Martin In Japan

Our Man In Japan

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Christmas Cold

The last two days haven't been what I expected. After finishing school on Tuesday, I had thought that I'd have a couple of days to sort out my flat, my photos and my other projects. But my body had other ideas. I've been suffering from stomach cold, which has meant no appetite, lots of stomach cramps, and a general lack of drive to do anything. One thing did cheer me up; I did get the all clear to open the second box of pressies my mum sent. I got a pair of Guinness socks and a Guinness keyring and some handkercheifs and a Judge Dredd Graphic Novel and a ball/dartboard game and a Mr Scruff CD and a Dirk Gently novel.

So my productive two days have been spent watching the DVDs and reading the books I got for Christmas. It hasn't been all easy though. Keeping warm in my flat is a full-time job. Yes, I can keep my front room warm with the kerosene heater and the kotatsu table, but if I need to go into the kitchen or to the bathroom, well, it's like walking into a freezer. I've never managed to make tea so fast.

Yesterday I got a call from Debs saying she'd arrived in Japan. Luckily, she and her mate Hannah hadn't been affected by the Indian Sea Earthquake. They had some trouble getting from Narita to Tokyo which meant they missed their connection to get back to Tokamachi by train. So I went to Echigo-Yazawa to pick them up last night. In theory, on the phone, it seemed pretty easy. But, when I came to set off, my car was under a lot of snow and there was more on the mountain road to Muikamachi. The drive wasn't as hazardous as I thought, though there were a few scarey moments on some ice, and I got to the station safely. Both Debs and Hannah looked sunburnt and exhausted when I met them at the station. The drive back was as icey as before but we returned safely and I dropped off Debs and Hannah.

Today I've been feeling ill, but I'm feeling a lot better now and I'm starting to become ravenous. I'm at Debs at the moment waiting for Ryan to arrive so we can all go out, have ramen and get ready for our road trip to Osaka tomorrow. All four of us are heading, in Deb's car. to Osaka and Kyoto for New Year's Eve. We need to leave pretty early, around 9am I reckon, to be able to get to Osaka, check into our hotel and out to Kyoto in time to find a temple to enjoy New Year's Eve. I hope we can get our act together better than we did last time we went to Osaka.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

End of semester for me at Tsunan

And still the snow falls. While I've been in Tsunan at least, it's been falling non-stop. Everything is costed with a layer of snow, though at the moment it looks like the current fall isn;t laying because it doesn;t look like it'll bury any cars just yet.

the drive into work was not a difficult as I expected. The network of water sprinklers are doing their job and are preventing any snow from laying on the road. Instead of driving in inches of snow, I'm driving in wet conditions and because the water is constantly moving, it can't freeze so I don;t have to worry about ice.

Three more Christmas lessons today; two with Ikarashi-sensei and one with Mineki-sensei. ???

I had a spare lesson at third period so I finished off the Christmas cards for the teachers here. Ive left them in envelopes on their desks. Takahashi-sensei has already opened hers and said how nice it is.

So all my lessons for Tsunan are finished for this year. All I can do now is wait til 5pm and then go home.

Sorry, I take that back

Keiko was right. At around 2.30pm, while I was talking to Ikarashi-sensei about tomorrow's lesson, the sleet turned into snow. Soon after, the temperature dropped and it started to lay. By the time I left, my car was covered in two inches of snow. Not a lot, but it got me excited. The drive home was not as bad as I expected. Visability was fine once I cleared the snow from my windscreen and the roads were clear because of an ingenious system the Japanese have. They have a series of tiny sprinklers set in all the major roads. When snow is forcast, the sprinklers are turned on and tepid water starts to flow across the roads, so any snow that lands imelts immediatley, and because the water is moving, it doesn't freeze. Ingenious; anti-freeze made out of ordinary water. So instead of driving in snowy, icey conditions, I was driving in wet conditions.

The snow gradually became less and less as I got towards Tokamachi and I found it was still sleeting rather than snowing. When I got to my flat I found a note from the post office telling me they had a parcel from 'M.A. McCloud', so all my pressies have arrived! I'll pick it up tomorrow.

Right, time to cook my first japanese meal; ton katsu don. I found the recipe in the book Mineki sensei gave to me last week. The home economics teacher bought me a ????, a special japanese frying pan used to cook don rice dishes so I'm going to use it tonight. Then I'll spend the night sorting photos I think. I have a two months backlog since the earthquake so I best get it sorted.

Monday, December 20, 2004

"Snow Country" my arse!

Four days until Christmas and still no snow. There was some hail earlier and it is sleeting now, but nothing is settling. Im a little disappointed. There was a big storm yesterday which, traditionally, signifies the start of the snow season. Keiko emailed to warn me that it might be difficult driving to Tsunan so I should get up early to get to school on time. As it happens, I did get up early, but set off at my normal time and turned up to Tsunan late. On my way I remembered I'd forgotten some Christmas lesson materials so I had to double back, go to Tokamachi High School, pick up the lesson materials and bomb back to Tsunan. I turned up as my first lesson started, so not too late to cause a problem, but late enough to be incredibly embarassed.

I'm a little worried. This incidence of lateness is just one of a few occasions were I've been totally caught out. One of the things I have enjoyed about Japan is that I have a felt a little more together, more aware of what's going on and being able to plan or adapt to everything easily. But recently I've felt some things slip away and I think the main reason for this is that I feel tired most of the time. And I'm putting that down to not sleeping enough. And sleeping is still a bit of a problem for me. I'm still having to contend with massive truck bombing past my flat at all hours. They're very loud so I have to wear earplugs when I sleep to stop me from waking up. But the trucks also shake the flat as they rattle past; a bit fo a problem since I'm now permenently alert to the tiniest of earth-tremours. Add to the constant visual reminders of cracks and holes in my wall, and I think you have the main ingredients for a psychological timebomb.

The counselling session was good, and I feel safer in my flat than I did before, but I guess, deep-down, don't feel totally safe in my flat; everytime the flat moves I'm reminded of my terror on 23rd October. My supervisor doesn't seem to consider my mental health when I ask her about sorting my flat. Any request I put to her is eventually resolved with a comment along the lines of "some people in Ojiya are still homeless, or have to live in temporary housing". Yes, I do acknowledge that I'm lucky enough to have an apartment to live in, but I'm sure even the earthquake refugees would think twice about giving up a safe shelter for a flat that shakes and reminds them of the most terrifying experience of their lives.

Anyways, today's teaching. Three lessons today; two with Takahashi-sensei and one with Yanagi-sensei. Takahashi-sensei and I had already arranged a lesson plan for her lessons so even though I was late we could go straight into teaching it. Yanagi-sensei was intending to do a lesson on 'Shoe-shop' conversation until I pointed out that it was Christmas and that I had a lesson plan (Takahashi-sensei's) that we could use. The students of 1-2 still acted like a bunch of kindergarten kids, though there was a glimmer of interest from some of them. I might try games with them again in the new year.

Monday, December 13, 2004

DVDs, Christmas Wrapping and English Food Cravings

Was given some lesson planning work to do at Tokamachi yesterday; the first in several weeks. Tokuma-sensei and I have arranged some activities for a Christmas themed class so I've been preparing materials for that. The first set of materials is Karuta cards, so I was sat drawing twenty four pictures based on Christmas, which was relaxing. I also had English Club for which I shamelessly used an activity I used for my third year class and one from the SHS ALT meeting. I've been planning a Christmas Party for them so needed to save time somehow.

After school I ran around trying to find boxes and packaging materials; I need to send back my Chrimbo pressies asap. Thinking, last week, I had more time than I do, I'd also arranged a DVD night for the Toka ALTs so I picked up Spiderman 2 and some snacks on the way home. When i did get home I found a note from the post office saying they had a parcel for me from 'Johnson'. Helen's pressies have arrived, so at least I'll have something to open on Christmas Day!

After some frantic flat-tidying, Debs and Nate arrived and we settled down to watch Spiderman 2. Erik also turned up a bit later, just as the final third started so we all got to see the big Spidey vs Doc Ock showdown. In my opinion, I think it's a great film and proves to me once again that Sam Raimi was an inspired choice for director.

After they'd left, I set to work on wrapping pressies and packing them in a strong box. Mark was online so I was able to talk to him while I wrapped, which was nice. Wrapping always takes longer than I think, and last night I was only able to finish Helen's packaging. I'll send it tomorrow when I go to the post office and pick up my parcel from her.

I woke this morning well before my alarm because of the cold. According to my kerosene heater it was 9 degrees in my flat. No wonder I couldn't feel my nose. It was so cold that when I tried to get back to sleep, the people in my dreams were shivering. When I did get up and out, I found my car had a nice layer of ice on it. Bit of a problem when you haven't got any de-icer. I managed to scrape off enough ice so I could see where I was driving and left for Tsunan.

This morning I've been searching for and printing off pictures of British food for Mineki-sensei's class. I've been staring at pictures of roast beef dinners and full english breakfasts for the last couple of hours and I'm starting to get hungry but all I have with me are my ham and cheese sarnies. Maybe I'll go out at lunch and get a greasy bento box and pretend it's fish and chips.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Bilingual Perfection

Just checked my mail at school and I have received the results of my first test in the postal Japanese course. I got 100%! It is a little easy because they allow you to use the textbook and ditionaries to answer the questions, but it does show I understand the grammatical points. If only I could remember what I studied without having to refer to a book, I'd be fluent in no time!

Fund-raising in Niigata

Niigata ALT FC are trying to raise money to help fund our trip to Saitama in January for the footy tournament, so Saturday saw the Niigata ALT FC Pub Quiz and Christmas Party.

A futsal session had also been arranged in the afternoon as training for the team, so I left Tokamachi early Saturday morning. I gave Keiko a lift, as she was coming to the party later, and picked up Rowan on the way too. The futsal was fun, but weeks of not playing started to show; I need to get back into training if I'm going to be fit for the tournament. After a relaxing onsen and some food we headed to the quiz night.

I captained a quiz team, 'Spaff', who were made up of me, Ben, Simon, Nick and a late Erik. We put in a lot of effort in the first half, but the half-time score round-up showed that we had only 9 points out of a possible 26. We were last. That didn;t put us off and we persevered with the second half. We did reasonably well but we weren;t expecting much. It was a complete surprise when they read out the name of the second-place. It was 'Spaff'! Our masterstroke of tactical genius had paid off! In the music round, spot the tune from a two-second snippet of the intro, we played our joker card. This allows you to double the points you score in a particular round, and in the music round you get one point for artist and one point for song title, so we had a potential 4 points per question! We did okay in that round, but playing the joker allowed us to catch up and overtake the other teams. The second-place prize was a gift boxset of Asahi beers which we split between the team.

With the beers I'd drunk during the quiz and prize beers afterwards, things start to get a little hazy. We had about an hour and a half between the quiz and the party. Being a member of the footy team I had to go and get changed into our 'party strip' of suit jacket, tie and shirt with footy shorts, socks and trainers. Since my suit, Rowan's suit and Joe's suit where in my car, we all meet there and got changed in the car park. Erik came too to drop his stuff off in my car. Joe was wise enough to bring a four pack to stop us from sobering up and realising how stupid we must have looked.

We made it to Immigrants's on time for the party. Having drunk my beers, it was time for G&T from the bar. I remember dancing a bit and drinking a bit but apart from that, not much else. I do remember the girls from the play turning up. They had rehearsals in Joetsu on Saturday afternoon and had driven up especially for the party.

The party ended around 4am and Holly had offered her flat to anyone who wanted to stay. So we all bundled ourselves into a couple of taxis, grabbed a blanket at Holly's and found our little bit fo floor space.

We woke early Sunday morning because the girls had to get back to Joetsu for more rehersals. It was then I realised that I was in one part of Niigata, my bag was in another so I had to do the 'walk of shame' in my suit jacket and footy shorts. I got some interesting looks on the bus I can tell you.

So Erik and I got to my car, met Joe who said the events were success, I got changed, we met up with Keiko(she stayed in a hotel on Saturday night) and went shopping for Christmas cards until Rowan turned up. Then all four of us piled into my car and headed back to Tokamachi.

In the evening I met up with Debs and Erik for ramen and caught up with stories of what I missed in my drunken state. Then a quick stop off at Laox to buy a PS2. Well, I already had a copy of Winning Eleven 8 (note to geeks: Winning Eleven is the japanese name for Pro Evolution Soccer) and I've arranged a DVD night tonight so I need a player. So, after wrapping most of the pressies I'm sending back, I had a little sesh. I've missed Pro Evo and this latest version is almost perfect. You lot back home are in for a treat when Pro Evo 4 comes out. Then I rang Helen before going to bed.

Today has been another day of cancelled lessons. The lessons are the first after the exams so the teachers want to talk about the exams and give marks back. Still, gives me chance to catch up with my blog and plan for the Christmas lessons.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Post-Earthquake Counselling

CLAIR, the organisation that runs JET, held a counselling session this afternoon for ALTs who had been near the earthquake epicentre on 23rd October. I thought this would have meant everyone in the Chuetsu region but it turned out to be just Tokamachi, Kawanishi, Ojiya, Kawaguchi and Urasa; a total of nine JETs. Leading the session was a counseller who helped people after the big earthquake in Kobe ten years ago. We all sat in a circle and the counsellor had us talk about our experiences, during, just after and since the earthquakes. The strange thing was, even though wed all talked about this kind of thing between us ad nauseum, in this situation it all sounded new and fresh. Maybe because we all aired our accounts after each other, we where able to get some perspective on our experiences and through spotting similarities gain somekind of reassurance. It's difficult to describe, but I do feel a lot better about things after this session. I don't know why I feel better, I just do. And I feel like the Winter Blues are subsiding too. I feel like doing things again and I'm looking forward to tomorrow's fund-raising events too. Feck, I was even jigging a little in my apartment earlier when Faithless suffled round on my laptop.

It's about time I started cheering up and getting into the Christmas spirit; I'm running out of time to post pressies and cards abck to the UK.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Tokamachi Koko
Xmas Shopping in the Evening for presents and materials to make Christmas cards

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


Lessons at Tsunan
Xmas shopping in evening

Monday, December 06, 2004

First Drive to Tsunan

The insurance paperwork on my car has been completed so I can now drive to Tsunan instead of taking the bus. As I set off to I found my windscreen had been frozen over during the night. That'll explain why it felt even colder in my flat this morning.

The drive to Tsunan isn't as bad as I thought. Of course, I can't read a book during the journey, but the scenery is becoming more spectacular as winter draws in; the rising sun highlighting the aretes and valleys on the southern mountains, which have recently started to develop snowcaps.

School today looks quite easy. After the listening tests last week, written exams will start tomorrow. Being too late to start on new material, today's lessons will be a series of reviews. They're all prepared now so I maybe I should make the best use of my time and fish out my Japanese study books.

Children's Christmas Party

Even though the two footy matches were cancelled, it was still a busy weekend.

The Christmas Party on Saturday morning was really nice. Annie, Neil, Debs and I were lead into a room with about twenty six year olds. We introduced ourselves and then the kids lined-up to introduce themselves and say "pleased to meet you" to each of us in turn. We played a couple of English games before a break for snacks and Christmas cake. Then we had a sing-song with Christmas Carols before a big round of pass the parcel. It was funny to see the kids being a shy at first, but then becoming more and more comfortable with us towards the end. When we had a group photo at the end I had a couple of the boys pile on top of me! Pass-the-parcel went down well really well. The kids were really well mannered but a bit unsure at the start but, once they understood that when the music stopped you could unwrap and get a prize, they soon started holding on to the parcel a little longer. The funny thing was as soon as the music stopped, they would pile around the person who had the parcel to see what they would win. A number of times we had to drag them back into a proper circle to start the game again. A little girl won the star prize: a reindeer outfit. She looked a little embarassed as we helped her put the costume on and she soon took it off once the whole room had said "Kawaii!" (cute).

At the end of the party we took tea in the staff room. As we drank, we saw the kids leave and everyone waved and had a big smile on their face. Job done I think.

I drove Annie and Neil back to Matsudai. Neil had brought his PS2 with his copy of Winning Eleven 8 so we spent the afternoon playing that. Oh my word is it good. Basically, Winning Eleven is the Japanese name for ISS/Pro Evo. When a version of Winning Eleven is released in Japan it eventually makes it over to the UK as a new version of ISS/Pro Evo. So, essentially, I was playing the latest version of Pro Evo before all you lot. So Nerr! I'll stop being geeky and just tell you that you're in for a treat when Pro Evo 4 is released.

I tried to leave around 6ish so I could go home, pick up my kit and play footy with Kawaji. I say tried because when I tried to start my car nothing happened. I tried again and still no noise or movement at all. I then started fiddling with switches and found that I'd left my lights on all afternoon. I'd switched them on to drive through the tunnels to Matsudai and forgot to turn them off. Basic as my car is, it doesn't have a reminding chime when you open the door. So I goes back into Annie's house and persuade her and Neil to help me push start the car. We tried a few times but we couldn't get enough speed up in Annie's tiny road. So we pushed it to the local garage, and with broken Japanese and gestures, he guessed what was wrong, pulled his car alongside mine and gave me a jump start. My car was running again, and it only cost me 500 yen (£2.50). Bargain.

I drove back to my flat and gathered my kit while the engine was running outside; I couldn't risk not being able to start it again. I drove to Minami Junior High School for 7pm, ready for a 7.30pm kick-off, as Nachi said on the phone, but when I got there I found I was the only one there. I left and saw Debs and Katie walking down the road since they were planning to see me play. I picked them up, we tried Minami again but still no sign of anyone. So I decided to stay at Debs and drink with her, Katie and Erik (when he turned up).

Because I was drinking, I stayed over at Debs. I got up early on Sunday and headed back to mine for a shower and a chnage before heading out to Nagaoka for a game with the ALT team. As I was about to get in the shower, I got a call from Joe; the match in Nagaoka had been cancelled because of bad weather. What luck eh? No matches for weeks, then two about to come along at once but cancelled at the last minute. So I had brekkie and decided to do my Christmas shopping. I headed out to Muikamachi to see if the shops there were any good, but they were worse than Tokamachi's. So onto Nagaoka with its big out of town shops and plazas. I managed to find a few things for Helen, my Mum and my brothers so it wasn;t a wasted trip. Feeling hungry, I meet up with Rowan for sushi on my way back.

And on to Monday, and exams are still going on at Tokamachi Koko so I managed to finish my Advent Christmas Tree today. It looks pretty good, especially with the spray-snow finishing touches. With the exams, only curious teachers have asked about the tree. Hopefully the students will have time to check it out later this week.

Afterwards I tried to shop but again it was pretty difficult. I've got a vague idea of what I want, but no idea of where to go to get it. And even if I knew which chain of shops to go to, don't know where any branches are. Well, I'll have a quick look round Tokamachi again and see if I can finish it all off then. I hope I can otherwise I'm going to be late with my parcels again.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Christmas Shopping

Sabbath was good last night. Aimee brought a teacher who had just started at her school, so thats one more Japanese person we know. Annie also came and she recruited me to help at a Christmas Party for six-year olds on Saturday. It's just going to be a few games in English for the kids and an opportunity to meet foreigners but she promised cake and lots of cute japanese kids.

I started on my advent tree today. I've had lots of people come up and ask what it is I'm doing. I tell them its a tree and they look, tilt their head and say "So desu" ("okay") in a confused way. I have only started and there are no decorations on it yet. I need some gold or silver card for the baubles and the star so I'll pick some up over the weekend.

This afternoon I went Christmas shopping around Tokamachi. Even with the limited number of shops, it took me all afternoon to buy nothing. I have ideas about what to buy but I just don't know where to get it. Maybe I can shop in Nagaoka after the footy on Sunday.

I've got back tonight and fancy a quiet night in before the Christmas Party tomorrow, so I've decided to head out, get a video and bunker in.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Advent Tree

I wrote the new listening test today based on my weekend in Osaka I've tried to keep I simple and I've written a selection of questions so Tachikawa-sensei can choose the most suitable. I didn't have much else to do for the day, what with the exams starting today.

Towards the end of the day I came up with a good idea; make an advent calendar in the shape of a Christmas Tree, with a bauble for each day before Christmas. The noticeboard has been empty since the school festival and with teh earthquake I didn;t think it appropriate to put anything up. But Christmas is coming, even the shops in Japan are getting into teh Festive Spirit, and I am an ALT so I'm supposed to come up with inter-cultural ideas. Each bauble on the tree will represent each day before Christmas, and when the day arrives, I'll turn over the bauble and reveal a short piece of English text describing some element of Christmas. It's genius.

So I've sketched out the shape of the tree and worked out what subject will appear behind each bauble. There isn't any green or red paper in the office so I've been out and bought some. I can't wait til tomorrow now so that I can start on it.

But before then, I'm off out tonight to Sabbath with the ALTs, Keiko and Hiromi. I'm driving because I've taken so many cold remedies I can't drink. I don't mind because I think the remedies are doing the trick and my cold is getting better, which is a good thing since I'm scheduled to play two footy matches this weekend.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Chrimbo countdown starts

Blimey, first day of advent already. I haven't even got an advent calendar. I don't even know if you can buy them in the shops here. Maybe I could make a big advent calendar to use on my noticeboard, which has been bare eversince the school festival.

Found it difficult to wake up this morning; my cold hasn't gone and my nose is still streaming. Didn't have time to ring Helen so I sent another apology email. Must make more of an effort tomorrow.

Had more speaking tests at Tsunan today. Each student came into the teachers room and they had a minute to answer three questions; one on directions, one on telephone conversations and "What is your hobby?". I grade their communication skills, whether they could get their idea across. Accuracy of their answers were judged by the Japanese Teacher, so the students grade is given by adding the two scores. One of the things continually surprised me was how good the really quiet students were. In a normal class environment they hardly talk, but put them in a one-to-one situation and they really shine. And likewise, it was surprising to see the cocky, loud students suddenly become humble as they frantically try to remember the vocabulary taught when they're were dicking about.

The speaking tests were more tiring for me than a normal class, which is to be expected since you're constantly in a one-to-one situation for teh whole 50 minutes. Add to that the fact I have a cold and you get a very tired Martin. Still I managed to summon the strength to record two more listening tests. It might have something to do with Kato-sensei.

She came to the office for her usual weekly chat/lesson. She was talking about Japanese food and asked if I had had uden, a type of Japanese stew. When I said that I hadn't she took my back to her office, where there was a big stewpot, and offered my some. When I saw it I recognised it at once; it was the hot food you can get at seven-eleven that I often see bubbling away at the till. The difference was this was homemade and guarenteed to be fresh, not swimming around for months on end. So I tried some, and I really liked it. It is a strange kind of stew. It has battered pieces of, erm, stuff, floating around with boiled eggs. The broth is quite runny and the only vegetable in it is daikon. Still, I'm tempted to try and make this myself at some point. All I need is a recipe in English and knowledge of where to find the ingredients at the supermarket. But this evening at least, I'm happy with pork, egg and rice followed by apple crumble and ice-cream.

I got a call from Nachi this evening. Kawaji FC are training again on Tuesdays and they also have a match this Saturday at 7pm. This news made me so happy. I'd been gagging for regular matches for a while and now I have them. Another nail in the coffin of winter blues!

I also got a call from Tachikawa-sensei. He told me that we had to re-write the listening test for Tokamachi Koko because I had talked to students about the earthquake before, so it gave them an unfair disadvantage. Okay, fair enough, but did you really have to wait until I'd written two drafts and the questions on the passage to tell me? It frustrates me that there's next to no communication between teachers here. I really expected more from a language department. Still, I guess it means I won't be bored tomorrow.

**Snow Blog**

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