so peaceful and serene, and when combined with the fire festival photo seemed to conjure up a contrasting snapshot of Japanese culture.

"Country of contrast."

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3 is ok a tree that stands next to the swimming pool at my Junior High. I walk past it every day from the carpark to the school building and every day I take a good long look at it. Subsequently I have been taking shots of it in all types of weather and of course the four seasons; I expect I'll be making a photo composition of them sometime this year. This particular shot is from September 2010 I think.

I called it "A safe place."

Photo 3

At the exhibition

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Winter at my door

After a really enjoyable Christmas at home I travelled back in my little village in the mountains last Saturday. Suffice to say it's rather cold here. People back home moan that the UK is cold, but if they had to get up in the morning and make their porridge in a kitchen that was -4C they'd soon change their tune. That or wake in the night to -7C.

When I got back last week I was rather bemused to find my toilet, shower and taps had all frozen, despite me turning the water off before I went back to the UK. Thankfully all is ok now except my washing machine, the pipe of which now leaks unless I turn it off after using it. Doh!

After several nights of waking up in the depths of the night shivering I cursed myself when it took a member of my eikaiwa on Tuesday to remind me I had a heater built into my aircon unit. After that little discovery I have now been sleeping rather well. Sod the electricity bill, I want my warm blood warm!

Heading home for the holidays

Fuji in the distance (click for larger image)

My carriage awaiting


Just before Christmas I passed my 6th kyu Karate test.

I also passed Part 1 (of 6) of the CLAIR Beginners Japanese Course. I'm retaking it because I failed last year for sending in a result too late. Oops.

After submitting photos for the JET Calendar Competition last July I'm pleased to say one of my pics has been selected for the 2011 Calendar. My "Snow tree" pic, taken last January in Nozawaonsen is the photo for January. I was rather chuffed to walk into school last week and see the teachers had put a copy of the calendar up with a congratulatory note. Thankyou Vice-Principal.

Komagane Silk Museum

A week before I flew home to the UK for Christmas I joined a delightful trip organised by a JET CIR in Ina 伊那. After making mochi and eating said mochi we all visited the famous silk museum in Komagane 駒ヶ根市. It was really interesting to find out about the culture and history surrounding the silk making industry in Japan, and some of the work on display was really beautiful.

I took a moment to speak to one of the guides and she told me that "many, many years ago" (around 3000 BC) China's method of silk production was a violently-guarded secret. Indeed anyone revealing the secret of smuggling silkworms or eggs outside of China was put to death. However, it eventually reached Korea and then Japan with Chinese emigrants, and Komagane in Nagano was a hub of silk-production. Every household in the area had a loom downstairs and silkworms upstairs and this was a way of life for the people.

Christmas letters

For my last day before Christmas at my smaller elementary school I decided to give my kids a treasure hunt of sorts. I prepared some origami envelopes the night before, putting a funky sticker into each one and adding my stamp/seal to the tops. I went in to school the next morning a little earlier than usual, and without anyone knowing went around the school hiding the envelopes. I thought it might be something a few kids would enjoy at breaktime.

The first two lessons went by and all teachers returned to the staffroom for morning break and a good chinwag. I was sat enjoying a coffee and a biscuit when a teacher rushed in, an expression I misinterpreted as concern on her face. She turned directly to me and rapid-fired something in Japanese at me. Despite the coffee my brain was still in "morning" mode, and the only word I understood was "gift." She was now smiling widely and looked elated. The brief sudden feeling of unease was swept away, and my sweat glands stood down from red alert. She then sprung into a rapid report to the staffroom of how all the kids in the school were tearing around trying to find coloured envelopes with my name on the front. The staffroom mood lifted from 'every day happy' to 'something wonderful is happening happy' and I was told how kind and thoughtful I was. I think I managed a sheepish shrug: I didn't give it lots of thought, I just thought it would be fun.

Of course, Newton was a bright spark, and every action does indeed have a reaction. That reaction is dozens of my kids now clinging to my limbs as I walk through school, begging me to tell them when I'm going to do it again. They make me laugh so much I cry! I couldn't do it every day, but I love teaching my elementary kids!

Coffee and cake

On a bright and sunny day at the beginning of December, Marion and I headed up to Iijima 飯島 to a rather delightful bakery. After selecting a coffee and a wonderful piece of cake each we sat outside in the sun, admiring the snow-capped mountains around us and the cake right before us. A really peaceful (and tasty) afternoon.


Since I first arrived here a year and a half ago, I've found myself drawn to the bridge (named Ajimabashi 阿島橋) that connects my village to the local city of Iida 飯田. As far as bridges go it's nothing special, bright orange paint over a girder-like construct. However, it's the view that the bridge offers as I drive across it that allows me to enjoy it. The view north along the Tenryugawa 天竜川 ("heavenly dragon river") as it winds southwards between the Chuo (central) and Minami (southern) Alps always makes me rather wistful and dreamy, which is a genuine danger as my car hurtles across the bridge toward oncoming cars. Anyway, a few weeks ago I parked my car on one side and took a pic of the bridge itself at dusk.


In November I made a conscious effort to try and cook something distinctively Japanese at home. I love my ma's homemade stew so opted for the Japanese Nikujaga 肉じゃが (lit. "meat and potatoes"). Although a really easy meal to make, I was surprised that I managed to make it almost perfectly the first time around. Since then I've made it several times in a big pot, enough to last me several days at a time. For anyone who is interested in making it I've added the recipe below. Quantity depends on servings, but the amounts below should give 3-4 modest portions:

Big pack of thin, sliced pork
3-4 large potatoes
3 med-large carrots
2 large onions
1-2 Sachets of Dashi stock (either seaweed or fish-based, although I use the fish)
Soy sauce (1/4 cup)
Mirin (1/8 cup or more as desired)
Sugar (optional, as the Mirin is 40-50% sugar anyway. I don't add extra sugar)
Konyaku noodles (optional, but I don't use them. If you do, add them last)
Pepper/other spices (optional)

Boil the pork briefly on high heat first to get rid of any excess fat. Get rid of the water and add pork to pot. Add potatoes (peeled and cut into chunks), carrots (sliced), onion (again, large chunks) and some water. Bear in mind the veg will cook in their own juices. Add dashi, soy and mirin, stirring all the time. If the stew needs more water add some. I usually add some pepper or other spices. Cooking time should take 40-60 mins from the beginning, so a reasonably quick meal and delicious too!

X-Files greenhouses

Good grief I've been slack with the blogging! Things happened in December, really, I was just too preoccupied with heading home for Christmas to think about recording them. Ok, let's rack the memory a little. Photos will help.

Winter came in hard like a hammer towards the end of last year. The summer was hot and long and cold nights didn't start creeping in until the beginning of December. Autumn was short and sweet, unlike 2009. And even after that the majority of the days leading up to Christmas were bright and the sun warm.

The pic below is one in a row of greenhouses that I pass on my drive into the city. At night I drive back along this road (usually from the Karate dojo) and the greenhouses are lit up eerily, like something out of Mulder's dreams. Presumably the veggies inside are being given extra light/heat now that summer has faded. For ages I'd been telling myself I was going to get a picture or two, then one night I remembered my camera and stopped. This part of the village is rather isolated (like most of it, really) and no one was around. As I pulled over my headlights reflected in the eyes of tanuki (raccoon dog) as it foraged beside the road. I was half expecting to find it in the car when I got back in after taking the pic.