Martin's Japan Pages

Our Man In Japan

07 August 2007

Busy, busy days

It's been a long while since my last post. I've been really busy busting my eyebrow open canyoning, taking a typooon-swept road trip and surviving another massive earthquake. Summer vacation has started, but the employeers decided that a holiday is too good for us ALTs and have forced us in to labour camps for the summer (okay, not labour camps but summer seminars. Not one but three. In a row. outside of Tokamachi).

I should hopefully get around to updating this week. But in the meantime, I just got back from enkai and have a vanilla supercup with my name on it.

Night night

10 June 2007

Suprise Visit

This Facebook thing has been throwing up a few surprises. I signed up two or three months ago and it seems once a week or so I get a friend invite from mates I lost touch with ages ago. This week I got one from Darren, a mate from Durham Uni. I think I last saw him a year and a half ago, and can't remember when we last emailed. Bad Martin. Anyways, I clicked 'Yes' and we became Facebook mates. First message Darren sends me? "Hi Martin. How are you? I'm coming to Japan this weekend. Wanna meet up?"

How out of the blue is that? So of course I said yes and headed down to Tokyo on Saturday and met Darren at his hotel on the afternoon. We met up and I took him out for anight on the town in Tokyo (Well, as much on the town as a bumpkin from Niigata can do in the Big City). First stop, Shinjuku. Needed a beer to get us going so we came out the East exit, walked through to the edge of Kabuki-chu, took a left and went to The Hub English Pub. We were given a place at the bar, I went to order drinks and by the time I got back, Darren was talking to a bunch of guys from Blighty. Apperently they'd just landed in Tokyo and were heading to Kyoto in a couple of days. We chatted to them about their travels, Darren's travels and me in Japan.

After our pint we headed out to try and find some food. We took a wrong lift for an izakaya and ended up on landing out side a room full of people playing Shogi (japanese chess). There was a tough looking man chain-smoking in the doorway. One look from him and we scarpered back into the lift and back to the street. We eventually ended up in a cute okonomiyaki place. Once we'd made and scoffed our meaty, cabbage pancakes we headed back to the station to take the Yamanote to Shibuya. We came out at the Hachiko exit so Darren could see the neon lights above the famous crossing. Gagging for a piss we headed into the first place that would take us, 'The Aldridge'. I'd gone past this place a few times before and, as someone who has been to pubs in Aldridge, London, was put always put off by the name. As it turns out, this Aldridge is quite nice. It hasa kindof student bar feel to it, but has a big rack of taps serving bitters and ales. We each had a 'RIP John Peel Ale' before meeting Keiko and looking for an izakaya.

This time we managed to avoid dodgy chess dens and found a free table in a Hokkaido food themed izakaiya. We ordered enough beer, yakitori, sasages and snacks to last us a couple of hours. Darren loved the cosiness of our litle snug and was impressed by teh beer and food. Time rolled on for last order, we paid and jumped on the last tube back to Darren's hotel.

On Sunday we met with Darren's parents and headed out to Harajuku. The thunder was rumbling on teh way to the metro station and by the time we came back to street level it was raining. And enterprising guy had set up a stall selling brollies, but hoping the rain would ease off, we walked past him and went to Meiji Shrine. I love the walk through the park to this shrine. There are loads of tree so you can't see any skyscrapers and each step takes you further and further away from the noise of the city until you can't hear any traffic at all. Then you turn a corner and in this peaceful little world centred around Meiji Shrine. We wandered around a looked at the buildings. There was a bonsai tree exhibition around the edge of the courtyard and as we where looking at the 60/100/150 year old trees the heavens opened and it started chucking it down. Now who needed a brollie? We waited for the rain to ease off. Darren and his parents had brought pack-a-macs and I had to settle for just my jacket and hoping that it didn;t chuck it down again. We made our way back to the station. The cosplay girls that usually hang around Harajuku station weren;t there because of the rain, so we went for the next best thing and headed to Takeshita Dori to see the cosplay shops. We stopped for a coffee and then made our way to Shinjuku. We met Keiko again and we all went to the top of the Tokyo Government buildings to see the Tokyo skyline. After we went for some food before buying the shinkansen tickets Darren needed to get to Kyoto. Then to Shibuya again, but it was time for me and Keiko to head back to Tokamachi. We said goodbye on the train before Darren and his parents got off at Shibuya.

It was a great couple of days. I'm glad Darren was able to get in touch before he arrived soI could meet up with him and his parents. I hope they have a great time in Kyoto.

04 June 2007

Nagano ALT Soccer Tournament, June 2007

My face is red with sunburn. My legs are stiff and painful. There's a nasty whiff of sweat hanging around my apartment. And I can feel a coldsore coming on. Today is the day after another ALT soccer tournament. Once again, we came away from the Nagano tournament without the top trophy (Niigata ALT FC has managed to win every other tournament except this one) but once again it was a great weekend out with the footy lads.

The tournament had the same format of the group stage on Saturday to decide overall rankings in seedings for Sunday's knockout tournament. Our squad was pretty much the same as the one that qualified for Saitama in October. Will and Glen were absent (attending his brother's wedding or teaching in Norway respectively), but we had two newcomers, Colin and Kaz. Also, we had Pete and Faz returning to the side. So, a bigger squad than October, albeit one that hadn't played much together.

The games on Saturday went really well, winning two, drawing one (but losing on penalties) and losing one. This put us fifth out of fourteen teams and in line for a 9.30 kickoff. After the games we headed back to the hotel, had dinner, took an onsen and headed down for the party. We had some beers but I think a lot of us were tired and headed to bed early.

Sunday morning, we had breakfast and took the shuttle bus to the pitches. We started getting ready and warmed up for the match against Gifu. We started with 3-5-2 with a view to scoring goals early but that plan back-fired. We struggled on a slippery pitch and conceded two goals in the first ten minutes. We switched back to 4-4-2 and tried to get back in the game, but Gifu scored another before the whistle. Half-time talk and we all knew that we could play better than we were. We started the second-half with a bit more spark and tried to get ourselves back in the game. We managed to score two goals as we spent more and more time in their half, but Gifu also scored two which put the game beyond us. 5-2 to Gifu and we were out of the tournament. Gutted.

We didn't go home straight away though. The Niigata girls were still competing in their tournament so we stayed to cheer them on. They played well but didn't win enough matches to win their tournament.

So we all had one final onsen before heading back to Niigata empty handed. Maybe if we'd had those other tournaments, we'd have been better organised an could have done better. But we have four months to fix that before the next tournament. Come on Niigata!!

How those games went:

  • Saturday, Group Match 1 - Niigata vs Nagano
    We gelled together quickly in our first game against Nagano, passing the ball around comfortabley and snuffing out Nagano's attacks. Cam put us firmly in the driving seat scoring with a beautiful dipping from outside the box. Second half was pretty much the same until we started to get a bit tired. We eased off and let Nagano push forward. Nagano came close to scoring a few times but our offside trap kept them out. Final score, One-Nil.

  • Saturday, Group Match 2 - Niigata vs Shonai.
    Our second game was against Shonai and a lot tougher. They were organised and fast and we did well to keep up with them. My lack of pace was exposed more than once as their left-midfield worked together and knocked balls over my head for on running wingers. We managed to hold on to a 1-1 scoreline in this fast paced game as the game went to penalties. The shoot-out ended 3-2 to Shonai after one of our penalties hit the post. Still, four points from two games was a good start.

  • Saturday, Group Match 3 - Niigata vs Gunma
    Third match was against Gunma. We changed to a 3-5-2 formation to see if we could make better use of the space down the wings. And the change worked a treat. Our pressure from the packed midfield resulted in four goals in the first half. I came on in the second half at left wing and had a couple of chances to score. Both times I kept my head and tried to place the ball. Both times I hit the goalkeeper or a player on the line. Gutted. We did manage to score two other goals and the game ended 6-0 to Niigata.

  • Saturday, Group Match 4 - Niigata vs Saitama
    Final match on Saturday was against Saitama. Worried that we might be caught short with three at the back, we switched back to 4-4-2. The game was evenly matched with neither team looking stronger than the other. The deadlock was broken by the most bizzare looping chip shot that went almost vertical, but managed to clear Pete and sneak under our crossbar. Niigata pushed for an equaliser but it never came. The game ended 1-0, the third time Saitama have beaten Niigata with a looping shot.

  • Sunday, Knockout Tournament Round 1 - Niigata vs Gifu
    On Sunday, our first match was at 9.30 against Gifu. We started with 3-5-2 with a view to scoring goals early but that plan back-fired. We struggled on a slippery pitch and conceded two goals in the first ten minutes. We switched back to 4-4-2 and tried to get back in the game, but Gifu scored another before helf-time. Half-time talk and we all knew that we could play better than we were.
    We started the second-half with a bit more spark and tried to get ourselves back in the game. We managed to score two goals as we spent more and more time in their half, but Gifu also scored two which put the game beyond us. 5-2 to Gifu and we were out of the tournament. Gutted.

31 May 2007

"It's the Final Countdown!!! da na na nah, dededadadah!!"

The weekend is almost here which means it's almost time for "The first proper footy match for Niigata ALT FC since October!!"

This year's footy has been barren to say the least. First the Saitama tournament was cancelled. Then we found out the April tournament in Tochigi was also cancelled. So this weekend's tournament will be the second competitive outing for Niigata ALT FC (brewed 2006-07). Are we ready? Well, to be honest I can;t say either way.

We had a training session last weekend and we looked pretty sharp in the small six-a-side game we played. I think we've all been playing some sort of footy somewhere, albeit seperately, so we've got a bit of touch and fitness.

Myself, I've been down the gym more often in teh last few weeks, using the running machine to make sure I go a bit further every time. I've also had footy training with Kawaji FC and one of my schools, so my touch isn't so bad (also bagged quite a few goals and got better at penalties too!).

Actually the thing I'm most worried about is cramps. Pretty much every tournament we've played in, my calves been on the verge of cramping in the final matches. Determined to make sure it doesn;t happen this time, I researched preventative measures on teh internet. And found nothing useful. Most of the sites I read took cramps to be a "innocuous hazard when playing sports". Very useful.

But when Keiko searched sites in Japanese, she found what I was looking for in no time. Apparently, cramps happen due to over-excercise and a lack of magnesium, calcium and karium. "Karium?" I asked. "Yes, Karium. Don't you know what it is?" asked Keiko. And I didn't. The word was written in katakana so it was a loan word, but it wasn't English. I checked my dictionary and it turns out kalium is potassium. "Of course!", I realised "that's why the chemical symbol for potassium is 'K'".

Which brings me neatly(ish) back to Sweden (potassium in Swedish is 'kalium') and Swedish super-group 'Europe'.

"da na na nah, dededadadah!!"

21 May 2007

Health Check

I went for a health check today. Every teacher has to have a health check every year, but for some reason this was my first since I’ve been here (probably something to do with my old base school). Usually, the health checks take place at each school, but with my visit school schedule, I miss the health check day at my base school. To compensate, I had to go to the main health check centre. By myself!

It turned out to be quite easy. I’d already filled out my health check form with the help of my school’s nurse, so I just handed that over and went through the production line of tests. First up, urine sample. Fill up the numbered cup, leave it in the little service window, onto stage two, listening test. For the listening test, you wear noise-reduction earphones and press a button when you hear sounds. Perfect score, onto round three, height and weight. Turns out I’m shorter than I thought (173.5cm instead of 175cm) and I am heavier than I should be (the onsen scales were right after all). Total Body Mass Index: Overweight, on the way to obese. Must be all the muscle. Still, it worried the doctor so she put a little ‘BMI’ post-it note at the top of my record. Next step, blood pressure: 110 over 55, so no worries there. Eye test. Similar to the driving licence test in that you have circles with a piece cut out of it (like a letter ‘c’) and you have to say where the cut-out piece is (up, down, left, right). Had trouble with the smallest ‘c’ using both eyes, but no trouble when I just used my right eye. Strange. Blood sample next. Needles. Three years since I last gave blood. Three years to forget how to control my needle-phobia. I only just managed to sit through it without telling the doctor to stop. Moving swiftly on to room 7. In room 7 I was told to lie on a bed while the doctor put some kind of sensors on my ankles, wrists and chest. I guess it was testing blood-flow, but I don’t know for sure. Next, consultation. This doctor went through my record to make sure everything was okay. He asked about my asthma, but when I told him I had it since before Japan he could see I can take care of it and it’s not a problem. He did pick up on the BMI but double checked my blood pressure and asked if I exercise (“Hai, Sakka shimasu”) and seemed happy that the extra weight is probably not a problem. So, onto the final check; the X-ray. Shirt off, face the big grey box with my back to the ray-gun. Series of random clicks and hums. Shirt back on. All done. I guess the record, blood test, urine test and x-ray will be examined together and a final report sent to my school. From what I saw, I think the tests showed I’m pretty healthy, if a little overweight, so less beer, more gym and see what happens.

My friend, the artist…

I got a text message from Junichi (snowboarder mate) during the week asking if I’d like to come see Takashi’s Exhibition in Niigata City on Sunday. I met Takashi at the Takada hanami after I’d polished off my beer and started on the wine. As such, I know very little about him, less so that he’s an artist and has an exhibition.

Anyways, since I was in Niigata City, I agreed to come along. Akira referred me to PAS magazine to see a write up of Takashi’s work and directions to the gallery (and I was checking the magazine in Lawsons after the FA Cup when I bumped into Justine and the girls after Pete’s Party. Random!)

Keiko and I met up with Junichi and Akira on Sunday afternoon and, after buying congratulation flowers, we headed to the N7 gallery. We got there just in time as Takashi was just leaving. Somehow I ended up with the flowers and had to present them to him! Embarrasing as I didn’t know what to say apart from “Omedetou” (congratulations) and “Otsukarisama” (thanks for all your efforts). The N7 gallery is a little place a short walk from the With Building. It’s a small space that’s been decked out for exhibitions of independent artists. Inside, canvas works by Takashi were on the walls and there were tables and tables of his sketch books. He explained a little and invited us to look through his work and leave a message in the guestbook at the end. We started looking around his works and through his sketch books. It’s the first time I’ve been able to see how someone else works and see how an artist will put all their ideas, no matter how insignificant, onto paper. And it was interesting to see how Takashi’s style had developed of the years; from detailed drawings back in 2000, to quick rough sketches and line drawings more recently. Allsorts of subjects in allsorts of mediums all drawn in these sketch books. Sometimes there would be the odd manga strip recollecting times spent with Junichi and Akira.

I’d immersed myself so much that I couldn’t believe an hour had passed when I looked at the clock! It was about time for me to leave to drive back to Tokamachi, so I signed the guestbook with my own little sketch and said goodbye. On the way back to the car, I had the urge to draw anything. Keiko and I went for coffee and was doodling away in my notebook. So, one the way home I stopped at a shop and bought a sketchbook just like Takashi’s. By the I got home I had lots of ideas so I set to sketching and doodling. I had alook at them this morning and liked what I saw so I’ll do the same tonight.

Thanks for the inspiration, Takashi!

Congratulations Keith and Kirsty!

Saturday was also the wedding day for Keith and Kirsty, friends from university. They’re the latest of my mates to get married. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it back to England for their big day (lack of holiday days, gah!), so I decided on the next best thing and give them a call. I wanted it to be a surprise so I arranged for Sarah to be my go-between. I’d call her and if it was a good time, she’d answer and hand me over to Keith. It worked perfect and I got to speak to Keith. He sounded so happy about the wedding and amazed about how quickly the day had gone (well, times flies I guess!). They’re going to be really happy together and I can;t wait to see them when I'm next back in England.

(and thanks Sarah for the photo and for being my phone monitor!)

Super Soccer Saturday!!

On Saturday I went to Niigata to watch Albirex vs. Kashima Antlers and then I stayed in the city to watch the FA Cup live at Café Milan. Did it live up to its potential as a goal-fest?

Well, first off, my first Albirex match in about a year. Keiko and I drove down the Big Swan, parked up and met James in the North Stand. With just the three of use we managed to find seats close to the choir so we got to soak up the massive Orangista atmosphere. The action on the pitch was as unpredictable as J-league normally gets. The players are obviously skilful, but prone to making mistakes; passes to short, passes too long, trying to turn one too many players, taking a shot when they could have played in a team-mate. It can get quite frustrating at times. But the number 9 for Albirex, Fukai, was easily the best player on the day. He battled for the ball and was involved in most of Albirex’s moves. Fukai is also really quick and his mazy run in the first half resulted in Albirex’s equaliser. The game got more interesting towards the end as both teams pushed for the deciding goal. In the last minute Albirex had five players against three in the Antlers box, only for the number 11 to take a shot instead of cutting back, ending the move and Niigata’s hope for three points. The final whistle blew and it felt like we had lost! Still, we enjoyed it (mainly cos of the crowd but also the comedy mistakes on the pitch) so we’ll be looking to go back before the Summer Break.

After the match, we left James, checked into our hotel, went out for food at an izakaiya and then on to Café Milan. Rich had already got a table with some of his mates and we joined them, Sam arriving a little later, and got the beers in ready for the first FA Cup at the New Wembley. The coverage started only ten minutes before kick-off, so we missed the big opening ceremony. We did see the teams come on the pitch and shake Prince Will’s hand. And then, Kick-off! The new Wembley certainly looks nice, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite right. You could blame the acoustics for now carrying the crowd’s chants. But then the crowds weren’t singing. So you could blame the crowds for not singing, but then the action on the pitch was nothing to shout about. Both team looked tired and neither Man Utd or Chelsea pushed for a goal. You could argue that neither team wanted to concede a goal, but this is the FA Cup!! It’s supposed to be the showcase match! You’re meant come out a try and score, not go home with a nil-nil draw!
Eventually the game went to extra time, and a one-two between Drogba and Lampard resulted in the winning goal for Chelsea. Man Utd could argue that they should have had a goal after bundling Chelsea’s keeper over the goal-line with the ball, but if they claim that was their best chance of scoring, they don’t deserve to win.

We stayed a little while after to see how the Cup is awarded in the new stadium. In most competitions, a stage is brought onto the pitch and the teams are given their medals and trophies in the centre-circle. But one of the traditions of Wembley has been for teams to climb stairs up to the Royal Box to be awarded, and I was happy to see the new stadium preserves this tradition.

Here’s hoping future matches at Wembley are more exciting.

17 May 2007

Bikkuri at the gym

I’ve going to the gym more regularly recently to get back into shape for the Nagano tournament (two weeks and counting). Last night, I went a little earlier than usual and I bumped into one of my old students. He graduated in April last year and when I last saw him, he had ideas to travel around Europe, come back and develop speaker systems. As it turns out, he’s now based in Tokamachi. I’m not sure what line of work he’s in (since I didn’t have my dictionary) but he’s training for road-cycle competitions.


Meeting up was a shock for both of us since I assumed he’d be in college somewhere other than Toakamachi and he thought I’d gone back to the UK. And after I’d explained that I’d changed schools and was here for another year, he got another surprise when he realised I was speaking in Japanese. One of the ways I try to encourage the students to speak English is to not speak English at all in school. If they want to speak to me (and the enthusiastic ones do) they have to use English. So this ex-student has never heard me speak Japanese, hence the surprise. After the shock, there was relief, a realisation that “of course he can speak japanese, he’s lived here long enough” and then a volley of converstation at native speeds. It was tough to follow everything he was saying, but I surprised myself that I could understand as much as I did. Maybe Im starting to reach that level where I can get the jist of what’s said instead of getting hung up translating every syllable.


So another step up in the language stakes, and another friendly face to meet at the gym. Maybe I should go the the gym earlier more often.

15 May 2007

Golden Week - Martin's Tour of Japan's World Heritage Sites

We had Golden Week two weeks ago. This week is 'golden' because there are four public holidays in one week of May (this year, Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday). So, taking Tuesday and Wednesday of as paid-leave, I spent nine days on a massive tour of Hiroshima and Kyoto to see some of Japan's World Heritage sites. I've wanted to do such a tour since I came to Japan but it's been difficult to find the time to do it. I'm at school even when the students have holidays and my own paid holiday leave has been used to mainly to travel back home three times. I always had Golden week every year, but I've always been put off by stories of overcrowded public transport and motorways and the neccessity to get hotel reservations weeks in advance.

But this year I took the plunge, made the train and hotel reservations and braved the crowds. Here's a brief overview of the tour until I sort out all the photos I took:

  • Day 1 (Sat 28th Apr) - Himeji Castle

    Built in 1593, Himeji Castle is one of the oldest original castles in Japan. Became a World Heritage site in 1993.

  • Day 2 (Sun 29th Apr) - Genbaku (Atomic) Dome

    Marking the site of the world's first atomic attack, the American bomb detonated above this building, now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome . Became a World Heritage site in 1996.

  • Day 3 (Mon 30th Apr, Showa Day) - Itsukushima Shrine Gate

    This unique shrine gate on Miyajima Island is one of the "Most Beautiful Sights in Japan". Became a World Heritage site in 1996.

  • Day 4 (Tue 1st May)) - Hiroshima Carps

    The Hirashima Carps Baseball team were established in the 50's to boost the moral of Hiroshima citizens as they rebuilt their city. A fairly average team with massively loyal and passionate fans. A bit like Niigata Albirex then.

  • Day 5 (Wed 2nd May) - Kyoto Station

    Took the coach to Kyoto and spent the rest of the day around the very modern Kyoto Station.

  • Day 6 (Thurs 3rd May, Constitution Day) - Kinkakuji and Ninnaji

    First of the World Heritage sites in Kyoto; Kinkakuji, which is covered in gold leaf, and Ninnaji, a large Buddist temple which had close ties to the Emperor. Both are World Heritage Sites.

  • Day 7 (Fri 4th May, Green Day) - Kiyomizu Dera and Ginkakuji

    Second sightseeing day in Kyoto. Kiyomizu Dera and Ginkakuji. Both are World Heritage Sites.

  • Day 8 (Sat 5th May, Children's Day) - Nara

    The first capital city of Japan is home Todai-ji, the temple which houses the huge Daibutsu (buddha statue), and Kasuga Shrine. Both are World Heritage Sites.

  • Day 9 (Sun 6th May) - Nishi Hongan-ji

    Nishi Hongan-jiis the founding temple of Shin-Buddism that was once the most influential in Japan. The main temple made from Chinese teak and marble became a World Heritage Site in 1996.

So that was my tour. Lots of done in nine days, so I could do with a break to recover and sort all the photos I've taken.

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