Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wreckless abandon

Or, 'Walking into spiderwebs'.

As you may have seen from my Flickr, I did something a bit unusual at the weekend: I visited an abandoned theme park.

This all started because someone on the mailing list that the Yamagata ALTs use to communicate was discussing going to creepy abandoned places for Halloween. My curiosity piqued, I did some googling and discovered the 'urban exploration' movement (or urbex, if you're into Orwellian-sounding contractions). There's a bunch of people all over the world who like sneaking into abandoned facilities of various kinds and having a look around.

Japan is something of a hotspot for this pastime, it turns out. The hubris of the postwar boom, followed by twenty years of economic stagnation/recession, plus a falling population, are perfect conditions for generating haikyo (ruins), as the Nipponese wing of the urban exploration movement refers to them.

I learned that there's a defunct theme park situated a little more than an hour's drive from Nanyo, in neighbouring Fukushima prefecture. As haikyo go, 'theme park' is surely right up there with 'mental hospital' or 'nuclear bunker' in terms of awesome creepiness. The are lots of beautiful photos on the web of rusty roller coaster rails and decrepit ferris wheels rising eerily out of a misty forest.

It wasn't entirely straightforward figuring out the exact location of the place. Obviously, abandoned theme parks don't advertise, and urban explorers are understandably secretive about locations because they don't want every Tom, Dick and Haruki going there and trashing the place. But with a little bit of sleuthing (for which my limited Japanese literacy proved handy) I was fairly confident I'd got the co-ordinates nailed.

Being a spineless goody two-shoes (I phrase I've never really understood - do real rebels wear a number of shoes ≠ 2?), I was a little worried about the legality of this pursuit. I suppose it could constitute trespassing, but surely no-one is going to be too worried about land which they have abandoned. I reassured myself that, if the worst came to the worst, I could just about plausibly deny being able to read 'no entry' signs. However, I was adamant that I wouldn't compound my crime with breaking and entering, vandalism, or looting. "Take only photos, leave only footprints" is a kind of motto among responsible urban explorers, and I adopted it as my credo. Of course, one must also consider the dangers posed by entropy and physics - floors cannot generally be assumed safe to walk on, etc.

My friend Alda was to be the Scooby to my Shaggy, so I thoroughly briefed her on these guidelines, warned her that we might not be able to find the place - indeed, that it might no longer exist - and we set off on our adventure. Homing in on the GPS waypoint, there was a distinct absence of towering roller coasters. Nevertheless, we'd come this far, so we parked the car and went in for a closer look.

Only a few tens of metres from the road we found an abandoned building which looked to have been some kind of eatery. There were trashed vending machines, and strewn across the tatami mats were plates, cups and the like. It felt quite a lot like Fallout 3, though naturally with fewer guns and giant mutant scorpions. There was quite a bit of graffiti and human-looking damage, so it appears the place had hosted quite a few loutish youths since closing for business. The most interesting booty we uncovered was a pile of tickets and maps of the park. Slightly breaking my self-imposed rule, I pocketed one of each as souvenirs. I figured the map could actually be quite helpful, though I couldn't find the cafe I was in. Judging by the looks of the pictures - particularly the clothes of the park-goers - the leaflet couldn't have been made any later than about 1990.

There were tarmac paths leading off from the building, but these quickly became difficult to follow as the forest had all but reclaimed them. We fought our way through the foliage and spider webs - man, you have no idea how many spider webs there would be if there were no people to disturb them. If the human race died out tomorrow, I think Japan would be three inches thick in gossamer by about Christmas. Anyway, we found a few tantalising indications that the terrain we were slogging through had at one point been an amusement park: weird swathes of concrete, stairways that went nowhere, the odd bench amongst the trees. We even found a broken sign in the shape of a frog indicating that this was where to queue for the 'Jetcoaster'.

Alda, possessing a better sense of when to give up, headed back to the car, which was parked beside a picturesque lake. I pressed on, through increasingly dense forest, in search of a rusty dodgem, a decayed candy floss machine, anything. I found one or two mildly diverting sights, like a tree growing through a forgotten picnic table, and the go-kart circuit, its walls still lined with tyres, though the encroaching flora had rendered sections of it impassible even on foot. After encountering a couple of deserted clearings, I concluded that someone had done a pretty thorough job of removing every last ride and stall at some point in the last few years. After about an hour I called it quits, returning with ripped trousers, strands of spider silk hanging from me, and a collection of insect bites on my face and neck.

So, my first foray into the world of urban exploration was unsuccessful, but not an unmitigated failure. I don't know why they left that one building standing, but I'm glad it was there for us to find. At the very least, I got some good exercise clambering through the woods. Apparently there's another abandoned amusement park in Niigata...

An abrupt change of subject to conclude: My classrooms are invariably decorated with various motivational posters made by the students, promoting unity, co-operation, courtesy, positivity, and all that shizz. ('All for one, one for all' is an English slogan that pops up surprisingly often.) At lunch today I decided to entertain myself by deciphering a rather more involved class rules poster. The third rule (自分勝手な行動しない) translates to 'Don't do things your own way', which surprised me a little, being pretty much contrary to the advice given in my Western education. It's nice that as I'm starting to make in-roads with the language, I'm beginning to perceive these more subtle cultural differences.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rice up your life

Or, 'Sorry seems to be the harvest word'.

You may remember that back in May I planted some rice. Over the months this grew into a work of tanbo aato (rice field art), with the three different colours of rice forming a picture of a famous local samurai, distorted such that it could be viewed correctly from a nearby hill. Well, on sunday it was time to literally reap what I had sowed.

I was feeling a little the worse for wear on sunday morning, as I had overindulged somewhat on rice already, specifically the fermented variety. Marie-chan had invited me round for a sake tasting session, which I realised had got a bit out of hand when it was half past midnight, we had four empty (small) bottles in front of us, and I was giving barely coherent financial advice.

Arriving at the venue, the foreigner turnout was rather lower than it had been for the planting. In fact, I was the only ALT there, though there were a couple of familiar faces in the shape of a Venezuelan masters student (studying robotics of all things) and a friendly English-speaking woman from the international association.

Virtually everyone present had had the foresight to wear wellies, but I was sporting a pair of old walking shoes. Thankfully, it was a glorious sunny morning, but it had rained overnight so the field consisted of ankle-deep mud. (Rice paddies are only flooded for the early stages of growth; they are drained once the plants get established.) Fortunately I'd had the sense to wear shorts, so I just mentally wrote off my shoes and socks and plunged in.

We were each issued with a small serrated hand-scythe and some twine, and given a quick demonstration of how to use them. Take-home messages: cut diagonally downwards for safety, and don't make your bundles too big - about a dozen plants is sufficient. And don't mix up the colours, obviously.

There was something quite satisfying about the work, more so than the planting of five months ago. I found myself getting into a rhythm, trying to chop each bunch down with a single effortless-looking swipe rather than sawing away at them. We had some good division of labour going: while the front line hacked down the stems, people floated around behind them bundling up their output and then hanging it up on sticks to dry out. No one shouted at me for doing it wrong this time, which was a bonus.

As I was working up a sweat in the field, I was approached by an interviewer and cameraman. At many of these kinds of cultural events TV crews for ludicrously parochial cable stations show up. They always make a beeline for the foreigners, and I step aside to let someone more proficient at Japanese and/or less averse to looking like a tool on TV take up the slack. It was more difficult than usual on this occasion, but I managed to palm them off to my Venezuealan buddy.

When the field had been reduced to a matrix of truncated tufts, we were rewarded with lunch. This was yet more imoni, and - fittingly enough - riceballs. As before, our ticket price also bought us entry to a local onsen, which represented a useful opportunity to wash off the mud caked onto my shins.

Bidding farewell to my companions, I browsed some gift shops looking for presents for my forthcoming trip back to the UK. I bagged a couple of choice items, then took a very indirect route home, going high into the mountains marking the southern border of the prefecture. At one point I saw a large group of monkeys right by the side of the road, but there wasn't a safe place to pull over for several hundred metres. I disembarked the vehicle and stalked back, camera zoomed to the max, hoping to get a good look at the simians. But alas, all I found were a few shattered nutshells - I reckon that's what they were doing on the tarmac in the first place.

Yesterday was another holiday: Health and Sports Day. There was a race / fun run in Nanyo that it might have been advisable for me to attend, but no-one specifically told me to. I had, however, been invited to a wine festival that day, which seemed like a more appealing prospect all round.

Although Japan has never traditionally been a wine-drinking culture (except for rice wine, of course), we do grow a whole lot of grapes in this region, so it's not that surprising that people have taken to fermenting them in the last few decades. There are quite a few wineries around, but I didn't realise until very recently that one in Takahata - a nearby town even smaller than Nanyo - is actually modestly famous. With its award-winning produce, it is apparently quite a big fish in the admittedly smallish pond of Japanese winemaking.

For the three days of the long weekend, this place opened its doors, offering free wine tasting, live entertainment, and all the usual festival food stalls. I went with a couple of other ALTs, both British guys as it happened. Once again we hit the jackpot with the weather; sitting under a cloudless sky at 25°C, it was hard to believe it was mid-October. We spent the whole day sitting around in the sunshine, chatting and getting slowly drunk on wine. A particular highlight for me was wine ice cream (1% alcohol!), a concept which I would like to see catch on.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Witness the fitness

Or, 'Don't believe the hype-rtension'

It's that time of year again, when I'm legally obliged to have a surprisingly thorough health check. Thus, I was forbidden to eat anything from 8pm last night until I wolfed down a cheeky riceball on the way out of the clinic this morning, because I wasn't convinced I could make it to lunch without fainting. I am a man who likes his breakfasts.

This year, I actually enjoyed some patient confidentiality, as I was able to muddle through without the aid of an interpreter. Though my improved Japanese certainly helped, as with so many things here, simply having done it once before and thus knowing the drill makes all the difference. It's like when Bill and Ted meet themselves; things make a lot more sense the second time around.

It's set up very much like a production line: first you have the blood pressure check, then the eye test, then the stethoscope, and so on. The blood sample is always the bottleneck, because that takes a bit longer than the rest. (Interestingly, the nurse asked me which hand I eat with (i.e. hold chopsticks in), shortly before sticking a needle into the opposite arm.) The slightly unsettling thing was that everyone else was shuffling between these stations in medical gowns, while I was still wearing my regular clothes. Either no-one could be bothered with the hassle of explaining to me where to change, or they were worried about insulting my cultural sensitivities.

Of course, it'll be a while before I get the results of the blood test and the like, but based on the more immediate tests I'm feeling good about my health. I'm 1.4kg lighter than I was a year ago, which just happens to be the average weight of a human brain. But I'm more excited about my b.p., which came in at a pretty optimal 109/65. I'm so laid back I'm horizontal! That's a massive 21% drop in systolic pressure from 18 months ago, which just goes to show that postgraduate degrees should probably come with some kind of government health warning.

Fingers crossed for the cholesterol...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

You kendo it, put your back into it

I'm conscious that it's been a while since I last blogged. The thing is, nothing particularly interesting has happened in the last couple of weeks. This is not to say that my life has become less eventful than it was a year ago per se, but rather that the more I settle in, the less my day-to-day experiences seem worthy of reporting on the internet. It is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

I actually have a long blog post all about my deliberation over my future saved on my hard drive, but I decided that it was just a bit too personal, and possibly somewhat imprudent to put in the public domain. In a nutshell: I have a nagging feeling that I should grow up and get a sensible career, but I like my life here and the money is good so I'm tempted to re-re-up for a third year. Encouragingly, I was officially invited to do so today, indicating that I'm not a total frakup. I don't have to make my mind up until February.

Anyway, though there hasn't been much excitement of late, things are good. Summer is truly over; I have deployed my winter duvet and as soon as my current batch of ironed shirts is exhausted, I will be switching to long sleeves. On reflection, summer is easily my least favourite season in Japan. If I do stick around next year, I will make a point of going somewhere cold in August. Autumn's nice though. The leaves are just starting to turn now; in a few weeks the predominantly deciduous mountainsides are going to look amazing. And I'm really developing a taste for imoni, Yamagata's autumnal delicacy.

Another good thing about autumn is the unusually high density of public holidays. Possibly because there are actual holidays in the other three seasons (New Year in winter, Hanami / Golden Week in Spring, and O-bon in summer), it seems that the powers that be have sprinkled all the spurious one-day celebrations liberally onto the autumn months to compensate. I like this; I reckon you get more joy out of five long weekends than you do out of a solid week off.

The weekend before last was devoted to inter-school sports tournaments. I was told to tag along with the brass band, who were supporting the school's baseball and softball teams. In case, like me a fortnight ago, you're not clear on the difference, softball is girls' baseball, played on a smaller field with (presumably) a softer ball, which must pitched underarm.

Although I still have very little interest in spectator sports, I think baseball is better than most. If sports were video games, baseball would be a turn-based RPG: slow-paced, low on action, but very tactical. (I'm not sure how sports games would fit into this confusing analogy.) It pains me to say this given how much I've mocked the sport in the past, but I suspect I could really get into cricket if I gave it a chance. However, to fully enjoy one of these batting/running/catching games I think you need to be getting slowly mashed during the course of the match, which of course was not an option when cheering on my students.

As I sat, alternately clapping along with the band, chanting encouragement ("Kattobase, Ken-su-ke!", assuming the person currently at the plate is called 'Kensuke'), and bashing bead-containing plastic bottles together, I was struck by just how susceptible we are to tribalistic thinking. In one match, the school I was then attending was playing another of my schools (the one I'm now at, as it happens). So, I had no real reason to support one over the other. But just the fact that I was sitting where I was, surrounded by students of that particular school, I found myself willing them to win, and feeling deeply bummed out when they got trounced. It's incredible how quickly objectivity and impartiality give way to mob instinct, particularly if the mob in question have trumpets.

The softball girls made it into the knockout stage the next day, but then got the drubbing of a lifetime at the hands of my other school. It wasn't clear what the brass band were supposed to do with themselves at this point, so rather than just hanging around I decided to take the initiative and request permission to watch the kendo competition. It turned out to be in another town, but it was a nice day so I cycled there.

For those who don't know, kendo is Japanese fencing. I occasionally see kids decked out like samurai for their after school clubs, and it's always intrigued me. Also, I've struck up quite a good relationship with one of the kids on the kendo team. She's a first-grader with freakishly good English (she gets private lessons), better than all but the very strongest third-graders. I feel bad for her because she is obviously bored out of her gourd in English class. We have started writing notes to each other that we exchange during cleaning time. So, I wanted to cheer her on, and I knew at least there would be one person I could chat to.

Whereas I managed to more-or-less figure out the rules to judo from watching it for a few hours at the last sports tournament, kendo proved rather less transparent. It appears that to score a point one has to hit the opponent in a very specific way; several times a kid would soundly and repeatedly thwack his or her adversary over the head whilst the judges remained stony faced, only for the opponent to strike back with what looked to me like an identical move and be awarded the bout. Points only ever seemed to be given for head shots, but the kids would still attack the torso every now and then, making me wonder why they bothered. Baffling though it was, it was quite enjoyable; it's not every day you get to see a bunch of teenagers in armoured dressing gowns smacking each other with bamboo sticks.

I had the following monday and tuesday off in lieu. Having a non-holiday weekday off is valuable, as it gives one an opportunity to interact with Japanese public bureaucracy. Although I have a visa allowing me to stay in the country for three years, that period must be continuous. If I want to leave and come back - which I shall this December! - I must obtain a re-entry permit, the international equivalent of having the back of your hand stamped at a gig. This privilege costs me 6000 yen (ok, you can get one for 3000 but that only allows you to leave once) and a two-hour trip to Sendai. This is yet another reason why I disapprove of the concept of nation states.

So, on tuesday I drove to Sendai with another ALT needing to jump through the same hoops. Arriving, I realised that Sendai, with a population of around a million, was comfortably the biggest city I've ever driven in. And in the smallest car, ironically. But with my trusty Archos Blu-tacked to the dashboard to guide me, we made it to the immigration office without incident.

We got the permits, and then I had another administrative errand to handle. I wanted to pick up the application forms to sit the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), on sale in major bookstores. Admittedly, I probably could have found them somewhere in my own prefecture, but I wasn't taking any chances. I got them, and have since sent them off. If all goes to plan I should be sitting the level N4 test at the start of December. N1 is the highest and N5 the lowest, so if speaking Japanese were snowboarding, N4 would be linking turns on a green run. I'm reasonably confident. The money level is N2, as this is generally what Japanese employers ask for when recruiting gaijin.

A large part of the attraction of big cities is the opportunity to eat foreign food, so we had a tasty and very reasonable Indian lunch - you've gotta love Wikitravel. For entertainment we went to an arcade populated by youngsters with frankly disturbing levels of skill at the rhythm games, and otherwise sensible-looking salarymen pumping money into the gambling machines. We just did a spot of the taiko game and left it at that. I got pwned, as my companion is actually on a taiko team. After that we went for a cheeky hour of karaoke. Even by my low standards I was in dismal voice, with the notable exception of the Japanese song I've learnt. On its maiden outing, I'm pleased to say that I smacked it out of the park.

Then it was time to head home, which involved a minor meltdown on my part as the Archos' combination of cheap hardware and free software spazzed out so impressively that it reported our position as being just outside the Arctic Circle. But we somehow got on the right road, and eschewed the expressway for a white-knuckle ride along the twisty single-track mountain road in the fog.

I'll conclude by telling you what just happened at lunch with the third-graders. Boys being boys, they were competing to see who could down their mini-carton of milk fastest. As one kid achieved a respectable six seconds, the girl next to him noticed that I was watching intently, and announced "Nihon bunka da yo!" - "It's Japanese culture!". Yup, forget geisha, origami, samurai and sumo - competitive milk drinking is the true spirit of Nippon. The six-second record stood for most of lunchtime, until the boy sitting next to me bagged a 5-seconder. "I'm the strongest in the whole class", he proudly informed me in English.