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.