Friday, December 30, 2011

Butterflies and hurricanes

It's time to bring this blog out of hibernation! I should really explain what's been keeping me so busy the last few months, and for no particular reason, I'm going to do it using the hackneyed narrative device of reverse chronology.

December 28th, 16:15
Mouth dry, hands shaking, I walk up to my boss's desk. I hand him the two copies of the letter (one in each of our mother tongues) with a deep bow. He reads the Japanese, looks up, and slowly says "I understand". He then extends his hand to me in congratulation, and says "We will have to have a big party." As I return, relieved, to my desk, he informs the rest of the department that come April, Finlay will no longer be working for Nanyo City.

December 28th, 13:55
I receive an email from my good friend and Japanese whiz Isaac, containing his translation of my letter of resignation. Realising that there is now no legitimate reason to put off the deed any longer, my pulse quickens.

December 20th, 18:50
Idly chomping on an ebikatsu futomaki (breaded prawn thick sushi roll), I notice an email arrive in my inbox bearing the simple subject of "offer". Opening it, I learn that a) I've just been offered a job, and b) they require me to start on April 1st, i.e. four months before the end of my JET contract. I experience a strange mix of emotions, and feel like I may be about to regurgitate my sushi. I don't.

December 9th, 17:05
I walk out of the institute, and am greeted by a breathtakingly beautiful sunset. Across Sagami Bay, the unmistakable cone of Mt Fuji is silhouetted sharply against the orange sky. If I weren't a scientist, I might think that this was some kind of sign.

December 9th, 15:30
Dressed in my suit and clutching one of those telescopic pointers, I am giving my first ever scientific presentation as Dr Finlay Stewart. I am surprised by how comfortable and natural it feels after such a prolonged absence. Just like riding a bike.

November 8th, 22:20
After a whole day of travelling - I had breakfast in a traditional hanok in Seoul, and a dinner of sushi by the banks of Tokyo's Sumida-gawa - I finally get home. Obviously, one of the first things I do is boot up the computer, and find that I have been invited for a seminar and interview at the Graduate University of Advanced Studies (to give it its clunky English name; it's Sougou Kenkyuu Daigakuin Daigaku, or Sokendai for short, in Japanese) next month. Clearly, I have some serious reading to do.

July 8th, 07:10
I receive an email from my old PhD sensei Barbara, forwarding a job advert for the position of assistant professor in a neuroethology lab that studies colour vision in insects, particularly butterflies. Best of all, this lab is located in Kanagawa prefecture, about an hour outside of central Tokyo. This all sounds so uncannily up my street, that I decide I have to apply.

So, there you have it. I am returning to science. The contract is for five years, so if all goes well I'll be in Japan until at least 2017 (i.e. my mid-thirties!). There is also a possibility of a single five-year renewal if they are suitably satisfied with my work. As far as money goes, suffice to say that I'll be making substantially more than my current over-generous salary.

I'm really excited about going to work at Sokendai, and I can't believe how much I appear to have landed on my feet here. Typically, after a PhD, one works as a postdoc for a while. Postdocs are temporary appointments (typically three years or less), so one is always feeling the pressure to publish papers in order to land one's next gig. At least, that's the impression that I get from my postdoc-ing friends. Somehow, I've managed to skip this step, and end up in a position of relative security (although I must point out, as they very explicitly did at the interview, that it is definitely not a permanent position).

Of course, I do have some mixed feelings. Specifically, I'm feeling a considerable amount of guilt. The JET Programme, and more importantly Nanyo City, have been very good to me over the last 2.5 years. I feel really bad about breaking my contract, and ditching them as soon as a better offer comes along. The board of education took it surprisingly well; I had told them at the time that I'd applied for the job, and they seemed to understand that it represented an excellent opportunity for me that I couldn't realistically turn down for the sake of four months of ALT-ing.

My other negative emotion is sadness at leaving Yamagata and all my friends that dwell therein. In particular, this is not good news for my relationship with Amber (which is otherwise going extremely well) - our present separation of two hours by car is going to increase to six hours primarily by shinkansen.

Dammit, how have I manged to end this post on such a downer? I got a job! In Japan! Studying butterflies' eyes! Hoegaardens are on me!

Now, I think I'm going to attempt to buy a smartphone in celebration.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Are you cyclonesome tonight?

People often say that Japan is a safe place to live, and in my experience, it seems to be true. Folks around here routinely leave their homes and vehicles unlocked, secure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be invaded by crack-addled yoots. In fact, the only people in the world who enjoy a lower homicide rate are the chewing-gum-hating death penalty enthusiasts of Singapore.

But while we have little to fear from our fellow man here, it seems that Mother Nature really has it in for Nippon. We have seen how devastating earthquakes and tsunamis can be. Mountain-dwellers like myself may not be at much risk from tsunamis, but we would do well to bear volcanoes in mind. In 1888, Mt Bandai (which is just 50km south of me) erupted, killing 477 people in eleven villages.

On top of all the seismic activity, we have dangerous fauna to watch out for too. Though I am still yet to spot one, bears are the number one concern around these parts. One managed to get into a school last year, but was thankfully taken down by marksmen before it hurt anyone. When hiking, one should really wear something like a radio or (more) cowbell. The rationale behind this is that bears typically only attack when startled, so by making plenty of noise you reduce your chances of inadvertently sneaking up on one. Wild boar also roam the forests, and of course there's always the vicious Japanese hornets to keep you on your toes.

But today I want to talk about a different natural peril: tropical cyclones, or typhoons (or taifuu in Japanese - I think maybe both languages pinched the word from Chinese). The end of summer is typhoon season, and typically at least a couple will make landfall somewhere along Japan's southern coast and do some damage. Earlier this month, a particularly nasty one hit Wakayama prefecture. This coincided with yet more hiking on my part, with Amber, myself and a couple of friends taking on Mt Chokai.

Though there was the best part of a megametre between us and the eye of the storm, it was still enough to ruin our day. In the morning it was sunny but very windy, and as the day progressed and our altitude and exposure increased, things deteriorated steadily. At times we were struggling to stay on our feet as the 100km/h gales whipped at our clothes and the drizzle stung our faces. It was the buffeting of a lifetime, even worse than the time I had an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord with the Sage of Omaha. But we made it. Or rather, I made it. Amber took the sensible / softcore option of hunkering down in the summit hut, but as with Fuji, I felt it was important to stand on the actual highest point. Those final 40 vertical metres were a punishing and frankly dangerous scramble over rain-slick rocks in the fog and gales. Incidentally, that particular peak didn't exist prior to a volcanic eruption in 1801.

But the reason that typhoons are on my mind is that another one - the fifteenth of the 2011 season, in fact - just passed close to Yamagata. By the time they reach our latitude they have usually lost much of their fury, but can still dump several shitloads of precipitation. It has been wazzing it down more-or-less solidly for three days, and the river that I cross every day on my way to school has been transformed from its usual feeble trickle to a raging torrent. As I write this, the typhoon is running out of steam somewhere in the Pacific east of Hokkaido, but last night we were braced for impact. As I watched NHK's rolling coverage (ok, I had it on in the background while I played Foldit - if 'play' is indeed the appropriate word), with its ever-updating weather maps and solemn speculation about what a typhoon might do to the still-troubled Daiichi plant, my house was shaken by an aftershock. Good times.

I have not escaped from typhoon 11-15 unscathed. As of yesterday morning, my car refuses to start. This is a real blow, as it means I have to cycle in the rain. For now I'm working on the assumption that some water has got in somewhere it shouldn't have, and maybe everything will be ok once it dries out? But since I know less about cars than your mum knows about computers, this is really just a statement of blind faith in my Wagon-R's engineering.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hallelujah! I'm training men

(and women)

Once again, it is that gloriously slack week when the first-graders go camping, the second-graders do work experience, and the third-graders take a field trip to Tokyo. This leaves me with nothing to do other than go out for lunch every day and get served by my kids. This is fine by me, as I'm viewing it as a well-earned breather following a frantic previous week.

As a member of the eight-strong Yamagata JET Conference Committee, I spent wednesday to friday giving the 37 newcomers a crash course on life as an ALT. My first major responsibility was the "Welcome to Yamagata" presentation. As this blog attests, I am rather fond of the place, so I was selected as a suitably enthusiastic poster boy to sell Yamagata to the n00bs. It went rather well if I say to myself; my timing was down to the minute, and I got quite a few laughs (for instance, when I pointed out that over-65s outnumber gaijin 50-to-1). But the biggest reaction from the audience came when I flashed up a photo of my grandmother tucking into the Yamagata delicacy of inago, garnering an enthusiastic round of applause. Grannie, you're a star.

That evening I MC'd a pub quiz for the newcomers - I knew all those tuesday nights in the Hoose would pay off someday. (Four-pointer: Which four prefectures share a border with Yamagata? One of them should be quite easy.) Then a bunch of them went for a 'walk' (beer run), requiring a couple of committee members to be urgently dispatched to keep an eye on them. I meanwhile watched Swing Girls with the more responsible rookies, whilst stealthily sipping whisky.

Thursday was a solid day of teaching training. The highlight for me was giving a pared-down version of my self-intro lesson, which meant donning the kilt and brandishing amongst other things a cuddly Nessie, a Union Jack, and a photo of haggis. I must have done my self-intro about 50 times by now, so I've refined all the filler out leaving nothing but pure killer. A couple of my colleagues described it as "the best self-intro [they] have ever seen", which made my day.

Spoiler alert: if you may apply to be a JET in the near future, please skip this paragraph. In the afternoon we did a session called "trading places", where without any explanation or warning, we put the greenhorns in a classroom and the Chinese-American member of the committee taught them a lesson completely in Cantonese. I sat in on the class, and although a similar trick had been played on me two years previously (albeit in Irish Gaelic), I still found it a real eye-opener to be on the other side of the language barrier. During a speaking activity, I managed to offend a Filipino guy (who of course spoke no more Cantonese than I do) by insinuating that he was at an unfair advantage. Oops.

After that we had a special discussion session about the aftermath of the Great Quake, for which I reprised my role as radiation correspondent and dropped some serious science on the newcomers. And then it was time for the main event: a trip to the onsen, followed by a traditional Japanese enkai. This was primarily intended as a piss-up, but secondarily as part of their training on Japanese social customs. As such, we put on a skit illustrating the many faux pas one can make at such an event. I tossed the etiquette book aside (literally) and downed my beer before the "Kanpai!", for which I was summarily executed by a samurai. Harsh but fair.

There were a few problems with the enkai. First of all, the hotel got the numbers wrong which caused an unbelievably protracted period of faffing around. Then they appeared to only appoint a single waitress to the 50+ of us that were crammed into the tatami room, meaning that while the booze was technically unlimited, there was in practice a rather severe bottleneck between us and our Asahi refills. Furthermore, the vegetarian options turned out not to exist. While this was clearly a blow for those with ethical or religious dietary scruples, every cloud has a silver lining, and I was able to eat three bowls of delicious imoni. Thankfully, the booking of this place had not been a committee decision. The member of the Japanese team who was responsible for the choice looked like he would have gladly lopped off a finger to make amends, the poor bastard.

As the enkai finished and we returned to the dorm, I found myself in the conflicted position of trying to stop the whole thing from getting out of hand (my kouhais had cleaned out an alcohol vending machine at the hotel), whilst not coming across as some sort of killjoy party Nazi. I did this by shooing them all out of the communal areas and back to their rooms - where I decided that whatever they got up to was no longer my problem - and going to bed at about half eleven.

Feeling a little hungover and a lot exhausted, I was glad that I had front-loaded my responsibilities and could take more of a back seat on the last day. I did however have to host a workshop which, in quite a meta move, was intended to teach the debutantes how to learn Japanese. This too seemed to be well received. However, I was conscious that there was quite an air of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do about the whole thing. Consequently, I have shamed myself into pulling my linguistic socks, which had slipped rather due to my recent distraction by a certain weird-surnamed vegetarian from Jersey. I am determined to plough through the 1797 vocab items required for the JLPT N3, which I intend to dominate this December. And, the other night I turned on the TV for the first time in weeks, and watched (and largely understood) a whole programme on NHK's educational channel about how to cook a perfectly round and symmetrical fried egg.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Drop dead gorge-ous

Or, "Gangsta's paradise".

It's August, which means a number of things. First of all, it means a permanent sheen of sweat over mosquito-bitten skin. It means emotional goodbyes to departing friends, and awkward introductions to potential new ones. It means slack days without any teaching. And it means summer festivals.

Actually, I'm not too badly underemployed this summer. I'm on the committee organising the Yamagata JET seminars for this year, so I'm busy preparing to orientate some noobs next week. Also, the board of education have decided that the way to improve English standards is to hit 'em young, so I have been involved in teaching kindergarten teachers how to teach English, which is actually a lot more challenging than my regular job. And, I have the standard biannual irritation of speech contest training.

In what may turn out to be quite a formless post, I guess I'll tell you about my weekend. On saturday I met a whole bunch of new JETs in Yamagata City. As of this year, Yamagata City has terminated all of its private ALTs, and replaced them with JETs. This is quite an eyebrow-raising move in these austere times, as we are considerably more expensive, but it seems they decided that the hassle of running everything through a third party was not worth the saving. (Private ALTs are employed by their companies, whereas JETs are employed directly by schools or boards of education.) So anyway, this means a large influx of new faces, most of whom I went out boozing with. I look forward to discovering just how wildly inaccurate my first impressions of everyone were.

As we drank pitchers of beer and screeched into karaoke mics (yes, I sang Rinda Rinda), I was mildly shocked to realise that, as the only third year present, I was the most senior member of the party. Furthermore, I had probably the strongest Japanese of anyone in the room. I still feel that my understanding of what's going on around me is tenuous at best most of the time, but when I consider how truly clueless I was at first, I suppose I have come quite a long way. I guess I have become a monocular monarch in the land of the blind. Or at least a partially sighted prince.

After a classic hangover breakfast at the bakery in Yamagata - one of the few places where one can obtain decent bread around here - Amber and I headed for some possibly mythical 'gorge' near Yamadera. As you know, I'm the kind of guy who can barely take a piss without locking the GPS co-ordinates of the toilet in first, whereas she is the kind of shoot-from-the-hip chick who considers some random guy in a bar mentioning a gorge near a town to constitute an itinerary. You can imagine my fury when she managed to find the place more-or-less immediately.

But as we strolled down into the picturesque creek, my frustration soon gave way to delight. It was a hot, sunny day (one of the thermometers on the road there was reporting 37C), but the water was cool and refreshing. We waded around in the slow-moving river a bit, before eventually just getting in and swimming in our clothes. Then we just basked on a big rock for a while, like a couple of soggy lizards.

The place was a popular spot, with lots of kids splashing around, mums sunbathing, and dads tending barbeques and swigging Asahi. A few guys were snorkelling with what appeared to be spring-loaded tridents, and unbelievably they would occasionally surface with a fish impaled on the prongs. But perhaps even more surprising were the number of people there with very conspicuous tattoos.

You see, tattoos are rather taboo in Japan. This is because they are very much associated with the Yakuza, and thus many onsens and swimming pools will deny entry to those bearing ink. This could explain why these people had come to a river to get their swim on. I guess we'll never know whether we were in fact sharing the gorge with a bunch of mobsters, but I'd like to think we were.

Let's flash forward to monday night, back in Nanyo. Monday was Bon-Odori ("Bon dance"), the climax of the O-Bon festival. This is the Buddhist festival of the dead, where the Japanese 'believe' (no one really believes it, which is good) that the spirits of dead ancestors return home. It's probably the second biggest event on the Japanese calendar, after New Year. Long-time readers will recall that I took part in this two years ago, but no-one thought to invite me last year, at which I was a little put out. So, it felt good to don my borrowed yukata and straw hat once again, and take to Akayu high street with a bunch of civil servants. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day, which meant that the evening was less oppressively humid than most: perfect dancing conditions. I decided to go for it, and attempt to make up in enthusiasm what I may have lacked in grace and poise. My yukata was soon soaked through with sweat, and my spirited moves were eliciting compliments from my fellow dancers. They may have just been being polite.

I didn't really know anyone on the City Hall dancing team very well, so it was a good opportunity to make some friends. Over beer and sashimi at the after-party I was chatting to a guy (I think he may he been appointed to look after me) who took it upon himself to work out a way to render my name in kanji. This requires even more mangling that my katakana name ('Suchuwaato Finrei'), because katakana is able to represent certain sound combinations (e.g. 'fi') that would never occur in a native Japanese word. He came up with 須茶和斗 品麗 ('Suchawato Hinrei'), using characters meaning 'necessity', '(green) tea', 'harmony', 'sake dipper', 'refinement', and 'beauty', respectively. At six characters it's not exactly catchy (four is typical), but I like it.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The annual countdown, part 2.2

Ok, let's bring this home!

5. Okitama bike ride, November (photos)
A bunch of people wanted to do a charity bike ride last autumn, and I decided to put my issues with charity aside and get involved. Some truly insane routes (cycling all the way through the mountains to Niigata, anyone?) were being suggested, so I took it upon myself to propose an approximately 70km circuit around the basin containing Yonezawa, Kawanishi, Takahata and my home town, Nanyo. It was accepted, and before I knew it we were all gathered at Yonezawa City Hall on a motley collection of rented mamacharis ("mama's bikes"), with me leading the pack armed with my trusty GPS and a high-vis green vest.

Once again, we lucked out with the weather: it was an unseasonably warm and sunny autumn day, and the hillsides were all kinds of stunning shades of orange and red. I'd included a couple of forays up into the foothills surrounding the plain on the route, just to keep things interesting - where's the challenge in just riding around a big circle on the flat? On the first of these, there were a few grumbles of complaint, but little did they know what awaited them in the afternoon.

We stopped off for a noodle-based lunch in my town. I had to improvise because Akayu's most famous ramen shop was queued out the door, as it often is on weekends. Then we tackled the big hill, and people started literally cursing my name. But we all made it, and I maintain that we all felt that much more accomplished as a result. With the light starting to fade, I had to axe my plan of taking in a winery, which was possibly for the best in retrospect. On the dusky homeward stretch we came across a graveyard full of monkeys, no doubt stealing the food and drink left as offerings in the Buddhist tradition. At last we made it back to Yonezawa and after the inevitable bit of cat-herding whenever one tries to organise gaijin to do anything, we had some well-earned refreshments at an izakaya.

The nice thing about the bike ride was that it was mostly with people from the other end of the prefecture that I don't see all that often, including a couple that, dare I say, I didn't like very much. But the common goal of getting around my masochistic circuit brought us together, and I feel I really bonded with some people and got to see new sides of them. Of course, they're all leaving now, dammit.

4. Gunma bungee jump, June
I think I've covered this in plenty of detail already. Moving on...

3. Boxing Day at the Stewart household, December
After 17 months in Japan, I thoroughly enjoyed returning to my old stomping grounds of Edinburgh and Inverness, and experiencing the confusing feeling of being unsure which end of my 12-hour flight constituted 'home'. The fact that Edinburgh was unusually snow-covered during my visit made it all the more memorable. But, once again I must follow my own arbitrarily set rules and pick one day.

I considered choosing the afternoon I spent with auld acquaintances in the Auld Hoose, the pub where I spent most tuesday nights for half a decade, eating nachos and trying to remember the capital of South Dakota, or something. As I've said before, I sorely miss British pubs. But no, I'm going to go with Boxing Day in Inverness. With my family, Christmas Day is a quiet, intimate affair, and then on the 26th we throw our doors open to whichever family friends want to come along. I think I have internalised the Japanese custom of giving omiyage, as I had brought back lots of little presents for everyone: local sake, complete with traditional tiny cups, and dried squid and grasshoppers as a comedy accompaniment. I regaled our visitors with tales of Nippon, and as is traditional at events of this sort, assumed the role of cocktail waiter. Kamikazes all round, naturally.

Partly in honour of my new Oriental life, and partly because we had run out of chairs, we made the dining room Japanese-themed, i.e. we sat on the floor around a coffee table, drinking Asahi. As the evening rolled on, we ended up playing an inter-generational drinking game that caused the crate of Asahi to be depleted with frightening rapidity. Around half ten, with the older guests calling it a night, the youngsters (plus me) decided to slam a quick tequila, jump in a taxi, and hit the divey, depressing nightlife of Inverness. However, we fell foul of the 'curfew' and ended up just going back to Blair's place, which was probably for the best anyway.

2. Osaka with the parentals, April
Often holidays can fizzle out a bit towards the end, but not on this occasion, as the final full day of my folks' stay in Japan was unquestionably the highlight for me. After rainy days in Kobe and Kyoto, we finally caught a meteorological break for Osaka. After a leisurely start, we trekked out to the remote Museum of Ethnology, situated in a weirdly sterile and bleak park that was built for the 1970 World's Fair. On arrival at the quiet museum (it was a monday morning) we were given jury-rigged PSPs with headphones for a personal English-language audio-visual tour. The objective of the place was to showcase all of human culture, and given the inherent impossibility of such an undertaking, I feel they did rather well. As well as being visually beautiful, the cultural artifacts were truly thought provoking. The main thoughts they provoked in me were:
  • How much of human culture comes down to tediously acquiring food and sheltering oneself from the elements, and how fortunate and historically unprecedented a position I am in that I don't have to worry about these things.
  • How obviously silly other cultures' religions are, and how foolish people who have the benefit of this perspective but who fail to generalise this observation to their own religion are.
  • Is it so terrible that Westernism is destroying all of this colourful, varied, beautiful culture, or is it in fact just progress?
Anyway, excellent though the museum was, fatigue starts to set in eventually, and we gave the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido (Japan was the final part of the museum) rather less attention than the canoes of the Micronesian tribespeople (Oceania was first up). So late the afternoon we headed back into the city and went up the Sky Building, sticking around on the observation deck for the stunning sunset (or stunset). Then it was a trip to the bustling Dotombori, Osaka's restaurant and entertainment district. After a bit of indecision about where to eat (during which the flyerers were quick to help us make up our minds), we went for a middling-to-up-market sushi place, where both the food and the atmosphere were excellent.

Back in Yamagata, my father had expressed an interest in experiencing the legendary nomihodai, or all-you-can-drink. This being their last night, it was now or never, so I decided it was time for karaoke. Marlo seemed a little dubious, but I booked us in for a two hour session. After a slightly shaky start - Lady Gaga songs really are quite vocally challenging - they got more into it than I could ever have hoped for: the Proclaimers' 500 miles, Chumbawamba's Tubthumping, Sweet's Ballroom Blitz... We ended up getting a supplemental half hour, very nearly missing the last subway, and then extremely needlessly having a nightcap back in the hotel.

1. Mt Asahi, June
If there's one thing Yamagata has no shortage of, it's mountains (the clue is in the name). I decided it's about time I started climbing up some in summer of them instead of just sliding down them in winter, so together with a friend of mine - Amber, a fellow British ALT - we set our sights on Mt Asahi, "one of Japan's least accessible mountains".

I'll say right now that this was a hardcore hike, and it probably wasn't particularly smart for two jokers like us, with no real outdoor expertise or indeed proper maps, to just rock up and have a go at it. Before we even put our boots on we were a little apprehensive, as we had spent the last half hour of our journey on a single track road that had got progressively less and less suitable for our kei-cars. In fact, as we finally parked up, a worrying smell of petrol was coming from my vehicle - had a stray branch or rock somehow compromised the fuel line? I sincerely hoped not.

We kitted up and set off in the light drizzle, rucksacks on back and GPS in hand. The initial section of the hike involved following a river upstream, and thus wasn't particularly steep. Nevertheless, it was far from easy going, as we were in essentially a ravine, and had to keep picking our way up and down the steep, rocky banks, often with the aid of ropes or chains that had been thoughtfully provided. The hairiest moment came when we encountered a partially wrecked bridge over the river, forcing us to go into full-on team-building exercise mode and start throwing rucksacks to one another over the gap and the like.

After a couple of hours the river section ended, and we started ascending through a forest at a punishing gradient. By about half an hour in, we were nostalgically reminiscing about the good old days of the river. Making matters worse, we had forgotten to take any insect repellent, so had swarms of flies permanently orbiting our heads. Of our two rucksacks, one was much larger and heavier than the other, and thus far, Amber had been shouldering its burden. With the going getting tough, I realised it was about time I did the gentlemanly thing and swap, and I descended into a whole new world of pain. After about 600m ascent, and with about the same ahead of us, I started to have some doubts about whether I could make it. But there was nothing to do but keep chomping down the Calorie Mate and climbing.

Eventually we emerged from the tree line. The views would probably have been stunning, were it not for the fact that the clouds had rolled in, the drizzle was intensifying, and the wind picking up. As we trudged up a rocky ridge, with about 250m vertical to go, I shamefully caved in and asked to switch rucksacks again. My spirits were instantly buoyed (it was literally a huge weight off my shoulders), at the price of Amber's soon-flagging morale. It was just like the Horcrux in the last Harry Potter book, really.

Our aim for the afternoon was to reach a mountain hut near the summit. As one final kick in the balls, it turned out that it was in fact on the opposite side of the summit to our approach. So, we reached the peak (1870m), but didn't stick around long before descending the other side, praying that a hut would soon materialise out of the mist. Thankfully it did after about 10 minutes (with maybe an hour of daylight remaining), and we were beckoned in by a friendly, if slightly crazy, old man.

It turned out that there were six of us in that remote shack: Amber, myself, the dude running the place, and three hikers from Iwate. Once we had got out of our drenched clothes and recovered from the more acute symptoms of exhaustion, they invited us to join them for a little picnic. Clearly, these guys were serious. They had lugged camping stoves, pans, and big cartons of sake up the mountain. Rather sheepishly, we went over and added our peanuts, crackers and cheese to the feast. It should come as no surprise that overzealous Japanese hospitality extends to mountaintops without electricity or running water: they were soon offering up their stove-cooked gyoza and refilling our cups with booze.

None of them spoke much English. Even though I was knackered, since they were being so nice to us I felt the least I could do was to try to be as sociable as possible in Japanese. Amber is only a first year, so I ended up acting as translator for her. If I say so myself, I pulled it out of the bag somewhat and the conversation went reasonably well. You know how satisfying it feels to be tucked up in bed when you can hear a storm raging outside; like you're sticking it to Nature? Well, this party had that cosy feeling amplified tenfold, as we had conquered the mountain and were now pleasantly tipsy, eating snacks in a nice dry hut. Because of our exertions, this tipsiness became outright drunkenness rather quickly, so around ten we wound up the torchlight soiree and retired to our respective corners of the hut to roll out our sleeping bags and set sail for the Land of Nod. Before doing so, however, Amber and I took a lengthy but hushed detour through the Republic of Smooch, for the first time.

Woah, reeeewind selecta! I feel I should now back up and put this development in context. Back in those snowy and uncertain days in March, Amber was one of the minority of Yamagata ALTs who didn't flee the country (though living way up in the north, she was in even less radiation-based peril than I was). During that panicky yet boring time (no-one around, no fuel to go anywhere), we started emailing each other. A lot. This kept up as the months went on, and although we saw each other at a few social events, the considerable distance between our towns meant that we never had any chance to meet one-on-one. So, this whole Mt Asahi caper was effectively an extreme first date. And one which was, as of that moment, going rather well.

We eventually got to sleep. Amber had been full of talk of getting up to see the sunrise (asahi means 'rising sun', so it did seem like the thing to do), but predictably that never happened. So we spent a leisurely morning nursing our aching legs and slightly dull heads before reluctantly kitting up again, filling our bottles from the tank of rainwater (mmm, fallout), and setting off back up to the summit and then all the way down the other side.

The rain had intensified a little (so the sunrise probably wouldn't have been up to much anyway), making the descent quite a miserable affair. While obviously going down is a lot less strenuous, one still had to be very alert to avoid slipping on the rain-slick rocks, and of course we were a lot more tired than we had been the day before. The river section, which had been an enjoyable adventure the first time around, was now a seemingly interminable grind. But finally we made it back, and thankfully my car had not hemorrhaged its petrol.

So, after a self-imposed three year hiatus (sort of; I wasn't exactly fighting the ladies off with sticks), I am back in the romance game. Exciting times. And this, you see, is why the blog has seemed so moribund of late: a) I was distracted with all the emailing, and b) I wasn't sure how too broach the subject on here. I try to avoid talking about personal stuff, particularly if it involves other people, but it would have seemed a bit evasive and disingenuous to write about climbing Mt Asahi, for example, without mentioning the Amber dimension.

There we have it. This time last year I was worried that my second year in Japan could never live up to the excitement of my first. While it hasn't been quite such a roller-coaster ride of new experiences, I've had a great time. I mean, just think of the things that didn't even make the top ten: skanking halfway up a mountain with sake bottles duct-taped to my hands, dancing around a massive taiko drum in samurai armour, chilling in an outdoor onsen with a tray of sake floating by my side... and of course, climbing Mt Fuji.

I suppose the most striking feature of this year's list is how outdoors oriented it is. I think maybe in first year I was still thinking like a city-dweller, but now that I've adjusted to life in Yamagata, I've realised that I would be a fool not to make the most of the beautiful landscape that surrounds me.

Roll on third year!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The annual countdown, part 2.1

As I am now a week shy of having lived in Japan for two years, it is time for another look back over the year that has just passed. Obviously, there was one very conspicuous lowlight that occurred on March 11th, and whose effects continue to be felt, whether in the sparing use of aircon to conserve electricity, or the 6.2 magnitude aftershock that woke me up at 4am the other night. Of course, these are trivial complaints considering the thousands of people who have had their lives ruined (or ended) by the quake and tsunami. It will still be months if not years before a lot of the coastal towns get back to normal, and perhaps decades before people can go near Fukushima Daiichi. Heartbreakingly, I read recently that there are thought to be hundreds of bodies still inside the exclusion zone, unrecoverable because of the radiation.

More personally, it is a sad time of year. Every summer people leave and are replaced by new ALTs; it goes with the territory and is just something you have to get used to. But this year there is an unusually large exodus out of Yamagata (I don't think this is to do with the quake, as we had to decide whether to recontract back in February), including many of my closest friends. I think one person in particular deserves a shout-out: Alda, who featured in a number of both this and last year's top tens. You're an awesome person, and I'm going to miss you.

But that's enough doom and gloom, let's get on with the top ten! Because my blogging has been rather slacker in the last 12 months, this is going to be the first time I've told you about quite a few of these things. In fact, I can reveal that this countdown will contain a previously undisclosed bombshell.

Alright, let's go!

10. Gassan Rock, July
A very recent one to kick things off. A bunch of Yamagata ALTs took it upon themselves to organise a small outdoor music festival. This year's crop of ALTs contains a surprising number of musicians, so between the various permutations of gaijin performers and a bunch of proper Japanese bands that had been invited (including one from as far afield as Osaka), they had a line-up for the whole afternoon and evening.

The weather was glorious, although uncomfortably hot, something which I (and many others) attempted to remedy by jumping into a paddling pool fully clothed. In fact, due to the heat I felt so drunk after just three beers that I had to lie down in the shade for a while. As dusk fell we were entertained my some great performances, ending with a rousing rendition of Rinda Rinda from Yamagata ALT band Turbo Hige ("turbo beard"), during which I moshed for the first time in years. (Moshpits are not included in my retirement from dancing, due to a curious loophole.) But then, the (male) guitarist proposed to the (female) bassist, who accepted, and they then promptly donned yukata for a surprise wedding ceremony. Maybe it was just sunstroke getting the better of me, but I was blubbing throughout, which isn't really like me. Actually, the whole event had quite a bittersweet emotional atmosphere for me, because it was the last time I would be seeing many of the people there. But what was good was that I was able to bond with Gemma (with whom I shared a car and tent), one of my few local friends who is sticking around next year.

9. Tendo night out, March
Drunken nights at izakaya and/or karaoke joints are kind of ten-a-penny in this line of work, but sometimes the planets just align and you have one that is truly memorable. This happened for me back in March, the weekend before the quake. I had spent the day boarding at Jangle Jungle, a great little freestyle-oriented resort in the remote north-east of the prefecture. That evening people were meeting up for yakiniku in the onsen town of Tendo, so I figured I could have a nice relaxing onsen to freshen up before hitting the town. However, despite the place being famed for its hot springs, I couldn't find a single one that was open to the public - they were all attached to hotels. With time running out, I eventually gave up and attempted to head to the meeting place, but I couldn't find it. Seriously, the sooner people just start giving GPS co-ordinates instead of "directions", the better. Anyway, I eventually rolled up, late, sweaty and still in my boarding gear. It's funny how often the best nights rise from the ashes of debacle.

The party turned out to be much better attended than I had expected. There must have been at least 25 of us, taking up about half of the yakiniku restaurant. We had the standard couple of hours of unlimited boozing and burnt bits of meat, then headed for karaoke. There were too many of us to fit in one room, so we split into a soft-drinks only group and a nomihodai group. No prizes for guessing which I was in. Even with our party divided, it was still the most populous private karaoke session I've ever experienced, with 16 participants and 4 (count 'em, four!) mics. It quickly became quite rowdy; it was my first introduction to the north-Yamagata tradition of taking one's top off, and soon almost everyone in the room was shirtless and dancing on the seats. It was probably the closest my life is ever going to get to a Skins promo. I gave a memorably unhinged, snarling performance of Rinda Rinda (I promise, that song is not going to feature in every entry). And, amongst all this drunken madness was when I first took a shine to a certain someone...

8. Lake Tazawa, July 2010
Technically, this shouldn't really qualify, as it was in my first year. But since I excluded my friends' visit from last year's countdown, it seems only fair to include it this time around.

A 16-day period is stretching the definition of a moment too much, so I feel I must narrow the holiday down. I'd say the Tohoku road trip section was the highlight, and of that, my favourite memory is from the first night, when we arrived at Lake Tazawa in Akita. I covered this one in detail at the time, but to recap briefly: illicit sunset swimming in a caldera, microbrewery (though the food was awful), then spending the night in a jazz guesthouse. Niiiice.

7. Niigata Russian Village, October (photos)
I blogged about one abandoned theme park that I visited last autumn, but it was a bit of a damp squib, having been almost completely demolished. Well, a couple of weeks later I teamed up with Alda again for another haikyo expedition. This one was rather more successful, but I never got around to posting about it.

Our destination wasn't a theme park as such, as it had no rides. It was just a Russian-style 'village' that someone had constructed in the hills of northern Japan, thinking that this was a surefire way to pull in the tourists. Clearly they were mistaken, as the place has been closed since the late 90s. Fortunately for us, no-one had yet bothered to demolish it, and though a few vandals had left their mark on it (the hotel, for instance, was little more than a burnt-out shell), some parts were still in eerily pristine condition.

Highlights included a wedding chapel complete with all sorts of Christian imagery (which is quite incongruous in rural Japan), and a hall containing a life-size imitation woolly mammoth skeleton. At first we thought we had the place to ourselves, but as we entered the central plaza, we could just make out the sound of a radio, that seemed to come and go. This really, really freaked us out - who knows what kind of psychopath hangs out in an abandoned fake Russian village, preying on dumb foreigners who stumble into his lair? But it turned out to just be some people wandering around, sensibly carrying a radio to alert bears to their presence and thus avoid dangerously startling them. As the day went on, we came across a few other people, including some Caucasians who turned out to be actually Russian. What the hell they were doing there I can't even begin to imagine. All in all, it was a deliciously odd day.

6. Cycling around Lake Hibara, May (photos)
The first week of May is Golden Week, where four public holidays fall in quick succession. The trouble with Golden Week is that due to everyone in Japan having a holiday at the same time, travel is even more extortionate than usual, lodging is hard to come by, and everywhere is crowded. However, I hit upon an ingenious plan to avoid the crowds: a camping trip to Fukushima, specifically to Mt Bandai and the surrounding lakes. Don't worry, Fukushima is a big prefecture, and this locale is scarcely any closer to Daiichi than my house is.

So, I joined forces with Alda once again, and spent three days sampling the natural and only mildly radioactive beauty. It seemed the camping season hadn't started yet, as the campsite we went to was unmanned (and thus free!), and very quiet. Alda introduced me to geocaching, a kind of treasure hunt game where people conceal little boxes of trinkets in interesting or beautiful spots, and post their GPS co-ordinates on the internet. As you can imagine, this is right up my street. On the second day we attempted to climb the aforementioned mountain, but we had to abandon this on account of the large quantities of snow impeding our progress.

According to my own rules I have to narrow it down to one day, so I choose the third day, when we rented bikes and cycled the 36km around Lake Hibara. It was a gorgeous sunny spring day, and after an initial tough hilly section, it was an easy ride by the lakeside with beautiful views over the water. At one point we stopped for a rest and sat on a jetty, soaking up the sunshine and looking at Bandai-san across the blue lake. It put me in mind of the lochs of my childhood in the Scottish Highlands - Loch Ness, Loch Morlich, Loch Earn... - and I got a little homesick and nostalgic, but in a nice way. And then, as we completed our circuit, we stumbled across a burnt-out hotel to explore. A delightful day, even if it did cause my companion some third-degree chafing.

Ok, stay tuned for entries five through one, including that as-yet unexploded bombshell.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The seven things I hate about Fu(ji)

Or, 'Fuji-la'.

As I write this - on paper - I am sitting queuing for a bus on a misty morning halfway up Mt Fuji, or Fujiyama as it is known to morons. That's right, I've just tackled Japan's highest peak. However, I think I made a number of blunders in my methodology, and I feel it is important to discuss these.

I had planned to come with a friend, an ALT who is about to end her tenure and is consequently going on a mad Japanese sightseeing binge. However, we left the planning rather late, so she moved for a last-minute postponement. I'd already booked my day off to recover, and because of this combined with my general bloody-mindedness, I declared that I was going with or without her. As it turned out, it was without her.

So, on friday evening I boarded the dreaded night bus to Tokyo. As many of you know, I have issues with sleeping. Specifically, I often have difficulty getting to sleep, especially when under pressure to do so, and I worry a lot about my ability to function on insufficient sleep. All things considered, I did rather better than I might have expected on the bus, but it's still pretty much impossible to get a night's sleep that could be described as 'good'. So, I rolled into Shinjuku at 5am already feeling quite sub-optimal. Incidentally, Shinjuku at 5am is a weird place. There were still loads of people around, who I can only assume were a mix of hardcore partiers and super-keen salarymen/women. It wasn't always obvious who belonged to which group.

Then followed a tedious three trains and a bus to get to Fuji. There is a bus direct from Shinjuku, but tickets were sold out - that's what happens when you don't plan trips until the night before. Anyway, on the final, busular leg of my epic voyage, I was nodding off - something that I almost never do on public transport (usually, I have enough trouble falling asleep in bed), and thus a worrying indication of my pre-Fuji fatigue.

Mountains in Japan (and quite possibly elsewhere; I don't know) have ten stations marking your progress towards the summit (10th station). For Fuji, starting at the 5th is considered legit. So, I began my hike at the Kawaguchiko 5th Station (2305m), the base of the Fujiyoshida ascent. As the last point with electricity and running water, it represents a kind of final outpost of civilization, and an opportunity to get only mildly ripped off when buying supplies. I carb-loaded with a quick yakisoba, then set out at 11am.

(That's as far as I wrote in my jotter; I back at my laptop now, with the benefit of a proper night's sleep.)

You see, the traditional way to do Fuji is to ascend by night and take in the sunrise from the summit. It doesn't get any more Japanese than the rising sun on top of Fuji-san. But, as suggested by Wikitravel, I decided to avoid the crowds by bucking the trend and viewing the sunset from the peak. As I started my hike, the weather was perfect: blue sky, no wind, and - thanks to my already considerable altitude - not too hot. The first half hour or so was very pleasant, gently ascending through a leafy forest. But by the time I got to 6th station, the terrain had turned into the barren Martian landscape of jagged volcanic rock that would continue all the way up. The sixth station was also the first indication of the fleecing gauntlet that I was about to run, with nasty portaloos asking a 200yen contribution for their use.

And so I continued upward. There really isn't much natural beauty to be had when climbing Fuji; it is just a steep rocky cone with endlessly zigzagging paths very artificially carved into it. From the 7th station onwards, there was a squalid little mountain hut every few switchbacks, selling extortionately overpriced food and drink. I appreciate that they must have some serious overheads up there, but come on, 500yen for a bottle of water (that normally retails for 110)? You're having a laugh, aintcha?

Even though I wasn't feeling too tired, I made a point of stopping frequently to rest, eat some of the provisions I had brought, and do a quick altitude check on the GPS. I got into a rhythm, and before I knew it I had smashed through the 3000m barrier. I also invented the fun game of saving myself 200yen by urinating on the mountainside. This was harder than it sounds, as even during the quiet afternoon period there were still loads of people around, and there are no trees to hide behind. Talking of fluids, my water supplies weren't holding up quite as well as my food, so you can imagine my excitement when I found a bottle of what appeared to be water on the path. I took a tentative sip, and found it to be disgustingly vinegary. I'm hoping it was just very off sake, or possibly onsen water, and not something altogether more unsavoury.

It was only once I got past the 9th station and reached about 3600m that the altitude started to cause me problems. I found myself getting out of breath very quickly, and having to rest on almost every switchback. I was also stating starting to see weird patterns when I blinked, which probably isn't a good sign. I was simultaneously envious and contemptuous of the people I saw whipping out oxygen inhalers. But lest you think that climbing Fuji is too hardcore, I should point out that I saw plenty of people over the age of 60, and under the age of 10, taking on the mountain.

Finally, I passed through a torii, saw the Hi no maru flying, and that was it. I'd made it to the 10th station, just after 4pm. That's quite a respectable pace, if I say so myself. The top of the mountain was no less ugly than its sides; a bleak scree-filled crater with some filthy snow still clinging to its inner face. What was beautiful was the view from the crater's rim, looking down on distant clouds under a blue sky.

But something was bothering me. I knew that although I had reached the 10th station, the true peak of the mountain was a rocky outcrop with a decommissioned weather station, on the opposite side of the crater. Since I had at least a couple of hours to kill until sunset, I decided to do what few people bother to, and circle the crater. Thus, I got the satisfaction of standing on the actual highest point of Japan, 3776m above sea level. To someone as anal as me, this was very important. I then found a nice spot (as much as spot on top of Fuji can be called 'nice') to sit and wait for sunset. It was spectacular, and as I photographed it obsessively, it struck me that there was something poetically apt about a gaijin looking west from the tip of Fuji.

I considered just having a sleep right there on the mountain-top, but thankfully I thought better of that; once the sun went down, it got cold very quickly. As the light faded, so did my common sense, and in my exhastion I think I started to make some quite poor decisions.

For a start, there are separate trails for ascending and descending, a point which all the maps and signposts made very clear. But I'd somehow got it into my tiredness-addled head that the paths were the same for the top section of the mountain. After descending maybe 100m, I realised my mistake, and felt very sheepish. I am a man who prides himself on his ability to read a map, so to make this kind of error was galling indeed.

By this point it was dark. In one's normal day-to-day life darkness is never really a problem, but at times like this I am always surprised by how primally threatening and unsettling the night is. Thankfully, I had a head torch. I love wearing a head torch. It makes real life feel like a first-person shooter. Even better, my headtorch is so ludicrously bright that you can almost feel a recoil when you turn it on. The downside of this was that I had to constantly worry about dazzling oncoming climbers, whose path I shouldn't have been on in the first place, of course.

Thankfully, I found a place where I could cut across to the correct trail. This was very quiet; it seems no-one descends Fuji by night. Consequently, there are very few mountain huts. Around the 8th station was a kind of point-of-no-return: the last hut on the downward trail. Clearly, I should have spent the night there. But I decided I wasn't too bothered about catching sunrise, and I thought it would be best just to get off the mountain as quickly as possible, and spend the night back at 5th, where presumably the facilities would be better and cheaper. So I pressed on.

At this point I started to worry about my torch batteries running out. I foolishly hadn't brought spares, and although LEDs are efficient, the blinding illumination issuing from my forehead must have been eating up power. I encountered a few people slowly picking their way down without the aid of a torch (probably temporarily blinding them in the process), and it did not look like fun. So it was with an uneasy sense of urgency that I descended, my tired legs frequently slipping on the loose gravel. At times, fog was rolling in, making the whole business even more unnerving.

The descent seemed to go on forever. I'm pretty sure the downward path was actually considerably longer, but less steep. Sometime after 10pm, a good three hours after leaving the summit, the trail finally rejoined the upward one, where I was greeted by hordes of keen hikers just starting their ascent. My crowd-avoiding strategy had been sound, at least. What had been a pleasant stroll through the woods 12 hours previously was now an agonising slog, but at 11pm I finally rolled in to the bright, non-generator-powered lights of 5th station.

After a moment of euphoria and a celebratory Pocari Sweat (only 200yen!), I set about finding a place to stay for the night. I asked an official-looking man, who informed me that there was nowhere of the sort, but pointed me in the direction of some park benches and asked whether I had a warm coat. This was not good. Now, looking at the map in the cold light of day, I can clearly see that the mountain huts I was banking on using are situated at a different fifth station. (There are several possible routes up Fuji.) But what can I say, I really wasn't on top of my game by this point. So, I had no choice but to sleep rough for the first time in my life. I managed to find a very small amount (a quantum?) of solace in the fact that there were a few other unfortunate souls in the same position as me.

I decided to make a picnic table my bed for the night. I donned every item of clothing that I had, with the exception of my cagoule which I used as a pillow. Remember, although this is Japan in July, I was still at 2305m, so it was a bit parky. In what may have been quite a poor idea, I took a Nytol with a few big gulps of whisky from my trusty hip-flask to help send me off to sleep. But I was still shivering, so I decided to hit a shop that was thankfully still open, in search of more insulation. I was imagining those silver emergency blankets or similar, but I couldn't see any of those, so I ended up shelling out 4500yen for a Mt Fuji hoodie. Incidentally, this is not the first time I've panic-bought overpriced clothes out of fear of hypothermia; I still have a rather natty checked shirt from a time when I badly misjudged the conditions on Cairngorm. Having thus far avoided being fleeced by Fuji so well, it was crushing to fall at the final hurdle like this, but I'm pretty sure I'd have spent more sleeping in a mountain hut. And at least I have a hoodie to show for it.

Maybe it is worth describing my outfit, for the benefit of any would-be mountain bums who are reading. From toes to head:

Hiking boots, which I really wanted to take off, but needed the warmth.
Hiking socks (ladies, with hearts on them, but that's a story for another time)
Regular socks
Cargo pants (tucked into outer socks)
Cargo shorts
Long-sleeved T-shirt
Short-sleeved T-shirt
New hoodie
Snowboard gloves (outer only)
Mini towel, worn as a scarf
Bandana, worn as an eye-mask
Bucket hat

Still feeling a little chilly, I abandoned my picnic table, reasoning that it was too exposed and I was radiating heat in all directions. I relocated to a more classic vagrant spot up against the wall of a building. Thankfully, I did not die of exposure, and actually managed to have a not entirely terrible night's sleep. Feeling surprisingly refreshed come the morning, I shed some clothes, breakfasted on my remaining rations, brushed my teeth (how many tramps would bother with that, I ask you), bought some omiyage for my colleagues, and queued up nice and early to ensure I got on the first bus out of there, which is where we came in.

There is a Japanese saying: you're a fool not to climb Fuji once, but a fool to do it twice. Amen to that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On a rope, on a rope, got me hanging on a rope

Right, this month-and-half delay is getting silly, so I think it's time to just purge my backlog as quickly as possible. Think of the following as a blog enema.

Sunday: Kyoto
Morning: Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), free tour in English from some kind university students; thunderstorm; Marlo lacks umbrella/hood. Then, the Philosopher's Walk: blossom, sun comes out, pretty. Lunch: traditional Japanese; excellent; would have cost arm and a leg, but we wisely got the lunchtime special.
Afternoon: geisha dance, a rare chance to see actual 100% legit geisha. Preceded by a very unceremonious tea ceremony: rip-off. Dance itself: almost robotically precise and disciplined, and pretty much unfathomable to us. Nevertheless, Mum and I enjoyed it, Davo unconvinced.
Evening: We hit a low; indecision sets in, we flounder looking for a restaurant, tempers get frayed, we settle for okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) and teppanyaki (hotplate-fried meat and veg) at the (very impressive) station.

Monday: Osaka (again)
Morning: Leisurely start. Museum of Ethnology: pain in the arse to get to, but excellent; highly recommended. It ambitiously attempted to showcase all of the world's cultures; I challenge anyone religious to go there and tell me with a straight face that their belief system is the one correct one. Took us well into the...
Afternoon: Umeda Sky Building. Stuck around on the observation deck until sunset, beautiful views, awesome photo opportunities.
Evening: Dotombori, Osaka's lively entertainment district. Dinner at a middling-to-up-market sushi place; very good. Then, all-you-can-drink karaoke. Parentals initially skeptical, but quickly got into it. Marlo gets the hang of the Japanese-language touchscreen remarkably quickly, and both display an impressive instinct for what makes a good karaoke song. Highlight: Ballroom Blitz. Lowlight: Stan (Dad was Dido, I was Eminem). We extended our session, and only just caught the last train home.

Hungover, comedy of errors (guidebook locked inside locker), quick look around a modern art gallery, then slightly emotional goodbye as parents get on the shink back to Tokyo.

Digital, skateboard, turd, spliff, text, trilby...

Aaaah, that's better out than in. Alright, let's bring this almost back to the present by telling you what I did just a week ago. Rising at 5:15am on saturday morning, I was on the road by six, heading west to a rendezvous point in Niigata prefecture where I would very dubiously legally park my car, and get picked up by a bunch of north-Yamagatians in an eight-man minivan. Surprisingly this went to plan, and a little after eight we were powering down the expressway, studying Japanese in the back. (Many of my fellow passengers are gunning for the N3 in July; I've decided to keep my powder dry until December.) Our destination was Minakami, a mountainous place just inside Gunma (notch up another prefecture!). We got there on schedule, which couldn't be said for the (female) portion of our party who got busted for speeding and then missed the exit from the expressway. I didn't make a single comment about women drivers all weekend, for which I think I deserve some kind of medal.

The place was to be the venue for various EXTREME (though I am, I suppose, an extreme sports enthusiast, I just can't take the term seriously) outdoor activities. First up for me was 'canyoning', which I had signed up for without fully understanding what it entailed. Soon I was kitted out in a double-layer wetsuit, helmet, life-jacket, and harness; and was hearing troubling rumours about a 20m waterfall.

Canyoning, it turns out, means getting down a fast-flowing mountain river in a combination of three ways: walking, sliding and jumping. I think at more advanced levels stuff like abseiling also takes place. So, before I knew it I was lying in the water, letting it carry me along. So far, so serene. But of course, serenity has no place when extremity is the order of the day. Next we were doing 'the Superman', a face-down sliding technique. I have never been much good at swimming, and tend to panic a bit whenever my air intakes are under the water. But I soldiered on.

The extremism was only just getting started. Soon we found ourselves at the top of the unfortunately real 20m waterfall, being told to slide down it. It wasn't quite as bad as it seemed, as we were put onto a loop of rope and lowered about halfway before being dropped into the plunge pool. A little further on was 'the abyss', a waterfall which despite being just 5m high, was the scariest part of the whole thing. We had several bites at this cherry, first taking it on face-up, feet-first; then climbing back up for face-down, head-first (the Superman), where the more gung-ho amongst us were instructed on how to frontflip on the way down. Needless to say, I didn't try. Then it was face-up, head-first, which I completely ballsed up and ended up going face-down, feet-first, the only combination which isn't a recognised way of doing anything. Then finally it was the jump. I'm pretty sure I've never jumped off anything more than 2.5 times as big as me before. Though we had been told the correct technique for such a manoeuvre, I found that once I was free-falling panic took over and I flailed my limbs around like an idiot, only just having the presence of mind to tuck them in before impact.

Adding yet more jeopardy to proceedings was the fact that getting out of the plunge pool wasn't without its hazards. Firstly, we were told to defend our face with our hands to avoid eating the opposite wall of the canyon when we surfaced; and second, we were to try to steer right (away from the churning water) and not left, where the down-current would just drag us under again, though there was an instructor on hand to manhandle one out of this predicament if necessary. This happened to me two out of four times.

Finally, we had the opportunity to do some 'fun' jumps off a tame little 3m drop. Those of us who had experience of acrobatics or diving (or at least swimming) were nailing backflips and the like, but I just managed what the instructor called 'the least committed frontflip [he'd] ever seen', followed up by a slightly better effort where I at least rotated enough to hit the water with my arse. Then it was over, and I was mercifully intact (apart from my left contact lens, which is still MIA). You know how sometimes a curry isn't so spicy that you can't eat it, but it's still sufficiently hot that it's not really enjoyable? That's pretty much how I feel about my first (and let's be honest, probably my last) experience of canyoning.

That night we had a barbeque, followed by a night of drinking and partying. Someone took my request to 'surprise me' rather literally, and ordered me a beer float. Thankfully, I didn't vomit.

At the bar there was a dancefloor. I hereby announce my retirement from dancing. I'm 29, it's over, measure me up for my tweed pipe now. As many of you will know, I had a number of issues with dancing even in the prime of my youth. But the real kicker now is that I don't even know any of the tunes anymore (with the notable exception of Gaga, obviously). When some generic-sounding dubstep beat comes in and everyone recognises it and gets excited (as I would for, say, Killing in the name, or, I dunno, The Charleston or something), it's difficult not to feel very, very old. Also, I should point out that it's become a dumb, frat-boy sort of tradition that all the guys (and occasionally the girls) take their shirts off at a Yamagata party, which I regrettably got roped into.

I woke up feeling a little dodgy, which was not ideal, as at 11 I had an appointment with a 42m high bridge and an elastic rope. Bungee jumping is something I've always idly said I'd like to try someday, so when the opportunity actually arose I felt honour-bound to take it. We arrived at the place, signed a disclaimer saying that we weren't pregnant, on drugs, or hungover (it did actually say that), and got weighed. One's weight is then written on the back of one's hand in permanent marker, which I imagine would be quite distressing if one had body-image issues. But I wasn't bothered by the blue '85' identifying me as comfortably the heaviest member of the party - hey, those shoes were pretty heavy...

I was second up, so took my position to watch the first jumper. As the most proficient backflipper of the previous day, she was full of big talk of backflipping off the platform. But when she got up there, she thought better of it, and went for a backwards drop. She leaned back off the edge, her harness being held by the instructor, meaning that she didn't have to make the actual decision to jump herself. He messed with her, holding on past the countdown and then dropping her unexpectedly, causing her to feebly reach out just like Alan Rickman falling off the Nakatomi Tower, which gave us all a laugh. Watching her plummet and rebound back up, and knowing I was next, I felt a wave of excited terror. But it was ok; it was the kind of fun terror one experiences on a rollercoaster is ratcheting up its climb. However, jumper #3 looked genuinely terrified.

With no further ado they switched over to the 'all the pies' rope, and I made my way to the platform, dead man walking style, and got fastened in. I decided I wanted the decision to drop to be mine and mine alone, so went for a classic forward jump. My toes hanging over the edge, the guy advised me to just look at the mountains in the distance (as opposed to the rocky river below) and leap. As this was 8.4 times higher than the jumping PB I set only yesterday, it was quite daunting; one possesses a lot of powerful instincts preventing one from jumping off bridges. He started to count me down, but I didn't feel psyched so I stopped him. Just like Nick Cage listening to Low Rider, I spent a few seconds composing myself, then was good to go. He counted down, and I jumped into the void.

I had intended to spread my arms wide in a majestic swan dive. Predictably, once I was accelerating earthward at 9.81ms-2, my limbs were no longer under my control and I was frantically thrashing at the air, screaming. There was no real jerk at the bottom, possibly because I was heavy enough to give the cord a good old stretch. The rebound back up I actually enjoyed; it felt a bit like the biggest snowboard vert trick of my life. I even had the presence of mind to figure out my orientation relative to the photographer on the bridge and throw her some peace signs. (It came out beautifully, but she was asking 2500yen for 30-odd shots so I told her where she could slot her microSD card.) I did not, however, have the presence of mind to tuck in my T-shirt before the jump, so everyone got to see my pasty belly as I dangled at the bottom. The guy responsible for detaching me at the bottom had been at the bar last night, so this was in fact the second time he'd been subjected to the sight of my gut in just 12 hours. He said to me "You aren't hungover, by any chance?" and due to my elevated levels of adrenaline, I could barely produce a coherent sentence in reply, which probably didn't help my defence.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jesus of subherbia

The continuing saga of my parents' visit last month:

It was a rainy and overcast Osaka that greeted us at the airport. The first objective was of course to find the hotel, which involved taking a monorail, a subway, and a not inconsiderable walk. While navigating the labyrinthine subway system, my parents' wheeled luggage made an improbably loud clatter that was initially amusing, then embarrassing, and eventually just irritating.

The hotel turned out to be a little on the basic side - my room contained a pair of boxers that no-one had seen fit to remove. I could see that the parentals were a little apprehensive, but my standards for living conditions are substantially lower, so I was unconcerned. Never doing any housework is its own reward, but it comes with the added bonus that one doesn't get freaked out by cheap, sketchy hotels.

By this point we were starving and morale was starting to flag, so we found a nice little place to eat, and during the meal I hastily improvised a sightseeing itinerary for the rest of the day. I decided to take us to Osaka's harbour area, which like that of many big Japanese cities, is an archipelago of oddly geometric artificial islands. The skyline was dominated by a huge ferris wheel, so we decided we wanted some of that action. We got a special transparent car, allowing us to peer vertiginously past our feet at the wheel's hub. Of course, what with the rain and low-level cloud, we weren't really seeing Osaka at its best.

Next to the ferris wheel was a strange place that was like a shopping mall crossed with a fairly lacklustre amusement park. The shops were weirdly overspecialised: there was one dedicated entirely to Hello Kitty, another to One Piece (the anime currently dominating my students' pencil cases), another to Studio Ghibli, and even one selling nothing but Crocs, those strange rubber shoes that I've never understood the point of. Amongst these merch emporia were 'attractions' like a petting zoo and some kind of ninja house, complete with miserable-looking goats and a valiantly-attempting-to-conceal-his-misery stealthy assassin, respectively. We got some ice cream and watched the ships coming in and going out again. After that we took a stroll around the docks, whose most striking feature was the sturdy 3m tsunami walls ringing the perimeter. This served as another illustration of just how little can be done to stop a 10m wave.

With the sun setting, we got back on the subway and headed for Osaka Castle. Of course, it was closed by this time, but it was still very pleasant wandering around the surrounding park, the towering structure shining bright white in the floodlights against a cloudy night sky. After that we called it a day, stopping off at a kombini for drinks and snacks on the way back to the hotel. Back in the room, sipping booze and eating rice crackers, my folks' cognitive dissonance spin machines were getting into gear: the hotel wasn't so bad really, it did the job, we've stayed in a lot worse before.

The next day's plan was Kobe, famed for it's premium beef and devastating 1995 earthquake. But before that, we had the excitement of the hotel's buffet breakfast. The Western and Eastern approaches to breakfast are rather dissimilar, and their collision usually tends to result in something entertainingly weird. I loaded my tray with rice, miso soup, nori (dried seaweed - you can use it to make improvised riceballs), salmon, sausages, whole little fish, pickled plums, sweet omelette, and other miscellaneous items. It was all a bit much for my parents, who stuck with toast, fruit salad, and yoghurt.

Deftly avoiding a train blunder (confusingly, 'Kobe Station' is nowhere near the city's CBD), we went straight for the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing loop bus. Now, I tend to be a little snooty about these things, as I don't like doing anything that's too overtly touristy. But my parents love them, and I have to concede, it was indeed a cheap and effective way to get around all the sights. Our first destination was a herb garden on a mountain overlooking the city. Kobe is a compact city, sandwiched between the sea to the south and steep mountains to the north. The place was accessed by cable car, so for the second time in 24 hours we found ourselves dangling in a perspex bubble, imagining the view we would be enjoying if it weren't for the clouds.

Predictably, the weather was even worse at the top, with visibility down to about 20m at times. We sheltered in the gift shop, allowing my parents to load up on horticultural / aromatic souvenirs. There were some indoor exhibits about herbs, spices, and perfumery, which mainly involved smelling various things. There was something surprisingly fun about this; one doesn't often get the opportunity to spend a morning subjecting oneself to pleasant olfactory stimuli. I'm not sure what my favourite smell is, but cinnamon would definitely be in my top 5.

With the rain showing no sign of stopping, we decided just to go for it and descend on foot, through the gardens. As we were getting soaked, and the flowers weren't really in bloom yet anyway, we didn't linger long. We did come across a big greenhouse with tropical plants, which made for a nice break. Further down, there was an impressive waterfall, but we were in no mood to dawdle - by this stage the contents of my wallet in my pocket were getting soggy.

Next stop was Chinatown for lunch and a wander around (the rain had subsided to a light drizzle), then we headed down for some more harbour action. We didn't really do anything at the harbour: there was a tower, but to my eye it didn't look tall enough to justify the asking price, and we also decided against taking a cruise around the bay on a garish pink galleon. So it was back to the loop bus once again, for a trip to Little Europe.

Kobe is unusually cosmopolitan for Japan, as it is the place where foreign merchants first started doing business. With their riches they built houses in the style of their homelands. The Japanese can't get enough of this, as they see Europe as having a dignified charm and mystique, rather symmetrical to how we tend to view them. Indeed, as we walked around we came across a Christian wedding, complete with a gaijin priest. Western-style weddings are gaining in popularity in Japan, illustrating the nation's fast-and-loose approach to religious rituals. There is a saying that Japanese people are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.

We had a quick look around a French-themed art gallery, which appeared to be named 'Line'. Only as I was leaving did I realise that 'Rhine' was the appropriate transliteration. We also had an overpriced 'spice tea' in a faux-Parisian cafe - it was quite a spice-heavy day, all in all.

Heading back into the city centre for the evening, we continued the European theme with a visit to a Belgian pub. As soon as you walk in the door of a place like this you know you are in for a fleecing, so you're best just to accept it and move on. Sure enough, we were given a little dish of nuts, which is kind of a symbolic gesture representing that there is a cover charge for entry. However, the place was undeniably nice, and I very much enjoyed my Leffe and Chimay.

After that it was time to get some food, which is always a little stressful for me as I am the only one who has any chance of reading the menus. Thus the decision of where to dine falls to me, which is a lot of responsibility. But on this occasion, I think I did rather well. We went to a gyoza (Chinese dumpling) bar. The menu (which was at least mercifully small) was entirely in kanji, even down to the numerals in the prices. This was not the sort of place your average tourist would be able to handle, but I pulled it off with aplomb. Furthermore, they were the best gyoza I've ever tasted.

Next time: Yet more rain, and the perfect day of sightseeing.

Friday, May 20, 2011

They are the passengers

From monday to thursday, the plan was that I would work as usual, leaving my parents to do their own thing during the day. After all the driving, sightseeing and boozing of the weekend, they were keen to just take it easy on monday. They spent the day tidying up, shopping at 100yen stores, and having coffee and cakes with Marie. Mum wasn't feeling very hungry that night, so Dad and I hit a 'family restaurant', like the one I sought refuge in on the night of March 11th. On paper, this should be an easy option for foreigners, as there is Western (ish) food available and the menu is all photographs. But there's something about these places that scrambles my brain - I think it's the sheer number of almost imperceptibly different Hamburg steak (a bunless burger)-based meals. You can have a Hamburg with two breaded king prawns, a Hamburg with one prawn and one piece of fried chicken, a Hamburg with cheese filling with two prawns, etc., etc. After about twenty minutes of deliberation, Dad went for a maverick Hamburg with aubergine, Japanese radish and beansprouts (though the aubergine was switched out for pumpkin due to quake-related supply problems). I had spaghetti.

The plan for tuesday was to take the train to Yonezawa, but it was wazzing down that day so they stayed at home and continued tidying. I must stress that I don't ask or expect them to do this, but I've found it's easiest just to let them get on with it. And I must say, they did a sterling job. That night we took a trip (in an unseasonal blizzard) to my favourite Japanese curry joint. What I particularly like about this place is that one can choose their desired level of spiciness on a 12-point scale (from -1 for the elderly, infirm, infants who have recently graduated to solid food, and Danny; to 10 for macho bellends and mentalists). I went for a 5 and spent the whole meal gulping down water and sweating rivers.

Wednesday being the day that Marie closes her shop, she and her husband arranged to take my parents for a day trip. I have only a vague idea of what they got up to, so I would like to take the unprecedented step of inviting a guest contribution to the blog from Dad (or Mum, but it seems like more of a Dad thing to do) to fill in the blanks. Anyway, that night we had been invited to a dinner party at the local Zen temple (rather like the one my friends attended last summer). As this was to be a slightly formal event, my parents grilled me with countless questions of etiquette: Is this shirt smart enough? Is this omiyage suitable? When should we hand over the whisky? This tried my patience a little, but I suppose I can't fault them for wanting to make a good impression. Of course, I had told them never to pour their own drinks, and that for bonus politeness points they should hold their glass with both hands when accepting a refill. My poor father followed this advice to the letter, but was nevertheless greeted with howls of laughter and exclamations of "Kawaii!" ("Cute!") for the childlike manner in which he offered his glass. To be fair, he did look like a 4-year-old requesting more orange squash.

Over dinner, the tardiness of the still-unblossomed sakura was lamented. Everyone felt it was a great shame that my parents would miss out on this iconic Nipponese experience, and so it was somehow decided that the following day, Shoko-chan and her husband would very kindly take my parents to Fukushima City, where the slightly milder climate had brought the flowers out already. Now, I know what you're thinking, and yes, at 60km from ground zero, Fukushima is within the stupidly over-conservative US evacuation zone. But of far greater concern to my parents was the fact that neither of their guides spoke a word of English. As we returned home that night, they were more than a little concerned at what they had let themselves in for.

Again, I'm not in a position to furnish you with the details, but apparently it went better than could reasonably have been expected (I think they made quite a lot of use of Marie as a telephone translator), and by all accounts Fukushima's Hanamiyama Park was beautiful. Thursday being their last night in Nanyo, Marie wasn't going to let my parents leave without one last party. So after she had closed the shop for the night, and I had returned from my Japanese evening class, we headed to our local izakaya (Japanese pub/bistro). Though I was fairly shattered, I managed to get into the spirit, as I was now finally on my holidays too. But fatigue was starting to set in for Mum, and I think her digestive system was complaining about the gastronomic shock it had been subjected to for the previous week. Without being rude in any way, she managed to convey that she wasn't really up for it, and Marie laid off the overzealous hospitality for once. I was impressed; I've got to learn that trick.

Returning home, we found that Blair was on Skype, so we chatted to him for a while, until I was branded a killjoy for responsibly insisting at about 1am that we call it a night, as we had a plane to catch the next morning. Sure enough, I was feeling a bit sluggish as we powered up the highway (in as much as a Wagon R with broken suspension can power anywhere) to Yamagata's pathetic little airport.

Next time: the Stewarts hit Kansai, and it rains.

Meanwhile, back in the present: Tonight I'm going to spend my first ever night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese up-market inn. The Great Quake and its various knock-on disasters have really put a crimp on the tourist industry around here, so everywhere is offering big discounts to entice the punters back. This ryokan has cut its prices by about 50%, bringing it (just) into the price range of a bunch of ALTs. I'm excited!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I'm starting with the man in the miira

(Miira means 'mummy' in Japanese, though the word in fact comes from Portuguese.)

I know, I know, this is way overdue. I haven't posted in over a month, in which time both my parents and the sakura have come and gone, and summer has pretty much arrived, bringing with it pollen and insects. Aside from the obvious benefit of facilitating snowboarding, there's a lot to be said for having a metre of snow on the ground at all times.

So why the holdup? To be honest, I just haven't really felt like blogging lately. As my man Holden Caulfield says, you have to be in the mood for these things. Maybe it's because my last flurry of posts were all related to the Great Earthquake (as people are now calling it, although usually in Japanese), and it seems a bit pedestrian to go back to covering my life in again-sleepy Yamagata after all that drama. Also, I've kind of got it in my head that I have more of an audience after the quake; though this is my hundred-and-somethingth post, I feel a bit like a briefly popular band tackling their difficult second album right now. And I guess there were some post-holiday blues too; after my parents' visit, and my little camping trip during Golden Week (it'll be a while until I get round to telling you about that), I just felt a bit out-of-sorts.

Anyway, the time has come to stop being a navel-gazing ponce and get on with it, so I'll belatedly tell you about my folks coming to Yamagata for their second time. They arrived on friday, the intercontinental journey having gone better than they could possibly have hoped for, as they had been upgraded to business class for the flight. I kicked things off with a kaitenzushi dinner, my dad trying the 'whale bacon' but balking at the raw horse.

After much discussion, it was decided that Saturday's destination should be the history-rich Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture. Yes, Fukushima. It's a pretty big prefecture, and this particular part of it is scarcely any closer to Daiichi than my house is. Driving through the mountains, we bagged an early monkey sighting. Also during the drive, my dad (who was sitting in the back) proffered the opinion that there was something amiss with my suspension.

First stop was the castle. Like so many in Japan, it is not the original structure but a modern reproduction - the conflict that brought about the unification of Japan and the end of the feudal age claimed most of the castles. Nevertheless, it was an interesting enough place to visit, as its interior was essentially a museum. Whilst browsing the exhibits, we felt an aftershock strong enough to make the projected displays go all wobbly. Of course, this is nothing to a seismic connoisseur like myself, but this grade 2 was my parents' first earthquake, and so they greeted it with some excitement. (The big one was a '5+' where I was.)

After a quick 500yen fleecing for a disappointing 'tea ceremony' (someone handing you a tray of green teas and mochi cakes does not constitute a tea ceremony - we weren't even kneeling!) we headed to a reconstructed samurai residence. This too was pretty good, though the owners had felt the need to liven it up with mannequins depicting dramatic scenes from the place's past, such as the lady of the house killing herself and her children rather than being taken hostage by the invading forces. (If there's one thing the Japanese love, it's a noble suicide.) The trouble was, they hadn't got the faces right. I know the Japanese tend to conceal their emotions, but I'm guessing the matriarch didn't have quite the same tranquil expression as the mannequin just before she kiri'd her hara.

Following a quick stop at my mum's favourite gyuudon chain Sukiya (where we were accosted by a crazy old lady - I've got to get better at pretending I don't understand any Japanese), we headed back home, as we had a shabu shabu engagement with my quasi-supervisor and my Anglophile retired archaeologist friend. Dad made an early blunder by walking on the tatami with slippers on. Lots of omiyage was exchanged, and a thoroughly enjoyable evening was had by all. However, my parents later revealed that although they had liked the food, they found the process of cooking it themselves in the cauldron on the table a little tiresome. I suppose I can see where they're coming from, particularly as using chopsticks is still a bit of a struggle for them.

On sunday we went the opposite direction, going through even more mountains on the way to north-west Yamagata prefecture. The frost and/or the snow-chains of winter had taken their toll on the roads, which had some mean potholes. In the back once again, Dad was not having a good time. Actually I'm currently driving a courtesy car (a slightly newer and marginally less crappy Wagon R), having put mine into the garage to get this sorted. Anyway, we eventually made it to a remote little temple in the mountains, famed for being home to a sokushinbutsu, an adherent of a particularly weird variant of Buddhism who literally mediated himself to death, mummifying himself in the process. It truly is a remarkable thing to do, involving deliberately starving and poisoning oneself gradually over a period of six years before being entombed alive, such that one's corpse will be preserved without any kind of embalming. The practice was more-or-less exclusive to Yamagata (it doesn't happen anymore, thankfully), and thus is probably the most interesting thing the prefecture has going for it.

Now, the information I just gave you came from researching the subject after the fact, because when we arrived at the temple we were ushered in to join the guided tour which a genial priest had evidently just started giving. It was of course in Japanese, and went on for about half an hour, during which time I managed to extract only about 20% of what he was trying to tell us. This is quite a low hit-rate for me these days, but he was a) talking quickly, b) seemed to have quite a local accent, and most importantly c) I'm not to up on my mummification vocab. To be fair, he chatted to me one-on-one for a bit at the end, adopting a more foreigner-friendly delivery, and I fared rather better. Anyway, after this prolonged build-up, we got what we came for when he drew back the curtain to reveal a shriveled but remarkably intact sitting figure, decked out in what stuck me as an inappropriately flashy colourful robe. Later on, Mum inexplicably offered the opinion that self-mummification wasn't that big a deal, because "he was old anyway". I couldn't believe what I was hearing; you don't have to approve of what the guy did - I'd describe it as misguided, at best - but any way you look at it it's surely impressively hardcore? Marlo wasn't having it.

Next up was Zempou-ji, a beautiful temple with a five-story pagoda. It also boasted the ancillary attraction of a pond inhabited by 'human-faced carp', which we felt we had to check out. We were rather underwhelmed; it seemed they were human faced in that they had one mouth and two eyes, but that was about it. But to be honest, we probably got more enjoyment out of laughing about how spurious the claim was than we would have done if every single fish had been a dead ringer for, say, Adrian Chiles.

After that we briefly stopped off at the beach. Living as I do up in the mountains about 70km inland, I often forget that Yamagata actually has a coastline with beaches. Dad and I spent some time attempting to divert a small stream that was running across the sand, just as we did together at Loch Earn when I was about six. I found it hard not to imagine a 10-metre wave rolling in from the sea and destroying everything though. Then it was time for the long drive home, and more socialising, this time at Marie's.

That seems like a good place to leave it for this installment. Next time: the most awkward cherry blossom viewing ever.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Whole lotta shakin' goin' on

Or, "Fool's mould".

Things are pretty much back to normal now. All the shops and restaurants have reopened, the fuel is flowing, and as of yesterday, the final link on the shinkansen line from here to Tokyo (i.e. the part going through Fukushima prefecture) is back in action. Hats off to Japan Railways for getting it sorted out so quickly - immediately after the quake, everyone was predicting it would take about three months. The weekend before last I even managed to give my board one final outing for the season, as Yonezawa Ski-jou opened at limited capacity for a spot of melty spring riding.

There are still a few indications that we experienced a catastrophe barely a month ago. Certain things are still in weirdly short supply in the supermarkets: fruit juice and yoghurt remain hard to come by, for some reason. There is one girl at my school conspicuously wearing a different uniform to everyone else, indicating that she is an evacuee. And then there are the aftershocks.

Let me relate what happened last thursday night. One of my friends from Yonezawa had recently returned after fleeing to New Zealand, so we met up for dinner and watched a movie. One of our topics of conversation was futon upkeep, with her complaining about the hassle of having to air the things out regularly. Clearly, this is not something I bother doing. After she left, I decided it was time to have a butchers at the tatami (straw mat) upon which my futon had been all winter. Sure enough, there was a thriving colony of mould there.

So, I relocated my futon to the living room, and attempted to dry out the fungus with my kerosene heater. (Having bought a full canister when it was scarce, now that it's getting warmer I literally have kerosene to burn.) I had no sooner settled down to my new bed than I heard the now familiar sound of my flimsy house rattling, and felt the almost routine sensation of the room shaking. But within seconds it became clear that this wasn't just an everyday tremor; in fact, it was the biggest aftershock yet. As the intensity picked up, I darted under the table, and watched the lights flicker, willing them to stay on. They didn't. For the second time in a month, I found myself propping up candles in empty beer cans.

The power still wasn't on by the morning, so I was unable to shower before donning my suit for my school's ceremony to welcome the new first-graders. There are a whole lot of ceremonies in April, let me tell you. Thankfully, the power was restored that morning while I was at school. At the supermarket on the way home, I picked up some Kabi Kiraa (mould killer). Also available was Kabi Haitaa (mould fighter), but I figured I'd have to be some kind of chump to buy that when the killer was available.

I had just got home from school on monday and was chilling out when yet another aftershock hit. This time I decided to mix things up a bit and stand in a doorway, which is the other approved method of riding out a quake. Perhaps it was because I was standing, but this one seemed more violent than the one of the previous week. My lights were swinging wildly, and from the kitchen I heard something smash - it turned out that a wineglass had fallen from a high cupboard. But the power stayed on this time, meaning that for the first time I got to watch the TV following a major tremor. NHK just rotates through Japanese, English, Mandarin, Korean and Portuguese (there are a surprising number of Brazilians in Japan) repeatedly warning people in coastal regions to get to higher ground. Thankfully, no significant tsunami occurred.

The aftershocks (or is that afteraftershocks?) kept coming through the evening, during which I had a Japanese lesson in a none-too-sturdy-looking post-war concrete monstrosity of a community centre. As it turned out, we were studying a reading passage all about the benefits of tatami, including that they promote a hygienic lifestyle. With twenty minutes of the class left, we were hit by a moderately big tremor, and at that the sensei decided to call it a day and get the hell out of there. I think maybe she'd just run out of ideas for the lesson.

Just as I was writing this in the staffroom at school (though term has started, there are no proper lessons yet), everyone's mobile phone earthquake alerts went off simultaneously. There is something particularly chilling about this five-second warning of an impending quake. But as it turned out, the tremor was barely even perceptible - just a 5.3 over in Fukushima. I literally don't get out of bed for less than a 6.0 these days.

On friday my parents will arrive here, bucking the gaijin exodus. They will spend a week here in Nanyo (I will still be at school on the weekdays), and then we will fly down to Osaka for a long weekend. I suppose I should make some token effort to clean my house up a bit before they get here. But as my import copy of Rock Band 3 has just arrived, along with a 102-button 'pro' fake guitar, it seems doubtful that this will happen.