Monday, August 31, 2009

Yukata know when to hold 'em...

I'm having a quiet day here, so here comes the second update of the day. Before you start worrying that I'm just sitting around alone every day feeling miserable, let me reassure you that today is the first day I've had completely to myself in quite some time. It's been good to catch up on some housekeeping - I've shaved my head, tidied up a bit, even cracked out the vacuum cleaner. Tatami mats are easier than carpets to hoover. I'm finally becoming a proper adult, what with this and ironing shirts for work.

It's raining heavily outside. Apparently we have a new prime minister, but since I don't watch the news (it's in Japanese) the only way the election has affected me at all is the cars that drive around all day blaring out electioneering messages. To someone who can neither vote nor understand Japanese, this is quite an annoyance.

My left calf is painfully sunburnt from sports day yesterday. Somehow I neglected to suncream this region. In a way I'm glad I did, because it's really vindicated the effort of applying suncream everywhere else. From what I can gather, the Japanese just don't use suncream. I got quite a few funny looks from the kids when I was putting it on. While Asian skin is undoubtedly more robust to sunlight than Caucasian, they can't be completely immune, since I did notice a few pink necks by the end of the day.

Well, that's the scene set so I'll go back to recounting the past. On my second friday in Japan I went to see the fireworks in Yamagata City, with my quasi-supervisor / guardian angel Hosokawa-san. The capital of the prefecture is an Aberdeen-sized city and is about half an hour away from my town by train. The trains here are cheap and efficient, my only complaint being that they inconveniently stop running at around 9pm. Anyway, the Japanese take their fireworks seriously - a staggering number of people were heading for the display, meaning that the final kilometer or so of our taxi ride from the station proceeded at roughly walking pace. When we finally got there, there were big tarpaulins laid out on the ground, taped off into numbered sections. Families would sit on their assigned section (having taken their shoes off at the edge of the tarp, naturally) and eat picnics. For couples there were romantic twin deck-chairs. Coming from the UK, I was stunned that people were obedient enough for this system to work. Nobody attempted to encroach on neighbouring areas, even if they were empty. It was incredible.

We met up with Hosokawa's family, and his wife had prepared a delicious picnic platter, which he and I enjoyed whilst drinking beer and chu-hai (something I would consider to be a girly fruit drink, but is drunk by self-respecting men here, and at 8% alcohol, is substantially stronger than beer) at a frantic pace. Boy, do the Japanese like to drink quickly. I suppose when the trains stop so early you have to really.

The fireworks lasted about two hours. Two hours! After a big opening, there seemed to be a lot of expository commentary going with the middle section. From what I could gather, they were explaining the different kinds of fireworks and demonstrating each one in its own mini-display, so that we could better appreciate the artistry of the finale. I think there might have been something about fireworks representing different prefectures or something as well. The finale was suitably impressive, but Hosokawa was very keen to beat the rush leaving, so we missed the very end, but caught our train.

The following evening was Bon-Odori, the climax of the Bon festival. I met up with my fellow civil servants at the town library and was treated to a snack (an eclectic mix of riceballs, pickled aubergine and cucumber, and spaghetti and pizza, the last of which I went beyond the call of duty on, by eating with chopsticks) and lots of beer. We then donned yukata (light summer kimono) complete with conical straw hats decorated with flowers which we slung across our backs. I felt a bit racist wearing such a hat, but there you go. Suitably attired, we made our way to main street, which was once again closed to traffic and lined with spectators.

We took our place in the parade along with teams of yukata-wearing people representing various other local organisations. Then we danced. I hadn't been instructed on the dancing beforehand, so I just tried to copy the people next to me as best I could. There was a complicated dance involving the hats, a fast but very repetitive one that involved waving your hands around in the air (I fear I did it as if I very much did care), and a slow but intricate one with lots of clapping. Between dances, members of our team would run around pouring beer and supplying pickles in a manner reminiscent of physios attending to injured footballers. Dancing in the heat and humidity was thirsty work, so I drank enthusiastically. Perhaps I was making it thirstier work than it needed to be; people were laughing at me for adopting a bouncy skipping movement in the faster dances, but I liked to think of it as bringing a bit of Scottish dance flavour to proceedings.

I'm not clear or whether it was a competitive event, but we came away with a certificate and a big bottle of something, which people seemed pleased about. I can't imagine that we won - there were teams there that looked like they really knew what they were doing; we looked like a bunch of drunk civil servants. Anyway, spirits were high as we returned to the library for more snacks (they'd been saving the sashimi) and many more drinks. Unable to participate usefully in many conversations, I had a moment of clarity after about an hour and realised I was very drunk, and it was time to get my yukata-wearing ass back home. Good times.

Shake your bon-bon

I have the day off today, because I was at sports day all of yesterday. I shall take this opportunity to continue catching up. Thankfully, things quietened down a bit from the second week onwards, so hopefully I can actually start narrating faster than real time.

I spent my first weekend exploring my new town, on bike and on foot. I think people thought I was a bit odd to go walking in the rain at night, but it was so hot that I was relishing the rain. I took my first solo trips to the supermarket. This was quite daunting at first. The fresh foods in particular are very different to what I'm used to, with countless varieties of seafood but the humble apple nowhere to be seen. And of course, I can't read any labels. So, my first shopping trip took upwards of an hour to buy maybe seven or eight items. There are Western foods I sorely miss - I've yet to discover tortillas, bagels or muffins in any of my town's three supermarkets, but I very much like the Japanese approach to convenience food. A vast section of the supermarket is devoted to bento boxes, onigiri, yakitori, tempura and sushi. The yakitori are very greasy and probably best avoided, but the sushi is tasty and indecently cheap compared to the UK.

Because the schools were on summer holiday, I spent my working week at city hall. I had very little to do, but was expected to put in a full 8-hour day. Now, that's an easy sentence to write, but imagine the reality of that for a moment. I was in this very formal environment, surrounded by busy-looking Japanese people, with sweet FA to fill my day. I studied Japanese in the mornings, but I find you hit a wall after a couple of hours. I prepared my self intro lesson. Thankfully I had internet access at my desk (a luxury I'm lacking now that I'm at a school), but I felt that while checking email was legit, writing this blog would be a bit too cheeky.

The latter part of that week was the Bon festival, or Day of the Dead. It's a Buddhist custom where people remember their deceased ancestors, but it's not as sombre as it sounds - this remembrance appears to be achieved through eating, boozing and dancing. People come back to the bosoms of their families, so my small rural town's population swelled, as it seems to be the kind of place youngsters can't wait to get out of.

On the wednesday, my supervisor mysteriously told me "you should go out tonight". I took his advice and after a slightly terrifying jaunt through a forest teeming with wildlife (which I wasn't 100% sure wasn't venomous) I re-emerged in Akayu town to the sight of fireworks and the sound of taiko drums. I followed these cues, and found myself at a street party beside a pond with lots of floating lanterns, and one big lantern bearing the image of the recently deceased King of Pop. In a display of Louis Theroux-style outgoingness that I'm still quite proud of, I strode into the festival. I stood on my own watching the taiko and looking white for a few minutes, and then someone greeted me in very broken English, led me to the bar, and before I knew it I had a beer on the house poured for me. "In for a penny, in for a pound" I thought, and pulled up a chair beside some middle-aged guys.

My Japanese is abysmal and their English wasn't much better, so we had some fairly painful chat; explaining that someone was someone else's grandfather pushed our communication to the limit. I kept drinking beer (I think refills were free) and eating snacks, and gradually people who spoke better English were beckoned over and encouraged to act as interpreters. Now, a word about these snacks. Edamame - baby soy beans - are ubiquitous here, serving as both side salad and beer snack. I was struggling to eat the damn things, finding them bland, tough and chewy. About a week after Bon, someone explained to me that you pop the beans out and throw away the fibrous outer pod. Sure enough, this makes them a lot more palatable. You'd think someone could have demonstrated this move to me - it doesn't really require any verbal communication - but I guess watching a gaijin chew on soy bean pods was just too amusing. Or maybe they assumed I knew, and was just hardcore.

The party wound up about nine, and I strolled off in a homeward direction. At this point I discovered that the shindig by the pond was only a small satellite party; Akayu main street was closed to traffic and filled with revelers. I wandered around, watching a talented kid simultaneously sing and rollerskate, then admiring a collection of ice sculptures (remember, the temperature is comfortably in the mid 20s even at night). Once I'd seen the entertainments on offer, I once again tried the trick of standing around looking conspicuously foreign, and within minutes a drunk family had given me a drink and invited me to join them. The configuration of this group cause much confusion to me; I think I charmed them by confusing a mother and daughter for sisters (the mother jokingly told me she was 28, and being totally unable to guess the age of Asians, I believed her), but then immediately undid this smoothness by thinking her husband was her father. Apparently the daughter was Miss Yamagata, but I'm taking that with a big pinch of salt. They took me to an izakaya (Japanese style pub) where they gave me yakitori and yet more drink, and finally back to theirs for a final sake and riceball for the road.

By this time it was after 11 and I had to be in the office for half eight the next morning. While it probably is unprofessional to show up hungover at this early stage in a job, I felt that my behaviour was justified in terms of cultural exchange. Unfortunately the next morning was spent touring my various schools and meeting their teachers, and the winding mountain roads between them were not good for my churning innards. But I'm still glad I took part in Bon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My first week, continued

My teaching debut is tomorrow. I was feeling nervous, but then I remembered that I actually taught kids of this age before, in my attempts to popularise informatics - in some fairly rough schools in West Lothian, no less. So I should be ok. I just have to remember to speak slowly and avoid contractions. Like Lt Commander Data.

Alright, back to my first few days here. Just attending to all the basic requirements for life in a new country was pretty time consuming and stressful. I had to apply for my Alien Registration Card (aka gaijin card), get a hanko (a personal stamp used instead of a signature), open a bank account, sign a lease and negotiate rent arrangements, get a keitai (mobile phone), look into getting a car, etc, etc. Getting a phone was surprisingly difficult - because I didn't yet have my gaijin card, they wouldn't let me have a contract (we discovered this after about an hour of choosing phones and packages). So I have a crappy prepay phone for now. I'm a little upset not to have an all-singing-all-dancing Japanese phone, but at least it's cheap - the contract deals sounded a lot more expensive than they would be in the UK.

In amongst all this admin I was introduced to many people, most notably the mayor of Nanyo. He seemed like a bit of a joker but still had a very imposing presence, although maybe anyone would give that impression if everyone else in the room was falling over themselves to bow at them. From what I could gather he was very into sports, and athletics in particular. He suggested I take part in a 'marathon' in October. I didn't think it prudent to decline his offer. Fortunately, I'm informed that it's just a 10k or something with a rather grandiose name. A bit like Nanyo City itself I suppose, with its 35,000 inhabitants.

I was also taken to nearby towns' Boards of Education to meet other ALTs, and I met a very passionate and lively man who runs a museum here in Nanyo. Needless to say, my self intro was getting a lot of outings. On thursday I had the honour of taking part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This is a truly baffling custom which raises the simple act of making a cup of tea to an elaborate hyper-formal ritual (thank the Lord it's green tea, so there isn't any milk to worry about). Being merely a consumer of tea, my scope for embarrassment was limited, but still considerable. For a start, one is supposed to kneel throughout the whole ceremony, but my Western legs honestly can't take more than about a minute of kneeling - after around 20 seconds my face starts to turn crimson. So I sat cross-legged like a big stoopid foreigner. Possibly because I was the guest of honour, I was first to receive my tea. This was not a good thing, as it meant I had nobody to copy. My interpreter for the day was next to me, but seemed pretty clueless on the whole tea ceremony rigmarole. This somewhat reassured me: if even Japanese people had no idea what was going on, I didn't feel so bad about my ignorance. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would take up tea ceremony as a hobby - it must be about as relaxing as a driving test.

I must admit, on thursday it all got a bit on top of me. Having seen the mayor and been to the tea ceremony, we met the landlord and estate agent, and I quickly realised the thousand pounds in cash I'd taken with me wasn't going to be enough to cover my startup costs. The rate at which I was handing over money made me feel very anxious. Then we went to the car rental place. Due to a combination of jetlag, exhaustion, shock, hangover and possible even a little heat-stroke, I was starting to feel faint. They wanted me to take the car out for a test-drive, but I really didn't feel mentally able to get behind the wheel on Japanese roads at that point. So I said no, I didn't feel up to it. They were nice about it, but I couldn't help but feel that they were wondering what sort of wuss they had as a new ALT. I tried to get out of going out for dinner that night, but they talked me into going for a quiet meal and a couple of drinks. I'm glad I went; it was a good way to relax, and you really see a different side of people once they're off duty and having a beer.

By the end of friday the most pressing issues had been sorted out, and it was time for my official enkai, or welcoming party. This was to be held at what seemed like a pretty upmarket sushi restaurant. I was sat in the position of maximum prestige, in the centre of the top table. Either side of me were VIPs; on my left a former head of education (I think), and on my right an ex-newsreader. I must have looked quite uptight, as people kept telling me to relax. Given the company, the formality of the occasion, the fact that all eyes were on me, and that I was sans interpreter for the first time, I feel some nervousness was justified. I gave a deluxe version of my Japanese self intro, adding the lines "I like sushi very much. Tuna is my favourite", which my interpreter had taught me earlier, to keep it topical. Once that was out of the way, I loosened up a little. The food was excellent. I had my first experience of sukiyaki, and didn't balk at dipping it in raw egg. Someone tried to tell me to down the egg when I was finished, but I think they might have been taking the piss - surely that would make one actually vomit? I declined.

The beer flowed freely. People kept topping up my glass (one must never pour their own drink) even when it was clearly already full. I thought I was doing well knowing the don't-pour-your-own-drink rule, but I got busted for having an impolite pouring style: one must hold the bottle with both hands, and indeed do likewise with the glass when one is receiving. I've been doing this ever since, but found out at the weekend that this is overkill when among friends, and I therefore looked like a raving ponce. More and more dishes kept being brought out, and several hours into proceedings they produced the tuna's head (the rest of it having been made into the sushi and sashimi we'd eaten) and carved it up in front of us before dishing it out. 'The best part', I was told. Thankfully, it had been cooked, and it was in fact pretty tasty.

As my drunkenness increased, so did my propensity to optimistically start conversations in English. In quite a touching gesture, someone had brought along printouts of the Japanese Wikipedia pages for Edinburgh, Inverness, Scotland, Edinburgh University, etc. which I gesticulated and doodled wildly over, trying to explain ambitious concepts like the difference between Islay and Speyside malts.

Eventually the time came to move the party to the karaoke place across the street. Unlike Britain, where one has to subject an entire pub to one's vocal stylings, the more considerate Japanese have small private rooms. About 10 of us occupied one of these rooms, where we drank yet more beer, and very unnecessarily ate pizza. Although only a tiny fraction of the library was in English, I was still left with hundreds of songs to choose from. I opened up with my old standby of Radiohead's 'Creep', but without Singstar's visual feedback there really is a lot of scope for singing an entire song several notes out of key. Well, there is if you're me. Somebody requested I sing 'Beat it', and while I liked the sentiment of paying tribute to the late King of Pop, it really was a very difficult song to inflict upon an unsuspecting noob. I think my best song of the night was 'Complicated' (Lavigne was curiously overrepresented - if Martian anthropologists only had a Japanese karaoke catalogue to go on, they would conclude that Avril made roughly the same contribution to English-language music as the Beatles). When I grabbed the second mic to forcibly duet on someone's rendition of tATu's 'All the things she said', I realised I had drunk too much. Good times.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Maglev sushi

I think I'm starting to get the hang of this place. I've just been for a successful jaunt into town. First I managed to get some money from an ATM. This might not sound like much, but cash machines are not nearly as commonplace here as in the UK. Furthermore, they're not open 24 hours, inexplicably. So, having found my bank, I had to navigate the kanji menus to get my cash. I got paid yesterday - always nice to see a six-figure balance.

Then for lunch I went on my first solo trip to Kappa Sushi, the cheapest conveyor belt sushi restaurant in town. A couple of women from the office took me there last week because I'd made my fondness for both sushi and thrift known. Now, Kappa Sushi is awesome. Obviously they have endlessly looping sushi for you to grab at, but for the more choosy customer they have touchscreen terminals at every table which allow you to select your dish. When you do this, a few minutes later a red button beside you starts flashing, heralding the approach of a little bullet train bearing your sushi. I think it might actually be maglev based on the way it glides along. It stops at your table, you take the food, and then press the red button to send it home again. After an initial hiccup with this protocol, I was ordering sushi with gay abandon by the end of my visit. So gay was my abandon that I'd soon racked up seven plates, but since everything (bar a few speciality items, like beer or tiramisu) is 100yen (plus 5% tax) I only spent about a fiver. And unlimited green tea is free!

When I came with the office ladies, they kept banging on about 'handbag sushi', saying I would like it; my predecessor liked it. I had no idea what they were on about, since the language barrier was considerable. I tracked down the item they were talking about - nigiri with a mysterious flat brown object on top of it - on my touchscreen and ordered it up. As the train pulled up to Finlay Central, I realised what it was: 'hanbaagu' meant 'hamburger' - it was rice with tiny little beef patties atop it, complete with a dollop of mayonnaise. Fusion cuisine at its finest.

I rounded off my trip by buying a toaster. Not a standard issue item in a Japanese house, you see, but I decided that I had to beef up my breakfasts, since now that I have a proper job my breakfast-to-lunch interval is about twice as long as it used to be, and a bowl of cereal really won't cut it. Speaking of which, people keep asking me what I have for breakfast. When I tell them cereal, they look amazed and delighted, as if all the rumours they've heard about these crazy gaijin are true. Apparently everyone here eats rice and miso soup for breakfast, which I have no objection to in principle, but just seems like a lot of hassle for the ungodly hour at which I have to rise. Maybe I need to investigate my rice cooker.

I meant to just say what I'd been up to today as a preamble to continuing the story of my arrival, but it seems I've gone on a bit. Oh well, I'll put it in another post soon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hello from Japan!

Today I got internet access set up in my house, so I can now do all the things that I felt were a little too frivolous for City Hall, the only place I could previously get online. Straight away, I uploaded some pictures to flickr - please use the widget to the right and have a look. Now, I shall make my first proper post to this blog.

Tempting though it is to adopt a Memento-style narrative, for the sake of clarity, I guess I'll start at the beginning. I arrived, jetlagged, in Tokyo 16 days ago. From Narita Airport I was very efficiently herded onto a bus by an army of JET assistants, and taken to the super swanky Keio Plaza Hotel. My first task was to go out and find some food. I went with another Edinburgh-departing JET to Yoshinoya, which I vaguely knew to be a popular, cheap Japanese-style fast food chain. Staring at a menu I couldn't read while a waiter politely but incomprehensibly tried to elicit my order, in my tired and emotional state, I realised that this kind of thing was going to happen rather a lot in the following year, and I became a little panicky, then glum. My companion bailed me out by managing to order two gyuudon (a beef and rice number that is to Yoshinoya as a Big Mac is to MacDonalds).

The next two days were filled with talks and workshops. With 640 new JETs and the aforementioned army of hangers-on, I was pretty well insulated from Tokyo in a bubble of Anglophones. Like any event of its kind, there was much small-talking to be done, but the atmosphere was more pleasant than academic conferences I've been to because everyone was very much in the same boat, i.e. excited and more than a little terrified of what was about to happen. Having said that, I was a little disheartened to realise that our American and Australian cousins generally had a greater command of Japanese than the predominantly novice Brits, among whom my feeble Japanese had seemed more respectable.

I managed my jetlag rather well, if I say so myself, and didn't go on any late-night karaoke benders, so I was able to diligently attend everything, unlike some. I am glad I went to the workshops, but everything was necessarily in generalities - 'every situation is different' is the unofficial motto of the JET Programme. When you haven't yet set foot in a classroom, it's difficult to take it all in. A bit like teaching someone to drive who has only ever seen pictures of cars.

Anyway, monday night was a trip to an izakaya (Japanese pub/bistro) with the rest of the (seven-strong) Yamagata crew, who I haven't seen since Tokyo but hopefully will next week at prefectural orientation. They seemed nice; certainly none of them gave the immediate impression of being a dick. On tuesday night I was off to the British embassy, the highlight of which was a performance from the embassy taiko drumming team, after which we got to have a go. Hitting a big drum with chunky wooden sticks whilst adopting a kung-fu pose is fun. Mini Cornish pasties seemed to be the only concession to British cuisine among the vol-au-vents; sadly no macaroni pies.

Wednesday rolled around and it was time to leave the gaijin bubble and head for our new lives. The apprehension was palpable, at least among Team Yamagata. At Yamagata airport I was met by two men holding a big sign saying 'Welcome, Finlay!', complete with crepe paper flowers. (Yes, if you looked at my predecessor's blog, this will sound familiar.) No-one else seemed to be getting this level of welcoming. Though I felt a little self-conscious, I was touched by the gesture.

One of the men spoke very good English. I later learned that he is head of English and vice-principle at the biggest junior high in Nanyo - so someone worth bowing that extra few degrees for. He was to be my interpreter for the day. The other man spoke somewhat poorer English, although obviously still far better than my embryonic Japanese. It turns out that while not actually my supervisor, he's the guy who has looked out for my wellbeing on a day-to-day basis, which when you're illiterate and mute, is no mean feat. He's been incredibly helpful and considerate.

Anyway, back to my the car ride from Yamagata Airport. The proficient English speaker fired questions at me. Among them was "Why did you join the JET Programme?", which I should really have seen coming and prepared for. But I hadn't, so I gave some long waffly answer which I fear sounded suspiciously like "I'm in my late twenties and I still don't know what to do with my life". And in my panic I mentioned the PhD, which I told myself I wouldn't in case it sounded conceited. (Having subsequently been asked this question many more times I now just say "I've always been interested in Japan, and I wanted to challenge myself in a new way".) First stop was City Hall, to meet the head of the Board of Education. A big cheese, and my first tentative foray into the minefield that is omiyage (Japanese gift-giving custom). I went for the whisky miniature and the Japanese-language Edinburgh guidebook, determined not to seem stingy. I bowed, shook hands, said my little Japanese spiel I'd been fretting over for the whole flight. It seemed to go alright, but that's the trouble - when you have little or no understanding of the language or culture, you have exactly zero chance of picking up on subtle cues that you're messing up. I decided I'd just assume all was going well and that someone would tell me if I did something wrong. Sure enough, this has happened a couple of times - for instance, one of the lines of my self intro apparently wasn't in formal enough language for meeting a VIP, so I was instructed to change it for the next such occasion.

This self-intro business is very important, it seems. Many times during the first few days I would be stood in front of an office full of people and instructed to introduce myself in Japanese. I now have different levels worked out, from a brief "How do you do? I'm Finlay, nice to meet you" for chance corridor encounters (this got a lot of use the day I was given the job of handing out the newsletter) to the full extended dance remix for when I'm called upon to give some kind of speech.

Oh, and the bowing thing is not just some stereotype, like Italians saying 'Mamma mia' (actually, the only Italian I know does say that). Everyone bows, all the time. Also, they have a lot more words that have to be said for certain occasions. When you come into the office, you must loudly declare it a good morning, and everyone must acknowledge this observation; when someone leaves they must apologise for their laziness, and everyone else must dismiss this apology and thank them for their sterling work. And don't even think about starting to eat or drink before the appropriate permissions have been obtained.

Alright, this post is becoming a marathon and I'm nowhere near caught up to the present yet. I'll tell you about my first evening's entertainment in Nanyo and call it a night. Once I'd been shown to my house (more on that in later posts) and allowed to change out of my suit, it was off the the onsen. This is a public hot spring which the Japanese are very fond of bathing in. This bathing takes place without any clothes. Now, luckily I was forewarned and thus forearmed: not only had my predecessor told me to expect this, but I actually had some onsen experience back in Nagano '07. Even so, floating around in an outdoor pool with three Japanese gentlemen, my conspicuously white genitals for all to see, was a rather surreal experience. Considering what all had happened since eating chips for breakfast at Keio Plaza (I think they were trying a little too hard to accommodate their Western guests), I was worried I might go into some kind of sensory overload shock.

Next we hit the sauna and despite thinking I was about to expire, I was determined not to be the first to crack, so I solemnly discussed the Bon festival (much more on that later) and how it differed from my culture's ways of remembering the dead, until someone else declared that they could take no more of the heat, at which point I darted for the cold pool.

Naked recreation over, we each put on a kind of light bathrobe and went for a meal in the same complex. Of course, the table was about a foot high (as is the table at which I'm writing this) and there were no chairs. The meal was excellent - in typical Japanese style I had perhaps eight little dishes in front of me, less that half containing food I could visually identify. I ate everything though, and delicious it was too - the sashimi (raw fish) being the highlight. All the while we drank a lot of beer. I am continually amazed at the Japanese fondness for alcohol. These people are generally smaller and lighter than me, and I was led to believe were genetically lacking in alcohol dehydrogenase. More to the point, I come from Scotland - a place only rivaled in the hard-drinking stakes by Ireland. Yet here I was getting humiliatingly outpaced. I could probably put this one down to jetlag and exhaustion, but it keeps happening.

I got home, more than a little tipsy, and set about properly investigating the contents of the house. My predecessor had left me a welcome note, a bottle of Yamagata wine, and a box of Yorkshire tea. In my bedroom (I say that, there is of course no bed but a futon) were folders full of teaching materials. Looking in the kitchen, I found bottles of Kahlua and Japanese whisky with decent amounts left in them. In the spare room was the snowboarding gear he had mentioned he was leaving, but which I had by this point forgotten about. I could have kissed him had he been around, rather than stuck in a typhoon in Okinawa. I went to bed feeling thrilled and exhilarated about my new life in Japan.

Ok, that's me covered up to wed 5th. More later.