Martin In Japan

Our Man In Japan

Monday, February 28, 2005

First of March already?

I really can't believe how quickly the weeks are flying past here. My apologies to everyone who I've been meaning to email but haven't for a long while. I'm hoping this blog will let you know a little about what I;ve been up to in Japan. Please send u a mail and let me know what you've been doing.

I had an opportunity for a little break at Tsunan today. Exams are finshed. There are no more classes. So I've had time today to sort through the sheets I've made in the last six months and archive them so I can reuse them next year.

The students still had to come to school this morning though. They're not here for lessons, they;re here to clean the school. Yep, the children clean the school. It makes sense really; they're the ones who make the school messy so they should tidy and clean it. And from the looks of it, every student participates without complaint, at least no complaint I can understand. In the afternoon, the teachers wax the floors of their classrooms. I helped to wax the LL room and we managed to finish it in ten minutes. Tomorrow the corridors will be waxed.

I'm still taking Ibuprofen for my back. I'm trying keep the amount I take to a minimum because I read that in some people it can make asthma a lot worse. I've been okay so far but no reason to push my luck.

Should have thought of that on Saturday.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Another eventful weekend.

I picked up Nick from Nagaoka and we drove up to Niigata for his birthday meal. We got stuck in traffic, then stuck in the one-way system so we arrived about a half hour late. Good-un Martin.

The curry was great. It was a proper curry, none of this brown school-dinner stuff that the Japanese usually call curry, with naan's and chipattis and Cobra beer. It even had wall coverings that wouldn't look out of place in Brick Lane.

After we went to Hot Spot, but not to drink. Everyone who came from North Niigata were going to take a trip to Zao for teh weekend. To do this, they needed to drive back to Murakami on Friday night and have an early start on Saturday. So not too much drinking. My plan was to stay over at Holly's and then drive down to Joetsu to meet Ben, Simon and the lads down at Cupid Valley in Joetsu. But I had my car in Niigata city centre, so for an early start, I needed to drive my car to Holly's. So no drinking Friday night.

On Saturday morning I had a bit of a surprise; I had brought everything I needed to board with me except my ski trousers. I couldn't believe it. So, I headed to Tokamachi to pick up my gear and headed to Cupid Valley, picking up Matt from Sado on the way. We got to Cupid Valley by 1pm, so not too late to have a full afternoon on the slope.

We bought our ski pass and made out way up the mountain on a ski lift. The mountain looked perfect for snowboarding; a big mountain, not to steep, not too shallow, without too many skiers making the slopes bumpy and stacks of powder. This was going to be a good day boarding. Matt and I started to make our way down teh slope, occasionally getting stuck in powder when we went to close to the edges. I was pushing myself a little harder than usual because I knew that if I fell I would fall into nice soft snow. It was great, easily the best boarding I've ever experienced.

The run came to a set of jumps and I felt confident enough to try it. Matt gave me a few tips and he went first to show me how to do it. He landed it, pulled to one side and waited for me. I set off. I tried to keep my speed down, lined up the jump, left the ground and...

...well, a brief thought of "Wow, I'm in the air" followed by "I'm leaning back too much" then "no worries, there's so much powder it'll be a soft landing". CRUNCH!! I managed to find the one place on the mountain that was solid ice, and promptly introduced it to my back.

I was in pain. No, I was pain. And I couldn't breathe. And I couldn't move. Matt yelled to see if I was okay and I tried to move to give some kind of signal. He then started yelling for me to get out of the way so I wouldn't be crushed by the next jumper. Slowly, and painfully, and breathlessly I managed to unclip my bindings and crawl to the side of the slope. And I sat waiting for the pain to go and my breath to return. After ten minutes or so, I gingerly got back on my board and steadily made my way back to the chalet.

As luck would have it, we bumped into the other ALTs (Ben, Holly, Simon, ??, Ian and Joe with their girlfriends) at the chalet. They'd just finished a tabehodai (all you can eat buffet) and we hung out with them until they were getting ready for another session on the slopes. By that time, I was ready too so I joined Matt, Simon and ?? in teh quest to find to decent powder at the top of the slope.

We took the gondola and pretty soon found what we were looking for; a slope with aift at top and bottom and plenty of powder and plenty of trees to weave in and out. Well, I say weaving, I couldn't turn too quickly with my back so it was more a dash through the trees for me. I did a few runs before making my way back to the chalet to rest again.

I bumped into Lillian, Megan and Jamie this time and I joined them for ice-cream. When my back was less painful, I had time for one more run. Strangely, my back hurt more on teh ski-lift than it did when I was boarding. It was still painful and was hoping that the onsen would help sort it out. It did in a way, but only when I was in the bath. When I got out I was still in pain. Luckily, Joe had some Ibuprofen and I took a couple. By the time I'd driven to Joetsu I could feel no pain at all.

The drive to Joetsu was really impressive. The village near Cupid Valley was having a snow festival so all along the main road little candle holes had been dug into the walls of snow. It was even more impressive when I turned off the car headlights for a few minutes.

We (Matt, Ben, Holly, Simon and I) went for ramen, dropped our stuff off at Dan's house then walked into Takada for the party. We went to Nova and met with Dan and other ALTs. I also met Conrad who I hadn;t seen in ages and we caught up.

We needed to get drunk, cheaply, so we went to join Joe and the others as a nomihodai (all you can drink) karaoke place. A couple of hours drinking beer and G&t while screaming along to the Doors, Oasis and Franz Ferdinand and we were ready for the party.

So back to Nova, and the booze was taking effect, so much so that I really can't remember what happened or who was there. I don;t remember my back hurting, which is good. I do remember taking photos, which is bad.

I woke on Sunday, on the floor of Dan's apartment under a towel. It's was freezing so I guess I was lucky to find myself fully clothed. My back was aching a bit; bearable but I could do with more ibuprofen. I felt tired and sore, but after a long period of persuasion I agreed to go boarding again, this time further south in Arai.

Dan knew the way so he drove Simon and I followed. The main roads were fine but some of the more country roads were covered in large patches of bumpy ice. We were driving down one of these country roads when Dan got a little unlucky. He ran over quite a large bump and the back of his car swung out a little. He tried to correct it, but it was difficult with more ice bumps further up the road. Another car was coming in the opposite direction. I thought the other car woulkd stop, but it didn't and tried to go past Dan. At this point, Dan's car swung into the other lane, clipping the oncoming car and then spinning round tro stop and face in the opposite direction.

The other car stopped, and I parked my car. While Dan and the other driver were exchanging details, a police car on patrol came by and stopped to investigate. Simon's Japanese proved to be very useful when it came to talking with teh police officer, but still, it took a good hour or so to get details taken, notes made and everything sorted out before we could leave. It was too late to go boarding so we grabbed some food from seven-eleven and headed back to Dan's to warm up before I left for Tokamachi.

I stopped at Jusco to buy ibuprofen. I tried to ask in Japanese "I-bu-pu-ro-pe-n arimasu ka?" but the chemist didn;t understand me. I looked in my dictionary for pain and luckily found, in the definition, the phrase "senaka ga itai desu" (I have a pain in my back). So I pointed to that, mimed taking a pill and the guy understood. Communication really can be more than just speech.

I took a couple of ibuprofen and drove home. Route 253 was a bit difficult. There was lots of ice on the road and I was starting to feel quite tired. I had to stop at one point and take a nap just to be safe. But I managed to get back safely, prepare things for today and get a good night's sleep. Well, as good as you can get with a painful back. The ibuprofen is really helping though.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Slope Domination Plan in Tatters

I had planned to go snowboarding this afternoon, but events have conspired against me. Tokamachi Koko will be having listening exams next week and they need me to make a tape. I had already written the script and had it checked, all I needed to do was record the tape. TBy the time a teacher was free to do this and by the tim ethey were happy with the recording (twice I had to do it), it was 1.30pm. Too late to go boarding. I wasn't happy.

So, instead, this afternoon I've been sorting my flat out and sorting through some more photos ready for another big upload. Hopfully the next update will bring us up the the present day.

Later today I'll be in Niigata again. It's Nick's birthday and we'll be going for a curry. I'll be taking my gear so that I can go boarding straight from Niigata tomorrow. There's a party in Joetsu on Saturday so I'll be trying put the slopes near there.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Kowai ne?

I used my harness last night and I've never been so scared. The big routes at the wall are all lead climbs, that is, you need to hook your rope into the wall at regular times. I've never done this before (when I went to Castle I did lead climbs where the rope is already there for you) but I was pretty sure I could do it. And I could. Teh first couple of anchors where easy; find an easy place to rest, pick up the rope and clip. It got more difficult as I got more tired the higher I climbed. Also I wasn;t too sure about what would happen if I fell. Now, I'm a big lad, but when I climbed with Helen we used a ground anchor so she wouldn't pulled off the ground if I fell. At teh Tokamachi wall, there are no ground anchors, just the weight of whoever is belaying you. Most of the climbers are not very big and the difference in our weights is quite big.

So, I'm three-quarters of teh way up. My arms are tired, I'm tired and I still need to make a good move before I can clip the next point. And for teh first time in six months, I'm several metres off the ground, which is scaring teh shit out of me. I tried to make teh move, but I felt like I would fall and not wanting to test my belayer too much, I resigned and gave up the climb. I'll try it again soon, but before I think I need to build my climbing stamina.

I still couldn't do the overhang route either.

Last Lessons at Tsunan

Tsunan's exams start tomorrow so today yesterday I had my last lessons with the first years this school year. It's a bit upsetting because since Christmas I've been getting on with the students a lot better than before. Now I'll never teach them again. Hopefully I'll see them around school so that's not too bad. I'll have a new set of students in April and I'll have to start all over again to overcome their shyness. Still, when that happens, I'll have a whole year with them which could be fun.

Yesterday I also had a lesson with Takahashi's second year group. It was my basic introduction lesson and it went really well. Started off with the intro about me to which the students have to listen and answer a multiple choice sheet. Then onto the captions and pictures activity. I'd prepared properly for this and taped the pictures around teh classroom. This worked a treat. The students were up and wandering before I told them that they could do. Maybe initiative is the difference between first years and second years. The last activity was for the students to explain something about Japan to me. Like in the appearence lessons, the students loved having the oppertunity to speak to me one-to-one. I really should try and use this in future lesson plans.

Tonight I'm going climbing, I'm taking my harness again and this time I'll use it! I took it on Monday and one of the other climbers saw it and challenged me to use it tonight. Also, I need to work on the overhang route. After my success last Wednesday, I couldn't do it at all on Monday. Maybe I was still tired after the weekend. Anyways, gambatte, ne?

Monday, February 21, 2005

Nah, more like 15 seconds.

Don't I feel like and idiot. The NHK program was focused around a Japanese Judo guy and how he learnt English. As an interesting aside, they introduced the concept of ALTs. The three minutes feature started with an aerial shot of Saitama stadium followed by some brief highlights of the ALT Tournament final (sadly, before I took to the pitch). Then cut to an interview with ALTs watching the final. They were asked questions like "What's it like teaching Engligh to Japanese students?" "What do you find difficult?" I thought the answers they gave were cynical and one their own would have given a bad impression of ALTs. Luckily, this was just the intro for the piece and attention switched to a guy who was team-teaching. They showed how he runs his lessons, how they're different to normal English lesson and how he approaches teaching. I think this guy came across really well so hopefully viewers will remember him instead of the jaded spectators.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

15 more minutes of fame?

Following the mail from Joe about our imminent TV appearence, I made a little sign to put on the noticeboard in teh hope that some of the students might see it. I'm dead excited. My team, on TV again! Which raises the question. How many TV appearences do you need to become a celebrity?

Tokamachi Snow Festival 2005

Another fun-packed, drink fuelled weekend. Debs and I drove up to Kate's house in Niigata to meet with Kate, Justine, Emma and Ryan. We drank wine while we got ready and when Jason came round we left for Hot Spot. Hot Spot is teh new name for Cheers. I hated Cheers, there was something about the the atmosphere there that stopped me from relaxing and enjoying myself. Now it's under new management and I must say the new owner has done really well with the place. The layout is the same, but he's added new seats and a couple of VIP rooms and the whole place feels cozy.

Anyways, the party. All the footy guys were there. Luke was well on his way and I helped by buying him a tequila shot. Since I missed the footy dinner, there was a little ceremony to present me with a medal, photo and DVD of the final game. I was dead chuffed with the medal, only the second in my footy career but by far the most important.

I spent the night playing pool, playing table-footy and chatting to everyone and anyone. I surprised at how quickly 3am came round, at which point we said our final goodbyes to Luke and headed back to Kate's.

We tried to wake early on Saturday morning so that Ryan and I could go to Tokamachi for the Snow Festival and the girls could go to Joetsu for the play. Even with hangovers, we managed showers, coffee and egg on toast and left Kate's around 1ish.

The drive through Tokamachi was surprising. When I had left Tokamachi on Friday, there were just piles of snow everywhere with one or two little lanterns carved out of some of them. Now, all the way down the main high street, there was a lantern every 50 metres and little snowmen everywhere. Now it really was starting to feel like a snow festival!

Ryan and I got to my place at around 2.30/3pm, dumped my car and headed for the nearest Snow Festival Square, which happened to be opposite my barber's. They had a big mountain of snow, a big sculpture of a bird and a stage. The listings showed that the next peformance on the stage was a Fire Performance at 5.30. As we were looking at the listings, a bloke started chatting to us. He turned out to be one of the Fire Performers and was really happy when we told him we where going to come and watch him. We also bumped into my barber, not totally surprising since his shop is across the road, and I was surprised when he asked if Ryan was my friends from Niigata, one of teh ones I said would come for teh festival. I was surprised because it meant that I was actually making some sense to him on Thursday!

Ryan and I then climbed to the top of a snow mountain (okay, hill) where we found a slide had been built into the other side. There were some ladies at the top handing out plastic sledges so me and Ryan had to have a go. It was like being seven again!

We headed into town to see the main Community Hiroba (square) that was built on the playing field at my school. There were lots of stalls, another snow slide and we also saw the stage for the main performances. We bumped into Erik, Gina and the other ALTs from Muikamachi. They'd been in town for a while and had seen some nice scupltures in the streets. Ryan and I headed off towards the station to see some of these scupltures. We stopped at a photo shop that was selling photos of the big sculptures so I bought a couple in case they had melted beyond all recognition by the time I saw them. Ryan and I also bumped into a strange penguin thing that was promoting the tri-ennial arts festival. It was playfully harrassing a group of school children which was teh funniest thing I'd seen in ages!

We met Neil and Annie at the station and we also met some Japanese people who had competed in a sculpting contest. The results had been decided long before and they were all well into the celebratory drinks. They saw us and each started to boast to us about their recent and past acheivements in the sculpting contest. They offered us a drink, but we refused when we saw that every glass of beer had a fish in it!

It was nearly time for the Fire Performance so the four of us headed back to my car to drive to my apartment, hooking up with Rowan on teh way who followed me back to mine. Just before we left my apartment, we couldn;t resist jumping off my balcony into the snow that had piled up in the restaurant car park! Ryan, Neil and I had no trouble. Somehow Rowan managed to get stuck up to his waist in the snow, and he couldn't pull his legs out! We had to get a shovel to dig the poor lad out!

It was starting to get dark as the fire performance began, which suited the show. There was a drumer to one side and the performers took to the stage with a variety of staffs and bolos. There was a cool section where two performers had a duel with two flaming swords; it was like an ancient light-saber battle!

After the performance, we headed back to the Community Hiroba to see what was being performed there. It was half way through the Kimono Show; kind of a fashion parade of local Kimonos. Then there was the Miss Tokamachi contest and after there was a singer. The singer had a tough job because it had started sleeting and forced a large part of the crowd to go home.

We decided to leave too and head to Gourmet Houe for beer and food. By coincidence, a couple of the climbers, the weatherman and his wife, were having an enkai at Gourmet House and they came over to say hi to me. A little later on, a mand who knew Yuki came over to say hi too. The man was very generous and sent over three pitchers of beer to the table, which was really nice of him. I don't know why he did that, but we drank teh beer all the same.

We tried carry one drinking at Lupin, but after the lack of sleep from last night I was shattered. So was Ryan so we headed back to my flat, with Rowan who was also staying over at mine.

We woke on Sunday and headed out to the Community Hiroba again. Debs arrived with Mel and Kate and we all had a proper walk around the square. We found a tea-ceremony place and all sat and had green tea. There was also a maze cut into the snow in which we got lost for quite a while. Rowan and I investigated the igloos and found they were serving 'hot sweet rice drink'. It was a strange texture, but suited teh cold weather. There was also a row of measuring sticks showing the amount of snowfall in Tokamachi by the time the festival started. This year's snowfall was three metres, about three times that of the previous two years and the most for 19 years.

There was one other centre of the Snow Festival we hadn;t seen at Kinari/Cross Ten, so we walked down the high street to see what was going on there. They had filled the centre of Kinari with snow and they were having what looked like a volleyball tournament in the snow. Looking closer, we saw that there were three nets on each pitch and three teams competing in each game. We weren't sure on teh rules, but we've decided that we should try and sign up for next years tournament!

After a coffee in Cross Ten, we headed back to Community Hiroba, but it was 3pm. All the stalls and the squares started closing and it was the end of the festival. Justine drove back to Niigata with Ryan and Kate, Liz drove Liz and Mel back to Joetsu and me and Debs decided to go for onsen at Mion in Nakasato.

We weren't prepared for what we saw when we got back; all the sculptures had gone! In the time we'd spent at the onsen, they'd removed all the snow used for the festival! Everything was back to normal! I remembered about how at the end of the match, the players of Kawaji FC would put away the goals and groom the pitch. Same idea I guess. But it does leave you with a feeling of "Did that really happen?" Well, I have lots of photos to prove that it did, so I guess it must have.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Calm before the storm

For the Snow Festival restaurant I've decided that it'll be best to play it by ear. There are so many maybes and those that will arrive will come at different times so the best thing to do is to just see who turns up and go from there.

This afternoon I've been giving my flat teh final tidy round. I've taken a bunch of recycling to Jusco and bought an extra futon for the weekend. I'll need an extra one when Mark and David come to stay so it's best to buy one know so I can use it at the weekend.

I also got a mail from Joe to tell us that Niigata ALT FC could be on TV again on Monday. A program about ALTs in Japan will be shown on NHK on Monday night. There a possibility that they'll cover the tournament in Saitama so maybe we will be featured too. I need to tell people at school and set my video on Monday.

Tonight I'm off up to Niigata for Aussi Luke's leaving drinks. Luke played right-midfield in Saitama and had a storming tournament. His teaching contract is ending so he's off back to Oz. He might come back, but just incase he doesn't we need to fill him with enough drink to last a lifetime. Should be fun!

Attack of the Clouds

Went climbing last night and managed to crack two routes! The first one was the big overhang that Ive been trying for teh last few weeks. I was so chuffed when I managed to do it! The second climb was one I tried in January. It's a really nasty twisty one that's on a bit of an overhang, so technique is really important to conserve your strength. This week I managed to do it, so I was really chuffed about that. I'll keep practicing both routes to get the technique perfect. I'm also starting on an endurance route around the bouldering wall. There are about four or five of these routes, eacha different colour and each hold in a route labelled 1 to 32. You can put your feet anywhere, but you must use your left hand on the odd holds and right hand on the even holds. I got as far as hold 15 on the pink route before my arms gave out.

When I got back home, my brothers were online. I'd been talking with my mum about both my brothers coming over to Japan for Easter so we started looking for flights for them. It took a while for us find a good website and then a bit longer to find affordable flights. But we eventually got lucky. We found a pair of flights from Manchester to Tokyo for about £570 each. A bit more expensive than what they were looking for, but the flight leaves and lands at Manachester at a good time for them to get to the airport from David's house in St Helens. Once they were booked I went to bed. It was 2am.

So today I've been a bit tired. I've also been very distracted. I'm really excited that my brothers are coming to Japan, but I'm also really scared that they'll have a bad time in Japan. It's the same feeling I had when Helen came to visit and I have the same questions to ask myself; where shall I take them? How shall we get there? Where shall we stay? Will my Japanese be good enough to to makethe most of their time here for them? Will they like what I show them? I guess I have a month to sort all of this out so I shouldn't worry too much at the moment.

After school today I went for a haircut and Kom, the name of the barbershop that is two minutes walk from my flat. I don;t know if the barber's name is Kom or not. This was the third time I've been here so I guess I'm starting to become a regular. Like every other person in the Japanese service industry, my barber pulls out all the stops ot do the best job that he can. Also, his haircutting routine is quite elaborate, more so than any haircut I've had in the UK. First off he washes my hair. The barber's chair is spun round and reclined to my head is in the sink. My barber puts a white cloth over my face to stop the shampoo and water getting into my eyes. Once washes, he sits me back upright, spins the chair to face teh mirror and dries my hair. I ask for "Koko wa migikai (pointing ot back and sides), koko wa chotto (pointing to the top)" with some hand gestures which means, "Short here, and a little off here". Then the cutting starts. He starts by chipping into the top. Then once I'm happy with the length there, we starts with the short back and sides. Instead of clippers, he uses comb and scissors. He also shortens the hairs on my sideburns. Then he makes final adjustments to to the top to match it with the back and sides. Once done, he spins me round and washes my hair again, dries it and gives me a head and shoulder massage. And with a little bit of gel, he's done. And how much does this haircut cost? 3,000 yen. 15 quid. And I also get a conversation so I can practise my Japanese in the price too. An absolute bargain, especially when in London, all you can expect for a tenner is ten minutes of quick clipping and token chopping.

Tonight I've been reading through replies to a mail I sent this morning. The Snow Festival takes place this weekend and sent a mail out to the Niigata ALTs asking who was interested in coming so I could book a restaurant for them all. At the last count, anything from 12 to 20 people could be coming. Chotto muzakashii desho?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Students' Ambitions II

I rang Helen this morning. Her Mum is coming to visit this weekend so she wouldn't be able to ring me as planned when we split. She also got my Valentine's card that I sent. I'd bought it before we split and wasn't sure if I should send it or not. I decided that I should because the card was bought for her and also to show I wanted to stay in touch. Helen said that she was surprised by the card and that it didn't upset her too much. Maybe I shouldn't have sent it.
I told her about my last two weeks, about my really bad week before and losing my key. I also told her about my snowboarding and how I'm liking that. I asked her what she'd been doing. She told that she has a new job in the ONS. She's now working in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister working on reports that evaluate the effect of government policies. Her climbing is getting better too which is good. It was good to talk to her, but we decided that it might be best for now to talk over email for a bit.

I had more interview tests at Tsunan today. Interesting responses included carpenter, hairstylist, pet stylist, fine art painter and animation voice actress. It's nice to know that at least some of my students have an ambition and some kind of aim. It's also the first main oppertunity I;ve had to find out more about the students. They know all about my family and my interests but I know nothing about them. It's a shame that in a month they'll finish this year and in April I'll have a new set of students. Hopefully I'll still get to see these students around teh school, and maybe teach them again in teh third year.

There was news today of another earthquake in Japan, this time in Tokyo. About 27 people were injured but no-one was killed. It was 5.4 on the Japanese scale, which is roughly the same sized earthquake that Helen experienced when she visited. So enough to scare you but not quite enough to raise buildings to the ground.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Students' Ambitions

Had interview tests to do at Tsunan today. I had to give it for every student that I have in a typical day, which meant 56 seperate tests, saying the same thing over and over. I think the teachers who set the test know how dull this came be, so they added an open question to which teh student could answer what they liked. The question was "What is your ambition?". Most students went for the default answer of "To be a cook" which was given as an example in teh textbook. Some, however, were more adventurous and came up with their own ambition. One wanted to be a jockey. One wanted to be an Aquarium Designer. Another wanted to be a photographer. One wanted to be a long-distance truck driver and I couldn't get the "Long Distance Clara" song from Pigeon Street out of my head for the rest of the afternoon.

This evening I went round to Keiko's house. She has Sky TV so she can get Premiership and Champions League footy. On Tuesday night there is a Premiership round up program. It's an hour long and is just like Match of the Day without the punditry between matches. Its also bilingual so we can watch the matches with English commentry. It was good to see so footy from back home. It's also given me a bit more drive to finish the Fanto Footy scores program.

I also got an email from Helen saying she wants to talk to me on teh phone. I'll goto bed early now so I can get up and ring before work tomorrow.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Valentine's Day with zero effort

Well, I managed to get my flat all cleaned and ready for the weekend's visitors yesterday. No earthquakes either.

It's Valentine's Day today. It works a bit different in Japan. Today, it is an oppertunity for teh girls to show which boys they fancy. They do this by giving chocolate to the guys they like the most. On Valentine's Day in Japan, the guys don;t have to do anything. But, in a month's time on 14th March it is White Day. On White Day, it's the boys turn to give chocolates and gifts to the girls they like. It's also a courtesy to give something to any girl that gave you chocolates on Valentine's Day. So White Day is going to be a little expensive for me. Today, I got chocolates off one of my teachers and also chocolates from several girls who came to English. Two of the girls even made ckaes and gave me a piece of that.

For English Club, I taught the girls about Valentine's Day in England; about how both boys and girls give cards and gifts and if you're in a couple, the boy has to spend a small fortune on flowers, chocolates and a fancy meal for his girlfriend. I brought some card and glue with me, along witha sheet of Valantine's Day images and had the English Club girls make Valentine's Day cards. They seemed to really enjoy this and spent ages crafting so really nice cards. I was a bit jealous when I found out that none were addressed to me. So for the first time in four years, I didn't get any Valentine's day cards. :-(

At least I had some chocolate to comfort me.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Bank-Holiday Boarding Bonanza

Friday was a Bank Holiday, but I was up early to go snowboarding with Debs. I picked her up and we went to Minamai ski slope, the same place I went last Sunday. I spent most of my time on the bottom half of teh Falcon run. It starts off pretty steep, which is good for practising turns, but flattens out into a nice long run, which is good for practising balance at high speeds.

Afterwards, I dropped Debs at Kate's house and drove back to Tokamachi, stopping at MosBurger to buy my tea. After I'd finished eating at my flat I just passed out; I was so tired from a day's snowboarding! I woke up around 9pm, so I hung out my snowboarding stuff and had an early night.

On Saturday I was up early again. Neil, Annie and Erik came round my flat at 8.30am to pick me up and go snowboarding at Nozawaonsen. It's a massive resort in Nagano about an hours drive from Tokamachi. The whole village of Nozawaonsen pretty much caters for just the ski slope the shops are all ski shops and any free land is given over to parking spaces. The traffic was quite dense so it took a while to find somewhere to park.

At the slope, Neil spent the morning with Annie teaching her how to snowboard. Erik and I bought day passes and headed up the mountain on the main Gondola. I was suprised at how big the mountain was. Every time the gondola cleared a hill, the cables went on further and further. We got to the top and Erik went off in search of in search of some challenging powder runs. I checked my map, found the nearest green run and started to board on that. It was quite a dull run. It was long and straight and also quite flat so I couldn't get much speed up. A number of times I came to a complete stop and had to unbind my back foot to kick myself along. I checked my map again and looked for teh nearest red run. The one I found was a bit like the run at Minami; a steep start that flattened out into a fast run that bent to the left (to be really geeky, the flat reminded me a lot of playing Wipeout). There was a ski lift that connected the two ends of teh run so I spent a fair bit of time here befroe I started to get hungry.

I planned a route from where I was to the restaurants at the bottom of the mountain. The route included a few red runs which, given the fun I'd just had, I thought would be easy. I was wrong. I came to the start of the red run and stood next to a sign that said 'Steep'. It wasnlt wrong, but since I'd done runs as steep as this one, I set off. The start was fine, but a bit further down teh slope, it got all bumpy and I ended up on my arse. I got back up and was thrown off again in seconds. Now, the problem wasnt so much that the run was steep, but that somehow the slope had grown hundreds of big bumps. As I sat on my arse, I looked around atthe other snowboarders to see how they were coping with the bumps. They were all on their arses too. Then I noticed the skiers. They were zipping by, quickly switching from skiing to the left and skiing to the right; They were the cause of the bumps! And with skiers making up the majority of of people on the mountain, the bumps where definitely going to stay. I had to get off this run and onto another. I checked the map and the only way off was to continue down. So I spent the next hour boarding and falling on arse until I got to the bottom of the run. I was hungry and also frustrated at the skiers who seemed to cut me up at every oppertunity.

I found a restaurant and ordered katsu curry rice with melon soda. It was nice and would have made me feel a lot better if every mouthful hadn't been watched by the man on the table opposite. I wouldn't have minded if I was with Erik, Neil or Annie, but being on my own, I felt a bit vunerable and being started at, especially in such an obvious way, was really unnerving. I finished as quickly as a I could and headed out to the slopes.

The next slope was a green run with a decent incline to it. I made my way down and was quite happy til I was cut up by a ski team. Not one person, but eight, in a line whizzing inches away from teh nose of my board. I ended up on my arse again. Cheers guys. This happened quite a few times, one of which I had my worst fall of the day. I think I hit a bit of a jump as a skier cut me up, I lost my concentration and ended up in a heap, with massive pain in knee, I bump to my head and the visor in my goggles coming loose. Good one. I gingerly made my way to the bottom of the mountain, met up with Neil and Erik and had a good old moan to them about my shit time of the red run and the skiers. It's amazing how much better you feel after a rant.

I went back to the nice red run with Erik and went down that together a few times. Erik even persuaded me to try a jump which I managed to land. It was only about a foot or two high, but still an acheivement for me. We split again, Erik taking a black run and me taking the ski lift back to the start of this red run. Time was getting on and soon the lifts were going to stop running, so I took teh gondola as far as I could and started a long run back down to the car. I planned a route of green runs this time, which for the most part were quite good. There were points where I came to a stand-still because it was very flat or where I had to slow because of a large group of beginner skiers ahead, but apart from that, the run back was pretty good. I wish I'd gone this way instead of taking the red runs before.

I met Erik at the car, we put our snow gear in teh car and headed out for onsen. As well as being famous for teh ski resort, Nozawaonsen is, as the name suggests, famous for onsen. There are a number of natural hot springs all over the village that have been turned into free public baths. We went to one that had a very impressive exterior. The inside was all wooden. There were two baths filled with the natural spring water. You could really smell the sulpher from the mountain. Near the entrace there were pigeon-holes to put your clothes and you could wash yourself around the sides of the baths. The onsen was very hot, hotter than I'm used too. I could feel my skin go all tingly as I got in. The temperature meant that we didn;t stay for long, but it did mean we were all nice a warm after a day on the cold slopes.

On the way back to the car we toured the shops on teh high street, browsing through omiyage and buying hot dumplings to eat. We got back to Tokamachi quite quickly, the roads having been cleared since the morning, and once again I passed out as soon as I got in to my flat. I'm really surprised how tired I get from snowboarding.

My knee was killing me when I woke up this morning. I cant really rest it today though. Next weekend will be the Tokamachi Snow Festival and from the sounds of it a lot of ALTs are coming to see it. I've offered my flat as somewhere to stay so I need to clean it today ready for next weekend. Teh biggest task in my bathroom, which was last cleaned on the day of the earthquake. Scummy I know, but I've been thinking that maybe if I clean the bathroom again, the world will be so shocked that there will be another earthquake. But that's nonsense really so I should get on with it.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Footy down t'pub, Japanese style

Last night I went to Daboru in Tokamachi to see the big match between Japan and North Korea. In teh media, a lot has been made about the political tension between the two countries, kind of like teh tension you get whenever England play Germany or Argentina except this Asian conflict is ongoing and the tension is real. But, eventhough there was a bit of disrespect from some Japanese fans, there was no crowd trouble at all. Even with all the media hype and huge riot police presence, both sets of fans avoided any violent confrontation. Not even any small scuffles. I there's a lesson to be learnt here.

The match coverage brought a tear to my eye. The thought that I had played in the very same stadium that I could see on the TV was overwhelming, even more so after the match when I realised that the dressing room we had used was now being used by teh Japanese national team.

The match wasn't the best I have seen. It was interesting to see two teams playing in completely different ways; Japan were a collection of highly-paid, highly-skillful individuals who couldn't play as a team; North Korea were a modest team, who were well organised and who became more than the sum of there parts. I'll let you read a match report rather than here make a hash of it myself.

I had gone to Daboru, a classy little restaurant-bar named after the Croatian striker Davour Suker, to watch the match. I was taken here before the earthquake by Hajime and some other Kawaji FC footballers. I had kept the card that the owner had given me and remebered that it had a big screen for footy. The World-Cup qualifier seemed like perfect time to return. The atmosphere was very different to that of an British pub showing the footy, I guess due to the restaurant-feel of the place. The fans in Daboru all wore blue Japan footy shirts and they were all drinking, but there was no agression and no drunken abuse shouted at the TV at all during the match, even when Japan missed chance after scoring-chance. In the end, Japan were lucky to get a winning goal and the home team took all three points. The fans all cheered and even allowed us to join in witha victorious "Kampai!" The owner of Daboru then gave everyone a glass of champagne (well, sparkling wine) to celebrate the victory. It was a nice evening and a nice way to watch the footy.

I need to work out the Japanese for "What match are you showing next?" so I can return.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Idiot Tax

I went to Jam last night to pay the bill for losing my key. It cost me about 120 quid, which was a lot cheaper than I expected. The biggest expense was the call out to Matsudai, which was around 60 quid. The woman at Jam was really nice about the whole thing, eventhough it must have been a hassle. We had a conversation and I explained to her, in Japanese and gestures, what had happened. I also gave them a present of some beer, to say thanks for helping me out, which they initially refused because "I had paid the charge", but accepted after I insisted. Fingers-crossed I don't do anything else stupid with the car.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Post-enkai climb

Went climbing last night and saw the climbers again for the first time since Friday. They were always welcoming before, but now they're even more friendly. The enkai really broke the ice and most of them came up to talk to me. I was quite chuffed with my climbing too. There's an overhang route that I could barely start to climb at the start of the year. last night I managed to get my hand on the goal hold. I need both hands on it to complete the route, but I'm getting there.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

"He's Behind You!"

I eventually got to Nagaoka around 6pm. Spent most of yesterday afternoon faffing before starting the drive up. I picked up Nick, Ryan and Emma and we drove to the Nagaoka Lyric Hall for the ALT play. The play is an annual event organised by ALTs in Niigata. It is performed around Niigata with the aim of raising money for an aid charity working in Papua New Guinea. This year's play was Peter Ja-Pan. It was really entertaining. It's done in a mix of Japanese and English, aimed at elementary school children but with enough jokes to keep the adults amused. It was funny seeing my mates acting on stage. They were all really professional, eventhough Ryan, Nick and I had sat on the front row especially to put them off. There are three more performances so I'll catch the play again in Niigata City.

After the play was an enkai in Baden Baden, and German-themed bar. The enkai was nomihodai (all you can drink) so we were all pissed by the time we finished. Some of us also went on to another bar, Nameless, where I most of my conversations falling asleep half wa through sentences. It's the closest you'll get to a sleep-dancing Cloudy at the mo.

Woke up this morning without a hangover, as usual. I drove Tiff and Liz back to their car (it refused to start last night) and then picked up Nick to go snowboarding at Minami Ski-jo.
Compared to Matsudai, Minami is huge! It has about four or five ski lifts, two of which take a good 5-10 mins to travel on. There's quite a variety on the slopes too. The first big slope is quite shallow, and good for practising your balance. This then send you down one of three runs; one for snowboard jumping, one for fast skiing and another quite gentle one. The gentle one twists and turns so it's good for practising turning. There was a fork at one point, which I took and quikly realised it was the cross-country ski run. This is bad for snowboards because it runs pretty flat at some points, on which a snowboard won't move.

Just before my lift pass run out, I took the second major lift to the top of the mountain; if I'm higher up, I get a longer run and more for my money don't I? It was really high up, and quite steep. I was a bit scared but excited too. I'd had a good day so my confidence is high. I had my new goggles so I could see properly. What could go wrong? Well, I didn't expect a binding to freeze up. The ankle binding on my lead foot wouldn't fasten. I tried everything I could think of but it wouldn't hold. So I had to go down the whole mountain with just my toe! It was pretty difficult turning right and I fell a few times, once into powder so I spent a while digging myself out, but the run was brilliant!

I'm going to come back here next Friday. It's a Bank Holiday so I should be able to spend the whole day there.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Key, Kei, Kai

hinking that my week couldn't get any more worse, especially after the Good-luck Bad-Luck thing from last night, I went snowboarding at Matsudai. The first run was great, a few falls but I was getting the hang of turning. So I get on the ski lift to my second run, and while I was sat I noticed a pocket was unzipped on my jacket. It was the pocket with my car key in it. And the key had gone. I had a frantic search through all my other pockets until I got off the lift. Nothing. Then I had another search through all my pockets. Still nothing.

So there was only one thing for it; walk down the slope, retrace my first run and sift through snow at the places I fell. Since me and Debs were the only people on the slope it was easy to follow my tracks, but did I find the key? Did I fuk. At the ski lodge I asked if a key has been handed in, but one hadn't. So I had to ring Jam, the garage I rent my car from. Now, I can't speak japanese well enough so I rang Keiko and asked if she could call Jam on my behalf and explain what happened. She rang me back and said that Jam would come to Matsudai with my repaired Carol and they would take the courtesy car back with them. I only had to wait for an hour and a half too.

So Jam turned up, not looking too impressed with me or at having to be called out late on a Friday afternoon. They dropped off the Carol and put the courtesy car on the back of the truck. This was a little difficult because they didn't bring a spare key with them and the steering and front wheels had locked. I have to go see them on Tuesday to see how much all this has cost me. I'm worried that if they don't have a spare key, it's going to cost a fair bit. Might be eating plain rice for a few weeks.

So I get home thinking the best thing I could do now is to stay in and stay out of trouble. But I had the Climbers' Enkai I felt I should go to that. I'm glad I did.

To save worrying about driving, Debs gave me a lift to Kurakura, the venue for the Enkai. There was a big cheer when I turned up and I was given a place at the end of the table. The questions started soon after, all in Japanese and gestures. Where are you from? Where's Hull? How long have you been in Japan? Do you have a girlfriend? What do you think of Japanese girls? etc. Having to speak Japanese and have no-one around to translate was scary, but I had come prepared with my dictionary and also a pen and paper so I could try and draw what I was trying to say. The food was a mix of Japanese food and western meat snacks (such as hotdogs and deep-fried chicken) and it was all really nice. And as it was an enkai, my new friends made sure I always had a beer in my hand. The guys are really cool. One guy works at Par Mark, an outdoor shop in Nagaoka. Another is a carpenter who's building a new onsen in Nakasato village. Another guy had pretty good English. One guy loved all the British music from the eighties and nineties so we spent some time listing the bands we liked. Another guy turned up later on and he runs a company who provides the weather forcast for MSN. So they're a real mix of people.

The night started to wind down around 11.30ish, and by midnight I was in a taxi to Lupin to meet Erik. I don't remember what we talked about, but I'm sure Erik gave me a lift back to mine (Cheers mate!)

I decided to sleep in today and woke at 2pm. Lazy I know, but I needed the sleep. Today's plan is to go to Nagaoka and see the ALT play/panto. I'm taking my board too cos we might go boarding on Sunday. TTFN.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Oni wa so to, fu ku wa uchi!

Today is Setsubun in Japan. Setsubun is the day before Risshun, the first day of Spring on the lunar calendar. It's and important day for Japanese people because it allows them to perform rituals to remove bad luck and encourage good luck. Keiko came round to show me how to do this. The first ritual was Setsubun mame maki, or bean throwing. This involved throwing roasted soy beans out of my front door while saying "oni wa so to"(get out demons) and "fu ku wa uchi"(come in happiness). Then we had to eat a big onigiri roll, non-stop, whilst facing in the lucky direction (this year it was West by South-West). It was a bit of a challenge, especially since you can't stop, talk or drink water while you eat this massive rice roll, but I managed to do it.

Hopefully my bad-luck run will come to an end. Fingers-crossed.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

And still the snow falls...

I was watching TV last night and a few weather maps helped me to understand why I had spent a good hour shovelling snow. A massive region of low pressure is sitting to the north of Japan so Niigata prefecture is bearing the brunt of winds direct from Siberia.

From what I could make out from other charts, Niiagata has had the highest snowfall this winter (some 3 metres) in all Japan and Tokamachi has had the highest snowfall in the last three days (153 cm) . According to my teachers, this is all well above avereage and will explain why the snow clearing measures have been unabel to cope. Hence me spending an hour shovellling snow every day this week.

The snow has also disrupted lessons at the school. Today, Tsunan started later and finished earlier so that students had extra time to arrive and return home. The reduced hours meant that one lesson had to be cancelled and the others became shorter by five minutes. Most of my lessons for today were posteponed because the teachers I would have taught with were to leave on a business trip. But the trip was cancelled, and with no lesson plan, the students ended up watching Wallace and Gromit. I had to stay in the office. Spoilsports.

Went to JAM on my way hme from Tsunan to pay the rent on car. One of my windscreen wipers has stopped working so I asked if it could be repaired. They need a part so while they're waiting for it to arrive they've lent me another car. It's an automatic but it does have a 10-disc CD changer so it balances out.

To take my mind of things, I went climbing. The other people that climb are really friendly and between our small knowledge of each others languages, we have a pretty good understanding. Tonight they invited me to an enkai, or drinking party, on Friday. I'm really chuffed tah they asked me, but I'm also bricking it because I don't think my japanese is good enough. i'd be a fool to bottle out though, so we'll see how things go on Friday.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Snow, snow, snow

Japan is, at the moment, in the grip of a massive snow storm. It's bloody cold, it's snowing ALL the time and since I left for work this morning and returned home, 90 centimetres of snow had fallen. muggins here had to spend a good hour clearing snow from in front of his garage so he could put his car away. Still, when the snow does ease off (thursday they reckon) it will mean the slopes will be prefect for more snowboarding!

**Snow Blog**

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