Martin In Japan

Our Man In Japan

Monday, January 31, 2005

My Worst Day in Japan

Well today started alright. Got up slightly earlier than normal, showered,had a shave so close you'd think I was still 14. Got into to work early, hadmy meeting and then settled down to planning my lesson for 4th period;three hours to prepare four activities. Everything goes well until it cometo transfering the worksheets from my PC to the school PC that's connectedto the printer. I'd left my USB drive at home and had no other way to movethe worksheets across. So I had to get in my car and drive back home, whichtook ages because it had been snowing all morning and the roads wheregetting icey. So, get back to school, transfered the files, printedphotocopied and had them ready, just, mere seconds before the lesson.

The lesson starts well with the first activity going downa treat. That allchanges with the second and third exercises, which were great on paper, butessentially quite dull if the kids don't participate. Which this classdidn't. So the lesson ends scrappily and I go for lunch.

After lunch I have twio hours to prepare English Club. The topic is my team's victory in Saitama, so relativly easy topic which requires nowt morethan the video of our TV apperance, and a news paper article for thestudents to translate. But I got called away for a meeting with anotherteacher for a lesson on Thursday, and the meeting lasted a lot longer than Ithought it would. So, English Club isn't as prepared as it could be but itgoes pretty well anyways, so I thought.

That was until I got back into the office. Tokuma-sensei, who runs EnglishClub, is a bit angry. She's already had a go at the other teacher because she distracted me from my prep. Tokuma starts on me saying how I should have finished English Club and prioritised better.
The I have a meeting with my supervisor. I had to sign another form about my intention to stay for a second year, which I did. But, my supervisor mentioned that, due to budget cuts, I might not be able to keep my job for a second year. Brilliant, especially after i'd just told Helen about me doing a second year on Sunday. then my superviosr starts telling me about things I've been doing wrong and suggestions for how to improve. This was a bit frustrating because it was the first real criticism I:d had and I though I'd been doing a good job, but somehow, at the end of it, my supervisor ends up acting the nicest she has to me since for ever.

Then I go back into the staff room and the atmosphere between me andTokuma-sensei, which is usually really good, it barely warmer than the blizzard going on outside.

So I finish up lesson plans and i leave school at 7.30pm, a good 2 and ahalf hours later than I'm supposed to leave. I'm tired, I'm not feeling too confident with myself and teaching and I;m hungry, so i go for ramen. On the way the road goes under a rail bridge, and with the sprinklers and all the snow, a lot of water has collected under the bridge. i drive through it, andmy car only just makes it out to the other side. The engine dies, quite literally flooded and I'm stuck in the middle of the road going nowhere. I had to wait for 20mins, hazard lights on and cars having to swerve round me, waiting for the engine to dry out and turn over again.
I feel like I've lost my grip on things today, one thing after another has been piling up on me. Is today a one off? Will it stop tomorrow? Has breaking up with Helen had anything to do with this?

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Big Decisions

I rang Helen tonight and told her about my weekend snowboarding. I also told her that, after the ALT seminar and the talk about re-contracting, I have decided to stay in Japan for another year. And that decision meant that Helen and I decided that we should split up. Putting up with me in Japan for six more months was just about bearable. Eighteen months, however, was too long. There might be a possibility of us getting back together when I come back to England, but we'll see how that goes. We talked about things a bit longer before ending the call. I can't explain how I felt when I hung-up. I guess it was somewhere inbetween feeling happy about staying for an extra year and feeling cut up because Helen and I had split. I'm going to try and sleep on it and see how I feel in the morning.

I really like snowboarding.

When we got to Matsudai ski slope on Saturday, Neil took us to a quiet part at teh bottom of teh slope. After we'd fastened our bindings and managed to stand up, he taught us how to fall. Makes sense really. Until we get better, we'll be falling a lot so we need to do it so we don't hurt ourselves. He then taught us about 'finding our edge' and then the basics of how to turn. I started to get quite confident and decided that I was getting bored of sliding to the bottom, removing the board and walking up the slope to start again. So I bought a lift pass so I could go higher up on the slope; the higher I am the longer my run and the more practise I would get, desu yo?Neil escorted me on my first ride on the ski lift, which was dead easy. Then I had the whole ski run in front of me. It was a little scarey, but I set off and made my way down teh slope. I fell a lot of times but I that didn;t put me off. I just got back on the board and tried again. And when I got to the bottom of teh slope, I would get on teh lift back to the top. By the end of teh afternoon, I was able to confidently turn left and, in a fashion, turn right. I surprised my self when I managed to do an entire run down teh slope without falling! Okay, I wasn;t exactly carving up the slope, but I thought it was a big acheivement.

For dinner we went to the katsu palce near Annie's and afterwards bought beers and headed back to Annie's for Winning Eleven 8 and Sex in the City.

When I woke on Sunday I was sore all over. My arms and shoulders were aching because of teh number of times I tried to stand on my bored. My legs were aching with standing in a stance all day. My arse was hurting because of all the falling. But still, we went to the slope for a second session.

It had snowed in the evening so the Matsudai Ski Slope was covered in powder. This was great for learning because it cushioned every fall. I decided that it was too difficult to get to Niigata for teh footy dinner so I decided to cancel and spend the whole day on the slope. Like yesterday, I bought a ski pass and spent the day going up and down the slope. I was gaining confidence with every run and by the end I was knackered, sore, but pretty good a turning right. So during my weekend in Matsudai I've managed to go from a complete novice to a beginner who can turn left and right. Can't wait for my next session. Debs and I are planning to go back to Matsudai on Friday afternoon after work. Maybe I can squeeze another session in before then?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Like a kid at Christmas

Yesterday afternoon I found my missing language course book. Typical eh? I also found the answer sheet I was supposed to send in my coat pocket. The deadline is today. Good one Martin. I sent the answer sheet today anyway. The test will still be marked if it's late, though it won't count to my final grade, so it'll be useful to know how well I would have done.

This afternoon I hung out with Debs. We were trying to find a quite bit of snow so we could dress up in our snowboarding gear, stand on our boards and make 'swoosh' sounds. We'd already been doing plenty of this on our own in our apartments and we both felt it was time to actually go outside in the snow. Thing is, we couldn't find anywhere quiet enough and we felt a little embarassed doing it in the middle of the street. So we went to the gym; Debs to the training room, me to the climbing wall.

In the evening, Debs, Nate, Kate Red, Jaime (Sally's boyfriend) and I went out for drinks round Tokamachi. We started in Daikichi, the yakitori place, then we moved to a restaurant down the High Street which also turned out ot be a yakitori place. Keiko came out to meet us there too. Eventually we moved on to Lupin were we drunk shochu and sours and met up with Erik.

This morning I've been getting things ready for my first snowboarding session. The plan is to spend teh weekend in Matsudai with Debs, Annie and Neil. There's a quiet ski slope near Annie's so we'll go there today, stay at Annie's on Saturday and snowboard again on Sunday. I've also got to decide if I want to go up to Niigata for the Footballer's dinner. The owner of Immigrants promised a free nomihodai for the squad if we won the tournament. There were some restrictions, such as it had to be a Friday or a Sunday. The problem for me is how to get back from the nomihodai. If I drive up, I can't drink. If I get the bus or the train up, will I be able to get back on Sunday night ready for school on Monday? I'm too excited about snowboarding at the moment so I'll decide later.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Big ALT seminar/reunion

The last two days I've been in Niigata for a Mid-year ALT seminar. Every ALT in Niigata had to attend, along with a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) from one of their schools. I was a bit special because I had a JTE from Tokamachi Koko (Mizasawa-sensei) and one from Tsunan Koko (Ikarashi-sensei). It started with some talks from the Niigata Board of Education. The main purpose of the seminar was the workshops. In these workshops second-year ALTs would focus on an aspect of teaching English and try to pass on their experiences. I came away from most of the workshops with some good ideas that hopefully I'll get to use in the classroom later.

Of course, with such a big gathering of ALTs it was obvious that a party would be organised somewhere. It was held at Shame in Bandai around 9pm. Being a bit late in the evening, most of us met at a nearby izakaiya beforehand for a nomihodai, just to make sure we were warmed-up. I, rather foolishly, begain drinking lager with g&t chasers so I don't remember much after the nomihodai. I remember taking photos but I haven't been brave enough to look at them yet.

So the seminar was good, the party was good (I think) and as a bonus I managed to find some snow gear. Today after the seminar finished I went to the Niigata branch of Xebio and within two hours I managed to find a jacket, combats, gloves and a hat. Altogether it cost me less than 40,000 yen (」200) so I was pretty chuffed. Now I'm all excited for teh weekend. I'm going to Matsudai ski slope with Debs, Neil and Annie and Neil is going to teach the rest of us how to snowboard. After spending so much time and money buying all the gear, I can't wait to start using it!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Messy flat

I have a deadline this weekend. By Saturday i have to have sent in my test paper for Book 2 of JET's Japanese language course. I have teh test paper and the envelope,. What I don;t have is the Book with the questions in it. I'm sure I had it last week and i;ve searched everywhere in my flat but can't find the bloody thing. Debs has lent me her copy so tonight I've been swotting up and sorting my answers. It's done now, though I would have rather done it steadily over a couple of days than at last minute. priortising Martin, you must learn how to prioritise.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Big Birthday Bash

A lot of people emailed me on Friday wishing me happy birthday. They were all correct in adding 9 hours, getting "after 6pm" and assuming I was in a drinking hole. The hole in question was "Daikichi", a yakitori place on eki dori (A bar that sells beer and skewered chicken on Station Street). I meet Erik, my "Birthday Buddy" there and we had a couple of beers and some chicken until it was time for our party reservation at Gourmet house.

So we trotted through the snow to Gourmet House. Some of our friends where there already, and by 8pm all 18 of us where crowded round a big table. We pretty much took over the restaurant and ordered lots of food and beers for all of us. Presents and cards were given and Erik and I had to wear silly hats. At the end of the meal, the owner brought out a massive choux pastry cream cake which had "Congratulations Martin and Erik" written on it and was filled with berries and bananas. it was delicious and big enough for people to have seconds.

After the meal, some people went home on the last train, but most moved on to Lupin for tequila shots and more beer. It's around about here things get sketchy. At some point, more people left. Then we finished a round and decided to move on to Be-1, allegely the best karaoke place in tokamachi, even though you need to get a taxi. More went home, but we had a hardcore of six who were up for a bit of cat strangling. So we paid, left and headed towards the taxi rank.

We got distracted on the way by all the snow in the street and had a big, moving snowball fight in the street al the way to the taxi. Along the way we picked up some random feller who we hoped to loose when we got the taxi. Thing is, the next taxi would be 30 mins so we decided to go back to Eki Dori and find a karaoke bar down there. Unfortunatly the random followed us, even though we were ignoring him.

So we gets into the bar, a party of drunken blokes are killing some japanese song, and we find a big table for the six of us (and the random followed). we order some shochu and sours (sake made with potatoes and sour mix) and start looking through the song lists. We put quite a lot of songs on, including "My Shirona", Elvis' "I can;t help falling in love with you" (Tiger's East Stand Mix) and I finished off with, of course, "We are the champions".

So, taxis home and we head back to the taxi rank near the station. We start another snowball fight, and even though there are three taxis waiting, we carry on chucking snow. By the time we stopped, the taxis had gone. Bugger. but no worries, we start another snowball fight until the taxis returned.

So I get home, and all I remember is that I watched half and episode of Alan Partridge before I realised I should probably be in bed.

In the morning, or rather afternoon since I woke at 1.30pm, I checked my emails and found I had no new messages. Then I checked my "From Home" folder and found that all your messages from Friday Morning had been read. And I couldn't remember any of them. Still, I was able to read them again, such is the magic of email. Thank you all very much for your birthday wishes. I always love receiving them, especially when it's my birthday, and even more so when I'm 6000 miles away from you all.

I eventually got to Nagaoka in the afternoon. With the footy tournament over and snow all around, it's time to take up a new sport; snowboarding. I had been recommended a few shops and concensus was that Nagaoka had the best shops to buy a snowboard. Keiko agreed to come to to be my interpreter for the day. She needed to buy new skiwear so it wasn't a wasted trip for her. After browsing round a few I went for a board from Xebio sports. They were offering a board with boots and bindings for 20,000 yen (around £100). The design on my board is quite plain. I was tempted by boards with really snazzy designs (especially one with Simon Bisley art on it) but, at the end of the day, I'm a beginner, any board will do and I can't justify spending an extra 100-150 quid for a prettier board. Maybe next time, when I'm good.

After I bought the board, I had to wait for a couple of hours for them to fix the bindings to the board. I spent the time looking for snow wear. I found lots of nice jackets and lots of nice trousers but I couldn't find a jacket or trousers that went well together. I decided leave it and went to Muikamachi on Sunday and try the snow shops round there.

Well I thought Muikamachi had snow shops. It has one, Xreab, which was quite big. I spent another two-three hours looking round for jackets I liked and trousers that matched. I narrowed it down to three possibles, but one was a size too small, one was too expensive and the third was okay, but not brilliant. I remembered I have a meeting in Niigata on Wednesday so I'm now planning to go looking for snow gear afterwards.

Tonight I went climbing. It was the first time since way before Christmas so I was a little nervious. The guys that climb are really friendly. One or two speak a little English but I tried my best to use my Japanese. They helped my find routes on the bouldering wall and tried to give me tips too. They also told me that they come every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night and that I'm welcome to come and join them, which was really nice. So I get to climb and have Japanese practice too!

Thursday, January 20, 2005

I am (twenty) 7

So this is it, my first birthday spent in a different country. I woke up a little earlier than normal so I could ring my Mum as I opened my pressies. One of her parcels arrived on Wednesday. There's another on it's way too, along with one from Helen and one from Mark.

Still had to go to school today though I had no lessons, just preperation for next week. Tokuma-sensei was really sweet. She disappered during second period and returned with a birthday cake for me! She even had candles too! We each had a piece over coffee and I left the remainder of teh cake for the other teachers. At 12 noon, my supervisor took me to the bank to pay the rent on my garage. As we drove back, she said she was planning to buy a cake for me, but had seen that Tokuma had got their first. I was really touched.

Back at home now just before I leave for my birthday bash; beer, food, sake and Karaoke. I'll be celebrating with Erik, who had his birthday yesterday. We had a quiet celebration last night at the yakiniku place because Debs won't be able to make all of tonight's events because of the play. I was a cosy little affair, but tonight will be the main event. Bring it on!

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Championi! Championi! Ole Ole Ole!

It wasn't Brazil it was Sweden who England played in at the Saitama Stadium. And so to now has your beloved Cloudy. Yes, the glorious Niigata ALT FC team went to Saitama and truely rocked teh place with some beautiful football. We handled Saitama and Osaka with ease, we hammered Akita and faced Fukuoka in the final which took place in the stadium.

And do you know what? Niigata won 2-0. In the final. In Saitama Stadium. Which means I officially play for the best ALT Footy team in Japan. Not bad for a fat lad from 'Ull.

Anyways, a picture paints a thousand words so you'll find about a million words if you
click here

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Fifteen Seconds Of Fame

Our TV Spot was shown on BSN tonight. I had bought some new videotapes and I managed to record the historic event. It was a three minute feature on Niigata's equivalent of Look North. It explained how our team were made up of foreign nationals who taught in Niigata. They then did a feature on Joe, our captain, and what his typical day as an ALT was. Then it was back to the training pitch, rousing music, and quality soundbites from the team, including one from yours truly ("My goal? To win!"). I must say the Tiger shirt looked fantastic. The piece finished with us all cheering "Gambaru" which means 'Let's do well'. I've lost count of how many times I've watched it now. I'm still dead chuffed that they showed my soundbite. Now all I have to do now is work out how to get on my computer so I can send it home.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Last Session

Had my last training session in the gym tonight, as recommended by Pete. I did pretty well in the running and my recovery on the bikes is getting quicker. I'm probably going to be fitter than I thought I would be. Just need plenty of sleep between now and Saturday.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Back to School II

My legs are still sore after the weekend's training session. The gym is closed today, but even if it was open I'd be tempted to give it a miss for one night.

The drive to work was a little difficult today. Some of the snow started to melt in the last couple of days but there was an overnight freeze, so the 117 to Tsunan was really icey. Still, with my manual car and the ability to shift to a lower gear to slow down, I felt pretty safe.

Tsunan had their opening ceremony today, so it's the first day back after the Christmas break. The principal made a speech that I couldn't understand. Mana-sensei gave me an overview though. Apparently, in the coming merger between Tokamachi City and surrounding villages, Tsunan has decided to remain independent. The principal was reinforcing the fact that the students should promote a good image of Tsunan, which means they should not be seen to drink or smoke (legal age is 20 for both) and they should act resposibly at all times. Well, we'll see. They also had a 'Black Hair Check'. It's against school policy for any student in Tsunan High School to dye their hair. Even during the brief Christmas break, some students had coloured their hair. Now they're starting back at school, they have until next Monday to dye their hair back to black. I kid you not.

Last Training Session

It's a Bank Holiday so plenty of time to catch up on the weekend's footy training in Niigata City.
On my journey up I was surprised at how differently the snow had affected different parts of the ken. Tokamachi has had it light the last couple of days, but snow is still around. There was a little snow flurry in Kawaguchi and Ojiya which made driving a little difficult. This eased off at Nagaoka and past Nagaoka, there was very little snow at all. By the time I got to the Big Swan training pitches, there was no snow to be seen.

There was something omoshiroi (interesting) at the training pitches; a two person TV crew. As part of our promotion for Saitama, Joe and Pete had convinced the local BSN news team to come to see one of our training sessions. So, armed with a microphone and a camera, the two-person crew recorded our three hour training session; bit of passing practice, bit of holding the ball practice, shot and PK practice and finally a little match. They also conducted some interviews with the players and even managed to collar me at one point. They asked where I came from (Hull), who my favourite team was (Hull City), what position I played (right sideback), who did I want to play like in the tournament (Ashley Cole, with a right foot) and what was my goal at the tournament (to win of course). I answered all these questions whilst proudly wearing my City shirt! The boys at home will be so proud! We also tried to do a "Pheonix from the Flames" of the John Smiths "'Ave it" advert. It wasn't quite perfect, but feckin' funny.

Afterwards we had onsen and then headed out for some beers round Niigata City. First stop was an interesting 1950's themed Japanese bar. It had post-war movie posters and lots of Astro Boy tin toys dotted around the place. I want to go back there. Then on to Shame for a few more drinks and to meet up with ALTs I havent seen since before Christmas.

On Sunday I woke up on Holly's floor. Ben stayed over too so after a cup of tea we both headed out to find my car and go to the Big Swan for our final training session. It had snowed in Niigata over night and most people were quite excited about it. I was a bit unimpressed since only about an inch or so had fallen; that's nowt compared to what I have outside my doorstep!

Joe trained us pretty hard; lots of running, lots of shuttle runs, lots of b@stard star jumps. We had a little game in the snow at the end. Afterwards, we went to onsen, talked footy and then I drove back to Tokamachi

The drive back was snowier than the drive up. I had a call on the way back from Aimee inviting me round to her's for dinner with Annie. Aimee had made ?? which is a really nice japanese style stew. It was delicious. Just as I was about to go home, Aimee had a call from Debs. She was having trouble with her car in the snow and needed some help digging it out. Amiee and Annie had been drinking and I was leaving anyways so I volunteered to help out.

The parking area for Debbie's flat was full of snow. She managed to get most of a path clear, but managed to get her car stuck. A bit more clearing and plenty of power from teh car and it was free. Now on to Tokamachi station to help Erik dig his car out.

Erik had just got back from his Christmas holidays in America. He'd parked his car at the station and when he left there was no snow. Around two or three feet of snow had fallen since, so he was having a bit of trouble, especially without any tools. Debs and I arrived with a couple of shovels. The three of us managed to clear the driver's side and behind the car so Erik could get in and pull the car out. It worked! And it left a funny imprint in teh snow where front of teh car had been. A bit more clearing from the roof of the car and Erik was ready to go home.

When I got back to my flat I found that the snow had built up in front of my garage and I couldn't put my car away straight away. I was fed up with clearing snow and I was tired so I parked my car infront of the flat. I obstructed my neighbours garage a little, but I guessed that because it was midnight and his car wasn't in the garage, we was probably away for the weekend and my car would be fine until the morning. And if there was a problem, we could come and knock on my door. I was tired and all I wanted to do was sleep.

So I went to bed. I was woken today by a call from my supervisor. She had gone to Tsunan, past my flat, and noticed where my car was. She rang me to tell me that I should clear the snow and move my car because it was a problem. I told her I got back from Niigata late last night, that it was too late to clear the snow so I would do it when I woke up. She said "OK" and apologised for waking me. I went back to sleep.

I next woke to the sound of the garage opening. Was my neighbour back? I got up and dressed and went outside. It was a couple of guys clear the snow from around my flat so I started to help them. After a couple of hours, we had all the snow around my flat and on the roof cleared and my car in the garage. The guys gave me a couple of beers to say thanks for my help, so I'll save them for after the tournament.

It really reminded me how much snow there was in Tokamachi and how so much of it can cause a problem. And this is just the start. The snow is expected to last until mid-March, and even then it'll take time for it to melt. I need to find a way to start liking it before the novelty wears off.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Back to School

Opening Ceremony at Tokamachi today. Learning my lesson from the Closing Ceremony, I brought some heat pads and my fleece with me to keep me warm in the cold, cold gym. Worked a treat too. had no lessons today because the third years have left for study leave and the first years have tests. I was preparing for next week's lessons so on my trips to the photocopier I was running up and down the stairs, trying to add a little extra fitness training into my day. Tonight I'm going to the gym and tomorrow I'm going to Niigata for our final sessions before Saitama. I so want that trophy!

Arse in gear

So, this new fitness regime of mine. I've imposed it because of the upcoming All Japan ALT Soccer Tournament. This will be my chance to play in a proper stadium, Saitam Stadium, the very same where England played against Sweden in the 2002 World Cup. Ever since we qualified in
Nagano last October, I've been looking forward to this. I'm pissed off with my self that I let my fitness go after the earthquake and that it took me so long to start thinking about doing something about it, but I'm starting now so we'll have to see how it goes. Since Osaka, I've been good, stuck to my resolutions and have been dwn the gym every day (except Tuesday's when its closed). I've been eating healthily and avoiding fizzy drink. Just need to convice myself that running early in the morning in the snow is a good idea.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

New Year's Resolutions

Ah yes, it's the New Year so I need to make some new rules to break. Here we are:

  1. Win the Trophy in Saitama

  2. See Kyoto in the Spring

  3. Do half an hour, minimum, of Japanese study everyday

  4. New fitness regime (at least until 17th Jan)

    1. No fizzy drinks

    2. No takeaway food

    3. Morning run

    4. Gym everyday

  5. Blog everyday, even if just bullet points

  6. Update photos once a week

So let's start these from today eh?

Monday, January 03, 2005


First day back at school in the New Year. Both Tokamachi and Tsunan High Schools are open, but since it is Tuesday, I'm at Tsunan. The drive down wasn't as bad as I thought since the ice and snow on teh roads last Friday has cleared.

Last night I went round to Debs to watch Troy with Debs, Hannah and Keiko. Debs cooked Yakisoba too which was tasty. I've really got to get my cookbook out and cook a japanese meal for everyone. I could do with a tidy kitchen first though. Made a start on that task this morning by finally getting rid of three weeks worth of burnable rubbish. Must remember to take the cans and plastics to Seven-Eleven tonight; that'll be another bunch of rubbish rid of. Why do I have lots of rubbish in my flat? Well the system of refuse collection in Japan works like this. You need to seperate your rubbish into lots of groups; metal cans, plastic bottles with clear plastic food trays, patterned plastic food trays, other plastics, brown cardboard, cartons and then burnable rubbish. There is also a catergory for non-burnables which is everything that can't be burned or reycyled and must be buried, such as batteries, broken crockery, videotapes, toys etc. Each of these groups are collected on particular days in the month. Burnables are every Tuesday and Friday, everything else is rotated so it is collected once or twice a month. Also, the rubbish is collected around 7.30-8am from a big cage down the street, and since you're not allowed to put things in there over night, you need to be up early to put your rubbish in the cage before it is collected. Given that I'm not a morning person and that the cold mornings make me get up really late, I've managed to miss the rubbish collections for the last few weeks. Hence the backlog. There is a way to help keep the size of your piles down between collections and that's to use the Seven-Eleven. It has bins for cans and plastic bottles outside, so if need be you can drop off rubbish down there. It's just being motivated to do it. Maybe I should organise a dinner party.

New Years in Osaka

The Osaka weekend certainly was an experience. On the one hand, it was a fine example of what goes wrong when you don't plan ahead. On the other hand, it was a fine example of how nice things can turn out if you just go with the flow. Let me explain.

We set off for Osaka on Friday morning at 11am, two hours later than we'd planned. We took Route 117 down to Nagano where we would take the expressway all the way to Osaka. This was all going to plan, except we didn;t realise how bad the snow could get. There was quite a bit of snow on Route 117 but it wasn't impossible to drive in. We plodded on assuming that the expressway would be ploughed, gritted and cleared. We were wrong. The expressway was as bad, if not worse that route 117. Parts of it had been ploughed but the constant snowfall since had created a pretty dangerous, icy surface to drive on. The falling snow also collected on the windscreen which the wipers, bending as they froze, striggled to cope with. We stopped several times to clear the ice from the windscreen and the wipers. After a couple of hours, I took over driving from Debs just as the conditions were getting worse. The snow deepened so that the only part of the road you could drive in were two narrow tracks left by the previous cars; if we moved outside of the tracks, we'd get stuck in the piles of snow either side.

So our progress through Nagano prefecture was slow, a lot slower than we anticipated. By 6pm, the time we thought we'd be in Osaka, we were still 200km away, and we still had to get past Kyoto. We had been warned that there could be a lot of traffic near Kyoto and there was. The tailbacks were hugh and we were stuck in them for hours. We tried a shortcut, but the road was closed and we had to go back to our original route. At 11pm, we left the expressway and we were in Osaka. We met Aimee and Shin-Osaka station at 11.30pm and found our hotel at 11.45pm. We managed to check in quickly and we had drinks ready as the TV countdown read "1:19". At the stroke of midnight, we all toasted and hugged. We'd made it to Osaka in time and managed to toast the new year!

The hotel staff were very understanding and they allowed us to have a small party in the hotel's restaurant area. Aimee and I headed out to get some beers from the local Seven-Eleven. On the way, we heard a temple bell peeling and decided to investigate. It indeed was a temple, and the family who looked after it welcomed me and Aimee inside. Their daughter was ringing the bell and when she finished they offered it to me and Aimee, so we rang it too. They gave us some soup and then showed us into the temple which was beautiful. The priest explained to us about the temple and the new year traditions and let us take photos. I also got one of him and his little son who was very cute and had spent the whole time running around like a whirlwind.

Aimee and I said thank you for everything and left for the conveinience store. They didn't have a licence so we couldn't get beers and decided to go back and use the hotel vending machines. We sat and drank in the restaurant til around 4am before we went to our rooms. So, I missed out on temples in Kyoto because we didn't plan ahead enough. But, I got a private tour of a temple because we went with the flow. It's strange, but happy accidents like this happen to me in Japan all the time. It's great!

We got up late on Saturday and found we had a small crisis. We had little cash on us and all the post offices and banks were closed. Luckily, I could get cash out of the Seven-Eleven ATM and was able to lend money to the others until we could find a bank.

We headed into Osaka and went to Osaka Castle. It still amazes me how different Japanese Castles look to British ones. To me, British castles are generally very large and bulky, fashioned out of large blocks of stone with strength the priority over beauty. Japanese castles on the other hand look very elegent yet strong at the same time. A lot of the defenses of the castle lie in surrounding moat, which is wide and deep, and the outer walls, which are tall and almost featureless. Also, the route from the outer gate to the castle takes you through a series of right-angled turns, which would slow any army trying to charge into your compound. So with all the defences taken care of by the walls, the castle itself can be as elegent as possible. Anyways, the results is that I think Japanese castles are much more beautifuller than British ones.

After the castle, we went for coffee and headed back to the hotel to get ready for going out. While we were waiting for teh girls to get ready, Ryana dn I watched a footy match that was entertaining, but not the best display of football. It turns out that it was the final of the Emporer's cup, Japan's premier trophy tournament. It has a long way to go before it rivals teh FA Cup.

We left the hotel for our night of drinking and clubbing. We went to an izakaia for some food, then found a bar where ryan asked where a decent club could be found. The first club wasn;t too bad, but a bit empty. The music wasn;t brilliant so Ryan asked the barmen where we could find another club. The barman was really friendly and gave us directions and a round of shots which was nice. The second club was busier, the music better, but it was full of gaijin geeks. We steered clear, had a few drinks and danced til around 2ish before grabbing a taxi back to the hotel.

On Sunday we got up, checked out by 11am and started our journey back to Tokamachi. We stopped of for some breakfast before we hit the expressway, which was a great idea because the were stuck in traffic jams between Osaka and Kyoto. It eventually cleared and we were able to make our way up the coastal route to avoid any snow in Nagano. The route was really pretty, taking us through snow topped mountains and offering glimpses of the sea. We took a detour to find the coast, which we did just as the sun was setting. We stopped the car to watch the sun disappear, which was beautiful. Then we headed back to the expressway which would take us to Joestu. I took over driving again which was fun except for one small crisis. I forgot to keep an eye on the fuel gauge and when I did finally look, the needle was pointing at "E". A small amount of panic crept up on me. We hadn't seen a services sign for miles and we could run out of petrol at any time. We took the next exit, paid the toll and asked for directions to the nearest gas station. Luckily, it was a short ride up the road, and even luckier, it was open. So with a full tank of fuel, we rejoined the expressway and headed to Joestu where we stopped for some food.

We went to Cannary Row, a place I'd been taken to before by some local ALTs. We had a bit of trouble ordering. We were all tired and speaking japanese was a little difficult. Listening was difficult too, especially since the waitress insisted on speaking as fast as she could. We eventually manged to get three pizzas and a rissoto out of them and were soon on our way to Tokamachi. We got back around midnight, so our journey was a lot quicker that before, even if we did take a longer route.

This morning, I drove Ryan back to Debbies so he could pick up his car and head back to Niigata. I tried to get my haircut today but all the barber's are closed. Instead I met up with Debs and Hannah for a coffee before goingto Komeri to buy a shovel. There must have been a lot of snow in tokamachi this weekend because my little car was almost buried by the snow. So I've been moving teh snow with my new shovel. The Japanese have this ingenious system to get rid of the piles of snow too. There are big storm drains that run either side of the road. At some points, there are metal trap doors which can be opened up so you can shovel your snow into the drains. There is so much moving water that the snow melts and is carried away. Genius!

**Snow Blog**

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