Friday, October 12, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.4

Ok, this delay is getting silly. In addition to my standard excuses of now having a job that actually occupies me full-time, and a relationship that occupies many of my weekends, I was recently struck down with a nasty kidney infection. For a full week I was rendered pretty much useless between waves of fever, nausea, and fatigue. But my urinary system is once again firing on all cylinders, and it's time to finally put this countdown to bed.

As I write this, I'm on a shink speeding north of a friday night to see my sweetheart. I have eschewed my normal shink entertainments - studying Japanese vocab, listening to Scottish hip-hop, and watching possible-glimpse-into-my-own-future Breaking Bad - and hefted out my laptop. Let's do this.

2. Izu peninsula, June
Leaving our rather sketchy hotel at a brutally early hour, Amber and I strode to the bus stop, hiking boots on feet and rucksacks on backs. About an hour later, we were dropped at a golf course, from which we began to hike through the drizzle up Amagi-dake.

Within a couple of hours we had reached the summit. The hike was fairly tame; more of a traverse across a ridge than a proper peak ascent. Sadly, because of the weather there weren't really any views to speak of, although given that it was rainy season, I suppose we lucky to get away with only a gentle moistening. In fact, as we descended through the forest on the other side, the sun made an appearance.

Pleasant though our downhill woodland stroll was, it did go on a bit. As the hours wore on and still the trail continued, we began to get a little concerned about catching the last bus back to civilisation. But as it happened, we made it with about half an hour to spare, during which time I managed to cockily bag a cache.

The bus took us to the only slightly less middle-of-nowhere locale where we would be spending the night. Given Amber's dietary disability, it was tough finding a place to eat, but we eventually settled on a cosy little bistro, where I had the local specialty of venison curry, though it was a little dear. Hahahahaha.

By sheer dumb luck we happened to be there during the firefly festival, so after dinner we went down to the river and saw some local schoolkids re-enact the memorable moment when the Serenity crew gave the Reavers the slip by pulling a "crazy Ivan". That's not true. What we did see was dozens of bioluminscent insects, which Amber had never previously witnessed. It was all quite romantic.

At last it was time to walk our now-aching legs to the ryokan. As soon as we got there, we realised we had lucked out: the place was seriously nice, overlooking a river in a beautiful steep-sided mountain valley. It was the sort of place that would normally cost an arm and a leg, but thanks to a) it being a sunday night and b) us having opted out of dinner and breakfast, it actually worked out cheaper than the crappy hotel we'd stayed in the previous night. Thus, we thought nothing of paying an extra thousand yen to book the private onsen for an hour of boozy bathing.

1. The DMZ, November (photos)
Well, in a shock development, this year's number one doesn't take place in Japan.

Once again, it was an inhumanely early start as we made our way across Seoul to Camp Kim, which turned out to be a US army base, not just a particularly flamboyant Korean guy. From there a bus took us north, and after about an hour we got our first glimpse of the "Democratic" "People's" "Republic" of Korea across the water as we drove along the heavily fortified coast of a wide bay. From there, things just got spookier and spookier.

Our first destination was another army base, just outside of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Here we were ushered into an auditorium and given a briefing on the history and politics of the North/South Korea border. I suppose I could have called it a presentation, but I think when it's delivered in a rapid monotone by a guy in camouflage, it's a briefing. At this point we were also made to sign a disclaimer, and told the rules. Basically, we were not to do anything that could conceivably be viewed as provoking the North, which included pointing at them. Oh, and don't photograph anything unless explicitly told that you may.

Being sure to display our visitor passes clearly, we got back onto the bus, and negotiated the 2km gauntlet of checkpoints and Jersey barrier slaloms to heart of the DMZ. We visited Conference Row, a series of huts straddling the border, for tense pow-wows between the two sides. From here one could look across and see North Korean soldiers standing guard perhaps 50m away. We were allowed into one of the huts, meaning that we were able to step over the line bisecting the building and technically be in North Korea. Of course, a mean-looking South Korean soldier in mirrored shades was guarding the door on the north side. Apparently they are all masters of taekwondo, though I'm willing to take their word on that.

After that we were taken to an observation post, and then to the site of the infamous poplar tree incident of 1976. The last stop in the DMZ was a place where one could view "Propaganda Village". You see, each side is allowed to have one settlement inside the DMZ. While the South's one is about as ordinary a village as it's possible to have within around a mile of the world's most heavily fortified border, the North's appears to be just for show - it's home to an enormous flagpole but apparently no actual people other than a skeleton crew of janitors. Or so we are told, though of course one has to remember that propaganda works both ways. Anyway, being able to stare out across no-mans-land to this supposed Communist ghost town was intensely interesting. I'm pretty confident that I will never experience a better coin-op telescope thing in my life. I'm convinced that I spotted a group of people running, as if they were training...

After that we stopped for lunch and a couple of second-string tourist spots including a formerly secret tunnel from the North. Being outside of the DMZ, any Tom, Dick or Harry could access these, and they were mobbed. If you are ever in the area, I heartily recommend ponying up for the military escort into the DMZ proper.

Once back in town, we spent the afternoon in Bukchon, the picturesque historical district which appeared to be home to lots of hipster boutiques and coffee shops. Then for dinner, Amber had her heart set on a traditional Buddhist restaurant that served only vegetarian food. In this upmarket but quirky establishment, there was no menu as such; everyone was served twenty - count them, twenty - different little dishes, with not a morsel of flesh among them. Even Amber, who voluntarily eats vegetarian food every day of her life, had to admit that it got a bit samey, and at least 30% of the dishes were rubbish. On the plus side, we ordered "homemade rice wine", which turned out to be a milky liquid a little like Japanese nigorizake (cloudy, unfiltered sake), served in a huge wooden bowl with a ladle. The drink turned out to makkori, a Korean beverage popular in Japan, which I have had a taste for ever since.

Tired and pleasantly full of makkori (and somewhat less pleasantly full of unidentified leaves and pulses), we returned to "Jelly Hotel", which was very much designed to cater for couples, if you know what I mean. Never before have I seen complimentary contraceptives alongside the usual soap and toothpaste. Although it meant nothing to us at the time, I'm retroactively very pleased that our love hotel was situated in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Oppan Gangnam style!

Well, that's it. I think the main conclusion that can be drawn here is that drunkenly bathing with Amber is to 2011-12 what drunkenly screaming Rinda Rinda was to 2010-11. Which I suppose is progress of a sort.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.3

4. Sapporo with Blair and Martha, October (photos)
When I look back on our trip to Hokkaido (Japan's north island), I tend to remember it being a debacle. But to be fair, that's only because one truly disastrous day cast something of a shadow over the whole thing. Briefly: we went to an art gallery that was shut, a brewery that was shut, a vegetarian restaurant that didn't exist, had a late lunch of deep fried things on sticks, attempted to go on a cable car that was closed for maintenance, and finally gave up and spent about 4 hours in a bar until it was time for our sleeper train.

However, the previous day had been better. We took a trip out to the port town of Otaru, which is famed for its European-style canals and warehouses. Fetching though the canal was in the moments of autumn sunshine between the showers, it was pretty underwhelming for a group of four actual Europeans.

The guidebook recommended an ice-cream parlour famed for its wacky flavours. We each got a double scoop, yours truly opting for a quintessentially Japanese combo of sake and ikazumi (squid ink), the latter being alarmingly black. I have to give them credit: in their tireless quest for gustatory authenticity, they had not let any concerns for whether the end product would be in any way palatable stand in their way. Blair's beer ice cream really did taste like beer (or perhaps beer foam), which isn't really what one looks for in a milky frozen confection. But the worst of the whole bunch had to be "buttered potato" flavour. Eww.

After some more canal-side strolling we went to a microbrewery that was decked out like a German bierkeller, in keeping with the whole European vibe. You know, the sort of place where one could actually get away with wearing lederhosen. We had some tankards of pricy but delicious weissbier, accompanied by sausages (of course), and a baguette that had been curved 180 degrees into a freestanding arch, in one of the more impressive examples of bread architecture that I've seen.

We got the train back into Sapporo, and after some slack time wandering around in a park, we headed for the entertainment district of Susukino for dinner. Sapporo is famed for its seafood, so we settled on kaitenzushi, allowing Amber to choose from the approximately 10% of the items that didn't involve any animal death. It was a good choice; the place was small and fairly quiet, not too flashy but with much nicer fish than you'd get in your average 100-yen-a-plate chain place. They didn't have that much on the conveyor at the time, so one had request things directly. Blair really got into this, enjoying the challenge of remembering the pronunciation that I whispered in his ear and then confidently shouting it to the chef. Despite some initial hiccups, he was ordering fried squid tentacles by himself by the end of the night. All told, it was probably the most fun I've ever had at a kaitenzushi joint.

Bellies full of vinegared rice, Sapporo beer and (mostly) raw seafood, it was of course time for our guests' first Japanese karaoke experience. Two hours, all you can drink, standard. As might be expected from someone who voluntarily raps in public, my little brother didn't hold back on his performance. Martha was no vocal slouch either, and had a knack of picking excellent tunes. For me, the highlight of the whole evening was Blair declaring, after a memorable performance of Lavigne's Sk8r Boi, that "We may as well just give up on 'music' now. Ever since the first caveman banged some rocks together, that's the song mankind has been aiming for."

3. Fake Christmas, December
'Twas the weekend before Christmas, but since Amber was going to be on holiday in the Philippines for the day itself, and neither of us had any prospect of experiencing any proper yuletide festivities, we decided to try to have a surrogate Christmas at hers, just the two of us. We exchanged presents, and then went for a walk (or rather, a trudge) through the snow-covered woods. It was a beautiful still day - all was calm, all was bright - and as we looked out over Amber's little village, a few flakes began to serenely fall.

Returning home, we fired up the kerosene, opened the wine, put on the Christmas tunes, and prepared dinner. Of course, there was no meat on the menu, but I have to say that Amber's fake chicken mix, despite tasting nothing like chicken (though a bit like stuffing) was actually really tasty. We even had some warm tamagozake (egg sake), a sickly yellow drink which I thought was a pretty good analog of eggnog.

You know that strangely intense sensation of satisfaction that comes with being indoors on a winter day, like you are inside a little protective sanctuary of warmth? Well, on top of that we had the pleasant feeling of having created a little bubble of home in a strange land that doesn't give a hoot (or indeed, a fig) about Christmas, where December 25th is just another day. There isn't really much more to report about this one; it was just a blissfully cosy and intimate day with the woman I love.

Sorry, with that last paragraph I was just trying to evoke the feeling of downing a whole cup of warm tamagozake.

Stick around for the exciting conclusion!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.2

7. Hakone, June
To mark our first anniversary, Amber rented a scooter and together we rode to the popular onsen resort of Hakone, at the opposite end of Kanagawa prefecture. Oh, "btw", I bought a 50cc scooter when I came down here. It's awesome.

Late June is smack-dab in the middle of tsuyu (rainy season), so just as on that fateful climb up Mt Asahi a year previously, we got soaked on the way there. To make matters worse, one of us forgot to bring waterproof trousers (clue: it wasn't me). But conditions were somewhat better the next day, which was merely dull and overcast but largely dry.

First on the agenda was a trip to Owakudani (literally, "great boiling valley"), where steam and sulphurous vapour erupt from the ground. Coming from Yamagata, Amber and I are no strangers to the otherworldly spectacle of steamy barren hills and the stench of brimstone, but this place had a clever gimmick: kurotamago ("black eggs"). They hard-boil eggs right there in the spring water, where a chemical reaction turns the shells black. Legend (or possibly just marketing) has it that each egg will add seven years to one's life. I had two.

Next we rode down the mountain to an open-air sculpture... museum? Gallery? Whatever you call it, the lush green mountainside made for a striking backdrop to the various quirky installations. As ever, I found that the key to enjoying modern art is just to not take it too seriously.

The place had a special hall devoted to Picasso. Realising that the collection could only have represented a tiny fraction of his life's output, I was struck by how prolific the guy must have been. But to be honest, some of the stuff was a bit rubbish. It looks like for every Guernica, he must have made several hundred dodgy bowls. One kind of wonders why he bothered with all the filler.

By this point it was well into the afternoon, so we grabbed some soba by the lake, took in a quick shrine, bagged a cache, and rode back to our guesthouse. We decided that we'd hit an izakaya for our evening's entertainment, but it was now sunday night in a small town, and pickings were slim. We ended up just stocking up on booze and otsumami (drinking snacks - despite Amber's protestations, I insisted on some dried squid) and taking the party back home. We rounded off the night with another slightly boozy bath in the bookable private onsen.

6. The Born This Way Ball, May
Regular readers will be able to imagine how excited I was about this one. Despite all the upheaval of moving down south, I'd managed to be on the ball enough to snap up a couple of tickets for one of Ms Germanotta's sell-out shows at the Saitama Super Arena, among the first few dates of the still ongoing world tour.

I have to say, I was a little disappointed in some respects. I found Gaga's inter-song banter to be rather weak; her gushing about how much she loves all her little monsters (for the uninitiated, that's the intensely patronising term she uses to refer to her fans) just came across as insincere and tedious. I have no doubt that Holden Caulfield would have denounced her as a goddamn phoney.

I guess the underlying problem was that I'd really rather have been in 2010 and at the Monster Ball. I'm still unconvinced by the direction she's gone with the latest album. I wish she'd just stick to making amazing pop songs rather than trying to be some saviour of the downtrodden; I'm pretty sure The Gays had been doing alright before she came along to reassure them that they had indeed been born that way. And getting back to the concert I'm supposed to be talking about, the problem was that some of the big hits from The Fame / The Fame Monster, being fairly straightforward upbeat party tunes (Just Dance, Poker Face, Telephone, etc), weren't really in keeping with the whole overwrought rock opera aesthetic of the show. It seemed that she felt the need to ironically repackage them, almost as if she was trying to distance herself from her more radio-friendly roots, which I thought was a real shame.

But these are minor complaints really. In terms of spectacle and vocal performance it was difficult to fault the show at all. She really is a pro. And the atmosphere of being one of the 32000-strong crowd, all screaming "Ju-das! Ju-da-a-as!" in unison was every bit as awesome as I'd hoped.

The night came to a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion, however, after Amber and I enjoyed a rather too leisurely post-gig meal and then somehow got on the wrong train. Thus, we found ourselves in "Hiratsuka" at 1am, with no plausible way back to Zushi. In this situation, there are a couple of things one can do. The truly hardcore would just karaoke through the night. However, since neither Amber nor I is a crackhead, we instead went to a 24-hour "manga cafe". These are weird glorified internet cafes where one rents a semi-private booth with a computer. I'm not sure if anyone actually uses these places for their ostensible functions of reading comics or playing computer games, because their primary purpose appears to be cheap overnight crashing.

That's what we were there to do, so I got into my individual booth and curled up with my head under the computer (where it was slightly darker) and had 4 hours of fairly poor sleep until we could catch the first train. Not a great way to spend the night, but at least that's a Japanese rite-of-passage ticked off. And hey, it beats sleeping in a car park.

5. Yuza beach party, July
As an unofficial goodbye bash for the departing Yamagata JETs, a beach party was organised up in the very north-west corner of the prefecture. There wasn't anything particularly remarkable about the shindig, but it was thoroughly enjoyable simply because it ticked all the boxes of what one looks for in a beach party. You probably don't think I have a literal beach party checklist, but that's where you're wrong.

Good weather: Dry, blue skies and not too hot, maybe just pushing the 30deg mark. After the gorgeous sunset (we were on the west coast) it became cool enough to necessitate a jumper. There was a stiffer-than-ideal breeze though, so we pitched our tent in the lee of a refreshment stand. This was a little problematic when the proprietors set up shop at 7 the next morning, and requested - not unreasonably - that we relocate.

Well-equipped: Impressively, someone had managed to borrow a couple of proper marquees from their board of education or something, so these served as party headquarters. Someone else had brought an honest-to-goodness hammock which she strung up in the (empty) lifeguard stand. I don't know about you, but sometimes I like to just drop out of social gatherings for 15 minutes of quiet introspection, and the hammock made for an excellent place to do that.

Amber and I brought a tent each, meaning that we had a decoy, substantially boosting our chances of having the remaining one to ourselves. But the item I was most pleased about bringing was my new favourite gadget: my solar panel that ensures I will have internet and GPS wherever I go (as long as it's sunny).

Aquatic antics: I wouldn't go so far as to say the sea was warm, but it was certainly a whole lot more pleasant than any outdoor swimming experience of my childhood in the UK. There were some jellyfish floating around, but thankfully these were few enough that they could be spotted and avoided fairly easily; it just gave the otherwise carefree frolicking a slight element of jeopardy.

Food and drink: We had ample barbeque capacity, though the aforementioned wind did make getting the things lit a bit of a challenge. However, there is nothing blokes enjoy more than discussing how to start a fire in tricky conditions. We had ice boxes well stocked with drinks, so there was never a queue for the summertime booze. And in the morning, the yakisoba and ice cream of the also aforementioned refreshment stand made for a delicious, if not nutritious, breakfast substitute.

Campfire: Everyone loves a fire. Not only does it provide heat and warmth, but beach-combing for fuel is a fun activity too. Late in the evening, Amber and I went for a stroll down the beach to swig J├Ągermeister and look for shooting stars (I think I actually saw one), and when we returned dragging a huge piece of driftwood, we were campfire heroes.

Good company: It was a nice size of group - around 25 maybe - and there weren't any real dicks among them, so that was nice. After the massive influx of newbies last year, there aren't actually that many leaving us this summer, so there was less of that bittersweet feeling that often taints JET events around that time of year.

That's it for this batch! Stay tuned for the top... um... four.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.1

Well, I said I'd come out of retirement for my now-customary rundown of the year's personal highlights, so here I am.

I should warn you right now that this list will be quite Amber-heavy. I shall endeavour to keep the mushiness to an absolute minimum, but I fear it may still end up being the kind of document that would make the celibate Zen-master me of 2009 want to punch the current me in the face. So, please have your sick bags and insulin at the ready, and let's go!

10. Shirabu Onsen ryokan, February
As I sit here in the 30 degree evening heat, it's hard to imagine the metres of snow that blanketed southern Yamagata for this weekend of wintry revelry. On the friday night a large group of us converged on the Yonezawa snow lantern festival. I wasn't in the best of moods due to: a mysterious ache in my little toe, one member of the party's annoying religious taboos, Amber's whining about the state of my house, Amber's challenging dietary requirements (a perennial irritation), and Amber's negligent approach to forward planning. We ended up having one of our more severe fallings out.

The next day everyone went ski-ing / boarding at Tengendai, but I sat it out due to my aforementioned foot issue. To this day I have no idea what that was all about. I rendezvoused with the group and we checked into a ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) in a little onsen village high in the mountains. We had time for a quick bathe before dinner. An outdoor pool, surrounded by walls of snow taller than me, on a still winter's night - onsen experiences don't get much better than that. My only complaint was that it was single sex, so I couldn't share the moment with Amber (who was, thankfully, speaking to me again by this point).

We donned our yukata and took our places in the dining room. Actually, I donned my new samue - how many opportunities would I get to wear the thing? Ryokans seem to pride themselves on just how complex they can make a meal, and they didn't let themselves down with dinner: a bewildering but mostly delicious selection of seafood, pickles, and mountain vegetables; some raw, some cooked, and some transitioning between those states before our eyes thanks to individual candle-powered rudimentary stoves.

Eventually we retired to the biggest room we had access to for an evening of drinking games. With our inside knowledge of each other's embarrassing secrets, Amber and I ended up in an amusing kind of mutually assured destruction ("Never have I ever shat myself in the last year"). As the game wound down, we got wind that there was a small private 'family' onsen on the premises, which some of the other couples had been using for some more intimate bathing, so Amber and I ended the night with a drunken bath.

9. Sokendai interview, December
Sitting on the shink in my suit on a friday morning, on my way down to the Tokyo area for a 3pm job interview, I was obviously quite nervous. But given my prodigious capacity for stress, I was actually remarkably calm. I didn't even fret over the content of the 45 min talk I was about to give, my first scientific presentation in well over two years. Perhaps had I fully grasped that I wasn't applying for a postdoc, but rather a faculty position, I would have been somewhat more anxious.

I arrived with loads of time to spare, so I paced edgily around the chilly, overcast campus for a while, receiving good luck messages from various friends. A particularly cute bit of well-wishing from Amber brought a lump to my throat. Around 2:30 I headed in, meeting my boss for the first time. We chatted briefly (including a little in Japanese, as a test) before he left me to set up for my seminar.

My presentation went smoothly, and none of the questions at the end gave me any serious problems. I surprised myself at one point by sketching a circuit diagram on the whiteboard; after two years of mental atrophe, apparently I still had it. Then it was time for the private interview section. I didn't attempt to bullshit at all: yes, I only have one respectable publication. No, I don't have any more publishable data in my locker. No, I don't have a strong background in biology. Yes, I reckon I could build my own experimental rig.

When it was over, I felt euphoric. Of course, a large part of this was just the relief of having got through it, but I also felt I could hold my head high in the knowledge that I had given it my best shot. I was thinking these things as I walked down the hill from the institute to the bus stop, at which point I looked out across Sagami Bay and saw a truly majestic sunset over Mt Fuji. The mist of the afternoon had acted as Mother Nature's spoiler alert to ensure my optimal enjoyment of this breathtakingly beautiful vista. I'm not a spiritual man, but I was very tempted to see this as a sign.

On the train back home I treated myself to a posh bento, which I only realised was self-heating as I polished off the last few morsels of rice and noticed the unaccounted-for volume and mass of the chemical pack under the bottom of the tray. I washed this down with beer, sake, and whisky, leading me to rebrand the vehicle a drinkansen.

8. Takamatsu, April
Amber's parents came to visit around Golden Week this spring. As part of her ongoing mission to visit all 47 prefectures of Japan, she decided to take them on a tour of Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands. I tagged along for a couple of days.

The day I've selected was my third and final day with the Mezbourians, so I was over the initial stress of meeting the parents. I think I'd been reasonably charming, even when Amber deliberately tried to sabotage me by steering the conversation to politics. (Her mum is a local politician; I'm an anarcho-capitalist.) I did however seem to lose points for being "afraid" of pigeons, i.e. not wanting to have the filthy vermin perching on my limbs.

Anyway! The destination for the morning was Yashima, a small coastal mountain with a shrine at its summit. The shrine's gimmick was tanuki - the place was full of idols of the supposedly magical raccoon-like creatures. I'd introduced Mr and Mrs M to geocaching earlier in the weekend, and they'd really taken to it, so I was pleased to find a cache within the temple complex. It led us to a kind of terrace with a sharp drop overlooking the city. This place, the cache information told us, was the venue for a quaint custom whereby one would purchase a stack of brittle clay disks and hurl them over the cliff edge. It was only once we'd exhausted our arsenal that we walked along a little further and found a special clay-tossing zone marked out, complete with hoops to aim for. Oops.

Next on the agenda was an open-air museum at the bottom of the mountain, where historical buildings from all over Shikoku had been dismantled and reconstructed into a (probably very anachronistic) village. As I've mentioned many times on this blog, I find it very difficult to get excited about history. But this place captured my imagination in a way that countless other museums have failed to. Actually walking around the buildings and touching the millstones and soy... um... flagons? brought it home to me that this was actually how people lived just a couple of centuries ago, and gave me some real respect for their industriousness. Papa Mezbourian is a retired engineer, and I feel I bonded with him by puzzling over the workings of various contraptions. The sugar cane press was a highlight.

Takamatsu is famed for its udon (thick wheat noodles), which we hadn't yet sampled, so we rectified that situation at lunch. Amber's dad, being a northern gentleman of a certain age, has quite a no-nonsense approach to food, so I was a little concerned about how he would take to the noodly broth. The previous night I'd taken them to a fairly fancy sushi place, where he'd declared that he wouldn't eat any raw fish, and didn't fancy any grilled eel either, thank you very much. His fairer half, meanwhile, was relishing the experience of taking her life in her hands with the fugu (blowfish) sashimi platter. I eventually got him sorted out with some cooked scallops.

But there was no need to worry on this occasion. Although he eschewed the dashi (on account of it smelling like "wet dog"), he seemed to enjoy the starchy stodge of the udon and pronounced it delicious. Job's a good 'un.

Stay tuned, I can see this being a four-parter.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

So long, farewell

As someone has been pointing out, this blog has seemed a little moribund of late. So, I've made a decision. I'm hanging up my boots; I'm throwing in the towel; I'm handing over my badge and gun. After 127 posts and almost three years, it's time to call it a hi (day).

There are a number of reasons. For one thing, in my new line of work I'm going to have a lot less time to kill. Also, I'm now surrounded by internet-savvy English speakers, so inevitably I'd be that bit more conscious of what I say. But mainly, I just feel that I don't have to much to write about anymore.

I think the reason finlayinjapan worked (if I may be so immodest as to presume that it did indeed "work") is that it was a fish-out-of-water story: it charted all of my experiences as I adjusted to a new culture. But now, I think I am more-or-less completely adjusted. The novelty has worn off. That's not to say I've become disillusioned or jaded; I still love living in Japan. It's just that hopping on a shink to Osaka or tucking into some pufferfish sashimi no longer fills me with the same breathless excitement, and urge to recount the experience to the folks back home, as it once did.

I think my change of occupation was perhaps the final nail in the coffin. I never felt entirely at home as an ALT, and the scrapes I got into provided some good blogging material. It was also something that my readers could relate to, since everyone was at school once. Now that I'm once again securely barricaded inside the ivory tower of academia, I imagine that I'll be having fewer experiences that would be interesting to a general audience.

If anyone reading this is distraught at the prospect of a Finlay-shaped hole in their internet, never fear. My Flickr photostream will remain active, and I've also started to have a presence on Google+ over the last few months. So far, it seems a lot less objectionable than Facebook. So, sign up if you haven't (and let's face it, you probably haven't) and add me to your circles! (Disclaimer: If Google+ does take off in a big way, I might just delete my account like the massive e-hipster snob I am.) Finally, finlayinjapan will say online indefinitely, and I may even post once in a while - at the very least, I want to do a third installment of the Annual Countdown. But you should probably consider the blog in a state of semi-retirement.

Inevitably a goodbye post like this has a bit of a melancholy tone, but I must stress that things are going extremely well in my life. I literally can't think of another job I'd rather being doing. I've found love. And, I'm going to see Lady Gaga in Tokyo next weekend. As I approach my 30th birthday, the future's so bright I gotta wear shades.

Nothing lasts forever, and the chapter of my life that this blog chronicled is now over. But what a chapter it was. My mum commented that coming to Japan on JET was the best decision I ever made, and I'm inclined to agree with her. The last three years have been unforgettable, and incredibly good for me. Thank you for sharing that journey.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hayama-n anarchist!

As of yesterday, I am working (and, for the time being, living) at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (or Sokendai, to give it its abbreviated Japanese name), in Hayama Town, Kanagawa Prefecture. Relocating my life 300-odd kilometres south was, and indeed continues to be, quite the mission. However, things are quiet enough now that I can give you a quick run-down of what's been keeping me way too busy to blog for the last several weeks. Somewhat arbitrarily, I'll start about a fortnight ago.

Wednesday March 21st
This was a day of goodbyes. That afternoon I donned my suit in order to officially resign to the mayor of Nanyo. Protocol dictates that this exchange should take the form of a chat over green tea lasting at least ten minutes, but my Japanese still isn't quite up to that, so after I'd given him my prepared gratitude spiel, he just shot the breeze with my boss, mostly about judo from what I could make out.

In the evening I had not one but two farewell parties. The first was with my board of education colleagues, and wasn't specifically for me, but for everyone doing the end-of-year shuffle. I ate my nabe (Japanese stew), drank my sake, and then made my excuses and left for dinner number two. This was with Marie and the ladies, and was at easily the most up-market sushi restaurant I've ever visited. The delicacies on offer included deep-fried fugu (pufferfish) and a drink containing five little fish, live and swimming.

Thursday March 22nd
Feeling a little the worse for wear, I had to go to Sendai for the second time that week. This was part of a last-minute scramble to get my visa status changed from 'instructor' to 'professor', a detail which everyone had overlooked until very recently. I had planned to take the train, but it wasn't running due to a minor avalanche on the line, so I drove. After I had attended to my business at the immigration office, on a whim I decided to visit the coast, something I hadn't done since the Great Quake. Over a year on, all the debris has been cleared away, but it's still very clear that a disaster took place there. I walked around neighbourhoods that had been reduced to roads and foundations, with the occasional crumpled metal barrier or twisted railing serving as a reminder of the fearsome power of a 10m wall of water.

Saturday March 24th - Wednesday March 28th
My final duty as an ALT was to help run a five-day "English camp" for high school students from all over Yamagata - my first experience of teaching that age group. For the middle three days, I put my scientific spin on things by having the kids design, perform, and present (in English, obviously) simple psychology experiments. These were based on the Stroop effect, the oldest and nuttiest of old chestnuts, familiar to anyone who's done an undergrad psychology course. Anyway, it went better than could reasonably have been expected.

The camp was exhausting. From the wake-up call at 6:30am to the end of our allotted bathtime at 9:55pm, we were on duty more-or-less constantly. But, it was a good way to go out. These students were the best-of-the-best: able, highly motivated, and a joy to teach.

Thursday March 29th
Though I had been packing and tidying up whenever I'd had the time, it was now my last full day in Nanyo, and thus, time to get serious. Though the house had been full of two decades of accumulated ALT detritus when I arrived, I was expected to completely empty the place, for reasons that have still not been adequately explained to me. Thankfully, I had help. For one thing, Amber (who had also been at the camp) had joined forces with me. She has a real flair for housework; I've added that to "being able to play a melody on the piano by ear" on my list talents of hers that I shall never possess. A trio of teaching assistants, who would otherwise have just been sitting in city hall, we also dispatched by the BoE to help in the cleanup operation. Many hands made light work, and it really wasn't that bad. Having said that, there were a few fraught moments as my supervisor relayed the landlord's ever more unreasonable demands and I had to suppress the urge to gun down the messenger.

Friday March 30th
The day of departure had come. Thankfully it was a dry morning, as the landlord insisted that the house be empty for the inspection at 9:30am, and not realising this, I had booked the rental van from 10:30. So I just piled up my boxes and fake musical instruments on the front step. He pocketed the lion's share of my deposit, but I'd been expecting that - Japanese landlords seem to act as if their clients are in fact their serfs - so I was happy to get anything back at all. Then it was round to Marie's for one last goodbye, during which she presented me with an enormous bottle of that sake with the gold flakes that we customarily drink at New Year. And then, we hit the road just after noon.

Amber took the wheel for the first little bit, taking us as far as the outskirts of Fukushima City. I then took over, powering down the expressway through the bulk of Fukushima and Tochigi. It was a beautiful sunny spring day, and I felt more than a little melancholy to be leaving behind the still snow-capped mountains. At tea time we stopped off at a service station, where - unbelievably - we witnessed a man walking a monkey on a lead.

With dusk falling, Amber got back in the driving seat for the tough part: Tokyo. Navigation is not among her surprising talents, so we figured it was best to have me on GPS duties for this. People had given me dire warnings about the difficulty of negotiating the tangled expressways around the capital, so it was with some trepidation that we set off.

While my doomsaying friends might have been laying it on a bit thick, I will say this: I don't know how anyone navigated the Tokyo expressways before the advent of GPS navigation. Even with GPS, you really had to be on the ball to take all the right exits; I'm not sure I could have done it alone. We only really came unstuck once, after being in a mental corkscrew tunnel for about 10km and thus having no clue where we were. This necessitated a brief but highly stressful detour through the streets of Shibuya.

We finally arrived at the university dorm, in our seventh prefecture of the day, at around 10pm. As we got into bed, it all hit me: leaving Yamagata, the tension of the drive, my anxieties about my new life, and most of all, the realisation that the days of jumping in the car to see Amber of a friday night were over. I was soon sobbing uncontrollably.

Saturday March 31st
As they always do, things seemed better in the morning. We unloaded my possessions to my room in the dorm (I am temporarily homeless, as I can't move into my new place until later this week), and then drove into Zushi (where I will soon be living) to return the van. We then spent the day doing some low-level sightseeing, strolling around my new hometown, then taking the train to nearby Kamakura, where I introduced Amber to geocaching, and we went inside a 760 year old, 121 tonne bronze Buddha, before walking along the beachfront at sunset. My first impressions of the region are:
  • It's a lot warmer than Yamagata.
  • There's a lot more money around here. During our epic walk, we stumbled into a weird sort of gated community (except that it didn't actually have gates) full of BMWs and ostentatiously avant-garde architecture.
  • It's a lot more crowded; space is clearly at much more of a premium around these parts.
  • It's much more cosmopolitan. Within five minutes walk of Zushi station we found Italian, Chinese, Indian, and Thai restaurants, and supermarkets selling the kind of imported goods that would previously have required a trip to Yamaya.
Sunday April 1st
This was never going to be the funnest of days. After bagging a quick cache in the complex that the university is part of (there are like eight in all of Yamagata prefecture), I accompanied Amber into Tokyo. We went to Harajuku to see the cosplayers who supposedly hang out there on sundays, but all we saw were lots of other gaijin looking slightly disappointed. Then we just had time for a quick tofu burger (I had a real burger, obviously) before Amber had to get her train back north. There were emotional scenes at the station.

It was a beautiful evening, so I walked the hour-and-a-half back from Zushi station to the uni. I checked in with Marlo on Skype, and then, in something of a symbolic gesture, forlornly shaved my hair, which had got very long and unkempt as a result of Amber's pleas for me to grow up, stop shaving my own head, and go to a barber.

Monday April 2nd
My very first task was to unpack and set up the super-flashy quad core 23" touchscreen that had been provided for me at my request. I spent much of the day assembling the software tools of my trade, and I took the opportunity to try to instill (and install) some good habits that were sorely lacking during my PhD, by downloading a proper citation manager and the exciting up-and-coming open-source stats program R.

In the afternoon I had to officially receive my contract. Though there was a certain amount of the classic Japanese formality about this, it was substantially toned down compared to working for Nanyo City. In the little time I've spent at Sokendai, I've noticed that there are two kinds of people who work here: administrators and scientists. They are easy to distinguish, because the former wear the standard suit of the Japanese civil servant, whereas the latter wear jeans and open-necked shirts.

Tuesday April 3rd
More of the same today; I still haven't got started on any proper work yet. However, I did attend my first ever faculty meeting, which was conducted in Japanese and thus while I had a rough idea of what was being discussed, I was still a long way from being able to contribute usefully. Actually, the language thing is worth commenting on. Back at the BoE, I had got to a stage where my broken, faltering Japanese was probably a little better than most people's broken, faltering English, so most communication was does in the former. Here, because everyone has to attend international conferences and read English journals, the average level of English is much higher, so people invariably talk to me in my native tongue. I fear that this may be bad for my Japanese studying. But I suppose I'll have five years of tuesday lunchtime faculty meetings to practice on.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Samue over the rainbow

I've been meaning to write this post for over two weeks, but things have been a little busy. Making preparations for my new life in Kanagawa, starting the mammoth hassle that is exfiltrating Yamagata, coming up with kindergarten lessons, maintaining a relationship... I would say I've been kept on my toes, but this time last week I was hobbling around with an agonising pain in my left Digitus minimus pedis. I have no idea what caused this; my uninformed opinion has been oscillating between mysterious bone fracture and chilblains/frostnip. In any case, it seems to be fine now.

As you may know, I rotate between Nanyo's three junior high schools, typically spending a month at each. Since I'm out of here at the end of March, the last week of January was - in quite a real sense - the beginning of the end, as I had to say my final sayonara to one of my schools.

I didn't think this would be a particularly big deal. Public servants (including teachers) get mercilessly reshuffled with every new fiscal year without any particular fanfare. Given that I'm not even a proper teacher, plus the slightly dishonourable circumstances under which I'm departing, I thought it would be a case of sneaking out the back door. But of course, I was a fool to think that the Japanese would miss an opportunity for a ceremony.

About a week prior to my final day, I overheard my name being used in the staffroom. I strolled over to find the third-in-command (in effect, the vice-principal, since as far as I can make out, the principal of a Japanese school enjoys a monarch-like ceremonial role) asking an English teacher to interview me. In a move which could be seen as either helpful or cocky, I plucked the sheet of Japanese questions from his hand and declared that I could handle this myself. I spent the next hour or so writing in Japanese about my experiences as an ALT.

The vice-vice-principle also asked me what leaving present I would like. This felt like a faux pas minefield, but I was pleased when I came up with the idea of a yukata - a light cotton kimono worn when attending summer festivals or lounging around after an onsen - which is something I'd idly been meaning to buy myself for some time. Finally, he informed me that I'd be expected to make a short speech in Japanese at my wakarekai (farewell ceremony).

When the day came, my co-teachers kept telling me only to come to the last ten minutes of our lessons. This was just as well in a way, as my speech still needed quite a bit of work. Anyway, this premeditated tardiness was to allow the students to spend the first forty minutes making cards for me, which they would then present at the end of the class. Though one could could question the sincerity of their coerced well-wishing, the gesture still gave me a lump in my throat every time.

The plan had been for my wakarekai to take place at the end of the school day, in the dojo. (Many Japanese schools have a separate gym hall especially for martial arts.) But the whole school was on lockdown because of a flu outbreak, so instead the ceremony was held over the PA system at lunchtime, to minimise the risk of contagion. Thus, my last day at Akayu Junior High was also my first glimpse of the 'broadcast club' at work in the school's little soundproofed studio.

A girl read out a bio of me based on my interview answers (edited into grammatical and polite Japanese, obviously). Then I was presented with my requested gift, and an impressively huge bouquet of flowers, although sadly I guess the impact of this was rather lost on radio. Of course, flowers are about as much use to me as a chocolate kotatsu, but I've bought enough in my time to know that this bunch would have run to several thousand yen. I gave them to Amber the following weekend, and she seemed to like them.

Then, it was time for me to take to the mic and spit some Japanese. I'd decided not to have anyone check my script, because a) I'd only finished it about an hour previously, b) I was a bit embarrassed, and c) I always tell my students not to be afraid of making mistakes in English, so I figured I should practice what I preach. It seemed to go down reasonably well, eliciting compliments from a few teachers.

Returning to the staffroom, the VVP apologised that he'd not, in fact, been able to get me a yukata. Evidently, trying to buy a yukata in January is like shopping for mince pies and brandy butter in July. To his credit, he'd thought outside the box and got me the next best thing, a 'samue'.

Now, I'd never heard of a samue, but it turns out it is the name given to the everyday, non-ceremonial clothes worn by a Buddhist priest. It's a loose-fitting two-piece affair consisting of trousers and a kimono-esque double-breasted jacket, all in navy blue. Topping (or rather bottoming) it all off was a pair of tabi, the weird split-toe black shoes worn by ninjas. Incidentally, these had come from a shop called Workman that sells apparel for labourers, but I'm struggling to see what line of work, other than feudal-age espionage, tabi would be appropriate for.

He urged me to try the outfit on. This generated a lot of excitement in the staff room. I suppose it was quite an unusual scene: an office full of Japanese people wearing Western clothes, and one white guy looking like an extra from Seven Samurai. I wasn't sure whether it would be rude to change out of it again, and since it was now about 3pm on my last day ever at the school, I decided to just ride it out.

I really like this gift. Yukata are ten-a-penny (in summer at least), but this is quite out of the ordinary; having told this story to various Japanese people, I've realised that I was not alone in my ignorance of what a samue is. As it happens, the word sounds exactly like one of my male students lazily enunciating the fact that it's cold ('samui'), so that's usually the first source of confusion that must be overcome. I typically end up spelling the word out in kanji. This is a not-uncommon occurrence in Japanese conversations, because of all the phonetic ambiguity. Not that you care, but it's 'sa' as in sagyou ('work'), 'mu' as in gimu ('duty') and 'e' as in 'ifuku' ('clothes' - I know there's no 'e'; don't ask), which is a completely different proposition from, say, 'samu' as in cold and 'e' as in picture.

This tedious digression into the Japanese language serves as a handy segue into wrapping up this post by telling you that I finally got the results of the JLPT N3 test that I sat in December. I neglected to prepare for it on account of trying to land an assistant professor job, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I'd passed with a respectable 78%. In a reversal of fortunes from last year, I struggled most with the reading section, while my vocabulary was potent. This was thanks in large part to using a program called Anki (specifically, it's Android incarnation AnkiDroid) - if anyone out there is trying to memorise a lot of information about anything, Anki is where it's at. Anyway, this means that I officially possess "the ability to understand Japanese used in everyday situations to a certain degree", and I'm one step away from achieving N2, i.e. the lowest level that has any sort of professional value.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Do they know it's Christmas?

Happy year of the dragon!

On this, the twelfth day of Christmas, when any lingering traces of festivity must be extinguished, it seems a little passe to be discussing Japan's Christmas. But it's something that a number of folks back home have been asking me about, and I haven't really covered it in previous years, so here goes.

December 25th is a day like any other in Japan. Had it not fallen on a weekend this year, I would have been expected to report for work as usual. However, that's not to say that the end of December is completely void of festivity. New Year is a big deal here, and December 23rd also happens to be a holiday, by virtue of being the Emperor's birthday. My students have a couple of weeks off, though as usual plenty of kids can still be found hanging around the school attending either sports clubs or cram classes.

But to answer the question posed by today's title, yes, the Japanese do have an awareness of our allegedly Christian winter festival. I would say that Christmas here is rather like Halloween in the UK: retailers crack out the decorations, seeing an opportunity to drum up some business; children have seasonal parties and get all excited; a few adults follow suit and get really into it; a tiny minority of people take it seriously (Christians and Wiccans, respectively); but for most people, the whole thing can safely be ignored.

Just as the California roll is a Western interpretation of an Eastern concept (and thus virtually impossible to find in Japan), Christmas here has mutated slightly as a result of being imported into a foreign culture. Certain aspects are conspicuously absent: I haven't seen a single advent calendar, and the whole nativity angle is very much downplayed. Most people seem to be aware that Christmas marks the birth of Christ, but they would be hard pushed to come up with any more details, such as where the supposed event took place or who was in attendance bearing which gifts. Which is fair enough really, considering the average Brit's grasp of Buddhism.

Other aspects of Christmas seem strangely over-emphasised. Christmas cake, which I would consider a fairly peripheral part of the whole affair, takes centre stage here, so much so that it inspired its own shockingly misogynistic but nevertheless quite amusing proverb. (Incidentally, at 24 years and 3 months, Amber should be making the abrupt transition - from being delicious, moist, and highly sought-after, to dried up and worthless - any day now.) Finally, other parts of the tradition have just become slightly corrupted. Japanese people know what turkeys are, but they don't really have any custom of eating them, so they consider chicken to be the archetypal Christmas meal. They don't even limit themselves to roast chicken; greasy fried chicken is also apparently acceptable, at least if KFC's festive advertising is to be believed.

The choice of festive songs in the aforementioned opportunistic shops is also a little curious. Alongside traditional secular favourites like Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Silent Night - with its talk of Holy infants so tender and mild - is an incongruous sole religious offering. The situation is similarly odd with more contemporary fair; John and Yoko's Happy Xmas (War is over) is predictably popular, but I was more surprised by the ubiquity of Wham!'s Last Christmas.

For me personally, it was lonely this Christmas. Lonely and cold. A large chunk of the ALT population tend to either return to the bosoms of their respective families during the winter holidays, or take the opportunity to do some travelling. Amber, currently sunning herself in the Philippines, is in the latter group. But it really wasn't so bad being here alone. After the hectic month I'd had, it was nice just to take it easy and spend some quality time with my neglected PlayStation. In a strange way, I enjoyed the challenge of trying to make the day feel like a special occasion.

I started my Christmas Day with a video call to my parents (for whom it was still the night of Christmas Eve), during which I opened a densely-packed box of goodies they had sent me. For Christmas dinner I eschewed poultry and trudged through the snow (it was a very white Christmas here in Nanyo) to the flashy kaitenzushi restaurant - most extravagant dish: raw snow crab, 420yen. I returned home for a little Christmas dram (on Christmas Day, the yard-arm is actually several degrees below the horizon - that's a nautical / astronomical fact) then headed back out to the onsen, which I've decided is - like all baths - best enjoyed slightly drunk. In the evening I treated myself to a hearty slice of clootie dumpling, which had surprisingly made it through customs in my parents' parcel, given how closely it resembled a large block of hashish. I washed this down with some warm tamagozake ("egg sake") which tasted like thin, alcoholic custard, i.e. not particularly nice. By this time Christmas morning had dawned 144° around the planet, and I once again joined my family via Skype.

Like many people, at this time of year I like to get a bit wistful and think about the year that has just passed, and the new one to come. I think it's clear that 2012 is going to be an interesting year for me. Of course, I know exactly where I'll be in twelve months' time: Hayama Town, Kanagawa Prefecture; but at the moment I find it hard to imagine how my life is going to change in that period.