Martin In Japan

Our Man In Japan

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Any new Blogs??

It's been a month since the newbies have arrived in Japan. Chances are some of them might have set up a blog to publish your time here. And I reckon some of the veterans might have one or two blogs I don't know about.

So, if you have a blog and would like me to include it in my Niigata JET Blog Browser, send me a mail to and I'll add you to the list.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


I've nearly caught up with all I wanted to do on my site so it's time to sort teh Fuji Rock Photos.

I know I wasn;t teh only person to take photos at Fuji and I like the idea of a collaborative effort (like what we talked about at Fuji). SO, if you have photos that you like be included in the photo set I'm building from my photos, please let me know and we'll work out teh best way to get them to me.


Major Local Earthquake last Sunday

While I was having my breakfast last Sunday, another earthquake occured. It was the strongest I've felt for a few months and being in my apartment, the same place as teh big one, it scared the shit out of me. When it stopped I immediately looked at this diagram which shows the earthquake activity in Niigata for the last 24 hours. Sure enough, a big red circle had appeared in Oguni-town showing a size 5 earthquake had hit just north of Tokamachi.

A 5 you say? That's nothing surely? Well, compared to the Big One last October, of course it is, but it's still significant enough to scare you (and it's was the biggest to hit Niigata since 23rd Oct 2004). After Sunday's quake, my TV/Computer stand and books on my window ledge had moved two inches from the walls. The worst casualty was my mug of tea that had stood up, but half it's contents had sloshed over onto the floor. Still, I'm greatful it didn't build into another big earthquake.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

New look website

I got bored with the last design so I spent the last week, on and off, working on a new design. Content is the same, just a different appearence and, on teh geeky side, teh new design allows me to add new bits and bobs more easily.

Let me know if you prefer this look or the last one.

Soccer Sunday

So with the climbing cancelled, I was able to join the first footy session on Sunday. Since most people on Sado for teh Earth Celebration, about eight of us turned up (including Will, an eager newbie from near Nagaoka) and we negotiated a match against a groupd of Japanese kids (well, I'm sure they were university age, but most Japanese people look younger than they are).

The first half wasn't too bad and we managed to blow off the cobwebs and actually play some football. The sun was pretty hot so we called for half-time after 20 minutes. During teh break the park staff came across and told us that we couldn't play. The reason they gave was that we were using cones to mark out the playing area and that meant that no-one else could use the grounds. The fact that the only other people in teh ground were in teh corners playing baseball had no bearing. But, and this is the strange thing, using bags and shirts instead of cones would be okay. Confused? So were we. And it scared the Japanese team, who were unsure is they should or shouldn't carry ine playing. So we called it a day.

But, Pete had a 5-a-side match organised from 5pm and asked if I wanted to play. Not wanting to drive a three-hour round trip for 20 minutes of footy, I agreed. And I was glad I did.

The five-a-side was at the futsal place near Uchino and the court was booked for two hours. I was fun to play and was the first time in a few weeks that I'd trained longer than 60 minutes. I was tired at the end but felt good for teh long run out. I even managed to score a few goals, including a nutmeg on Pete.

I actually feel a lot sharper too after that session. At the training with Kawaji last night, I felt a lot more fitter and confident and was pretty much scoring and setting people up for fun. I need to keep this up and train harder so I'm fully fit before I fly back to England. This way I can be ready for the Nagano tournament when I get back and help my team on our way to Saitama.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

As far as the beach

I had a lot of potential plans for last weekend. I was either going to go climbing on Mount Ogawayama with my climbing friends from teh gym, I was going to go ot Sado, I was going to go see Albirex or I was going to take it easy and hang out in Tokamachi.

So, on Thursday I went climbing to see Fukuhara-san, the organiser for teh Ogawayama climb. He said that heavy rain had been forecasted for the weekend. I thought that it would be too difficult for me so I pulled out.

Bad weather would also make Sado less attractive. I decided to see what the weather was like on Friday before deciding.

At school on Friday I managed to escape the office and watch the Soccer Carnival that was taking place at my school. It was a four-day event involving 16 teams from nearby prefectures (Niigata, Gunma, Saitama and Chiba). Tokamachi Koko and Tokamachi Sogo also played since they were hosts. Friday was the third day or the Carnival. By this time, the teams had played for two days, were ranked and divided into four new groups. Tokamachi Koko and Tokamachi Sogo were both in the fouth group and had to play on the clay pitch at Tokamachi Koko. The top two groups played at Belnatio on the Croatian grass-pitches while the third group played on grass at the Sasayama Sports Stadium.

I saw Tokamachi play just after lunch. They looked the better team and scored towards the end of teh first half. The second half kicked-off and I was expecting more goals. Instead, the heavens opened and the boys might as well have been playing water polo. The rain was so heavy that the pitch was waterlogged in minutes. The teams still played on eventhough the passes became stranded in puddles (just like against Akita alast year). Ironically (in the best footballing sense), the rain stopped as the final whistle blew. The clouds didn't go and thunder was rumbling so I decided against going to Sado on Friday.

Saturday morning I was back at school watching Tokamachi play their final match (3-0 win) and deciding if I should go to Sado. I talked to Debs and we decide that it was too much hassle to go for one night and that the beach would be better. Stopping off to pick up Erik, we were off to the Kashiwazaki.

We managed to get a a few hours of sunbathing and dicking about in the sea before another massive electrical storm came over the mountains. We just made it to the car as it started chucking it down and took refuge in Gusto til the worst had passed. On the way back, I tried to take a shortcut and ended up in Oguni. Not the worst mistake because the drive was way more pretty than the flat 252, but I was glad the storm had passed over.

Last Few Weeks: Newcomers Party

The newcomers party was held last Monday (15th Aug). I went to meet the new ALTs and also meet the re-contractors who I hadn't seen for a few weeks.

I had a strange feeling at the party. It was held in Hot Spot which used to be Cheers, the venue for last year's Welcome Party, so it brought back all the memories from when I arrived last year. And to be surrounded by 76 new ALTs, I wasn't sure if they were invading my turf or I was gatecrashing their party. There was only one way to suppress these feelings; get drunk and moan about the food.

The party was a nomi-tabehodai (all you can drink and eat), with the drinks coming from behind the bar and the food served buffet style. HotSpot had put out extra tables so everyone could sit with their food, but it made things a bit too crowded so I escaped with some second years to one of the snugs. It was there I met Errol, the new Niigata Prefectoral Advisor.

A few more drinks later, it was time to get up and dance. At the time teh floor was pretty empty but it eventually filled up as everyone else got more drunk. I met some more new ALTs, including one who was really interested in play footy for us. From the conversations I had, it sounds like most of the newbies are heading to Sado this weekend for teh Earth Celebration. I'm still undecided, mainly because I want to save money for when I got back home in September.

The newbies were all staying at the BoE dorms so they had a curfew of 9.30pm, just as we had last year. This left HotSpot entirley to the re-contractors and soon took over the pool table and carried on drinking til the wee hours.

Getting up early on Tuesday to catch the coach back was difficult, but once I'd got onboard I slept all the way and was ready for work. Maybe I should take the bus more often than driving all the way there and back to Niigata.

Last Few Weeks: JTE Seminar

Every year the Board of Education run seminars all over the prefecture for the Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs). They're an opportunity for JTEs from different schools to get together to talk about teaching, practise their English and maybe find some inspriation in the activities demonstrated. And, because the seminars are run by ALTs, it was an opportunity for me to get out of the office for four days.

It turned out the that seminar was a lot more fun than I imagined.

The seminar is entirely planned by the BoE (the daily schedule, the activities we'll use etc), it's up to the the ALTs to inject life into the printouts and make the seminar work as well as it could. I was helping to run the seminar at Kokusai Joho School with Debs, Kate Duis and Katie Dooling. The 42 JTEs at the seminar came from schools around Tokamachi and Muikamachi, so between us I think we knew everyone who turned up.

Each morning we ran communicative activities that the JTEs had to do in English. There were some great ideas which I might try to use for my English Club, especially The Hotel Receptionist game which was like charades but with hotel problems instead of book/movie titles.

The main focus for the seminar was to have the JTEs involved in a debate. We ALTs had to give an example debate on teh first day using teh proposition "The JET Programme should be abolished". Debs and I took the Pro-side so we had to try and talk ourselves out of our jobs, which was really fun though I was worried that some teachers might believe what I was saying was my true opinion. After the demonstration, we divided the JTEs into debate groups and had them prepare every afternoon until the final day when the big debate took place. Some of the morning actvities were also geared towards having the JTEs discuss opinions which gave extra practice for the debate.

I think our seminar went well. The JTEs were interested and all four ALTs enjoyed giving the seminar, which probably explains why I thought it went so well. It was a nice change to be talking to a room full of people who could understand everything I was saying. I even managed to get a few laughs out of the JTEs without having to stumble around like a clown, as I do for the students. It was also good for me to talk to JTEs from other schools to get another view of how English can be taught.

After the final day, some of teh teachers went down the road for a meal at the Agricore Echigo Winery where I got to properly meet Patrick and Shelly, the two new ALTs for Kokusai Joho. They're the successors to Jess and Gina and they're both really cool, so hopefully we'll get to see plenty of them over the next year.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Web-based Cute-ness

I found these two videos whilst idly surfing the web this morning.

First up, an advert for tetrapak thatr's currently on Japanese TV. It features something Blur fans will remember from the 'Coffee and TV' music video.

Second is the cutest song with the cutest video, the JCB Song. It might take a while to download, but it's worth it.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Photo backlog catch-up

It's taken me a while, but I've finally posted my photos taken since Golden Week in May. The more observant of you might notice that there are no Hanabi or Fuji Rock photos. There are quite a lot of these (around 800) to sort through so it's taking a bit longer. But, in the meantime, click here for a full index of my photos. Below are a selection of new sets you might find interesting:

Tokamachi ALT Farewell, Deb's Birthday, Farewell BBQ at Kashiwaki Beach, Mel's Birthday, Tanabata Festival in Tokamachi, Nagano Soccer Tournament, Re-contracting in Tokyo: Sat, Sun, Mon, Tues, Wed, Neil's Leaving-Do in Tokamachi and Takada.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Japanese DVLA part 2: Back on the Road

After the botched first attempt, I applied for a translation of my licence. That arrived last week so my supervisor arranged an appointment for me for at the Seiro-machi Licensing Center in Niigata and yesterday I went. Because I can't drive, I took the 6.30am bus from Tokamachi to Niigata and got to the centre in plenty of time. I handed over all the documents and copies I was asked to bring and patiently waited while they were checked by the guy at the desk. I missed a couple of copies (you need copies of ALL your visa stamps in your passport) and had to have my photo re-taken (800 yen) but that was all in order. Then it was time to pay for the eye-test and licence-issuing (about 4,000 yen/ 20 quid). The eye-test was easy; look into a machine, wait for a sequence of 'C' shapes to appear and and say which side (up, down, left, right) the gap appears, then name the colours of three lights. After that, one more photo, my licence was issued and I'm allowed back on the road!

So, lessons learned? Well, don't leave changing you licence until July. Fact is, I could have changed my licence at anytime this year, and since I decided to stay for another year in February, I should have done it then. Then I wouldn;t have been without a car when I had time to use it. Second, what your supervisor is told over the phone might not necessarily be correct. I think the problem comes from the way Japanese use the word 'maybe'. To avoid sounding forceful and disrespectful, people will say 'maybe you can' when they mean 'you should', e.g. 'maybe you could do English Club tonight' is actually an order. But, some Japanese people don't like to admit that they don't know something. So, they'll say 'maybe you can' when they mean 'I'm not sure, but you could...' e.g. 'maybe you could bring your documents to the Nagaoka Driving Center'. So, second lesson is that I should ask around more, and especially listen to people who have already done what I want to do (so, I should have read Acquiring a Japanese Driving License info from the Niigata Jet Website).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Another Big Earthquake

In teh office on my own today and I felt the low, lazy rumblings of an earthquake. It felt like the earthquake that hit Chiba in July, so I guessed it was another strong but distant earthquake. Looking around teh web, I found this report of the earthquake on the USGS Website. Looks like it was a magnitude 7, 50 miles out to sea near Sendai so it wasn't the Big One that's expected to hit Tokyo. Made me worry though.

UPDATE, 2:20pm: The news agencies have caught up and started reporting the earthquake. Reuters, Japan Times, The Guardian

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Last Two Weeks: Tsunan Sunflowers and Ryogakubo

After the Nagaoka fireworks, we all went to an izakaiya to have one last drink with Rowan, Kaber and Natsumi, all of whom are going back home this summer. On our way out of the place, I bumped into Harumi. I hadn't seen her for ages and it was good to see her. We chatted agreed that we should meet up soon and do something.

With my driving licence running out, I was stuck in Tokamachi. Harumi had the idea of driving to Tsunan to see the sunflowers that I'd seen last year. I agreed so she picked me up on Sunday 7th and we headed to Tsunan to take more pictures of sunflower faces.

It was threatening to rain but it held off all day. We saw the sunflowers from an observation platform and also took a walk inside the sunflower field. After I saw two of my Tsunan students who were running the film stand and bought a set of Niigata Event stamps.

It was still early afternoon so Haurmi recommended going to Ryogakubo. It's a small lake surrounded by trees and the water is incredably pure. There are two fountains sourced from the lake that were surrounded by people filling up water bottles to take teh water away with them. We were able to take a path around the lake which made for a very scenic walk. I was really surprised that something so interesting had been hiding away so near for all this time. I should try and find out if there any other interesting little places in the area and make sure I tell people about them.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Last Two Weeks: Beach Bums

The weather has been scorching over the last few weeks so Me, Debs, Erik and Lopaka headed over to Kashiwazaki to laze on the beach on Saturday 6th. We piled beer, towels, sun-cream and silly hats into Erik's car, which Debs drove cos she was, at the time, the only one between us with a valid licence (Erik passed his the following Wednesday, I'm sorting mine out this Wednesday).

The beach was packed with Japanese sun-bathers, sun-avoiders and little kids who didn't hide their stares. Still, they're cute so we'll let them off.

Debs and I worked out that it was a year ago that we'd come to the same beach by train last year. And I accidentally marked the aniversary by burning myself again. Not quite as badly as last year, but my legs are now a nice lobster colour.

Typhoons permittng, I might get a chance to sunbathe sensibly without burning.

Last Two Weeks: Fireworks and Farewells

You know summer has arrived in Japan when all the towns in the area start advertising festivals. I thing I've learnt is that when there's a festival, there will be beer, cute kids in yukata and lots and lots of hanabi (fireworks)!!

Over the last few weeks I've seen the two biggest hanabi displays in Niigata-ken;one in Kashiwazaki and the other in Nagaoka.

There was a lot of rain on the evening of the Kasiwasaki hanabi, but that didn't stop thousands of people arriving or the display from taking place. Kashiwazaki is on the sea and the hanabi are fired from two platforms near the off-shore sea defenses. The result is an amazing and varied two-hour display. Sometimes the bursts were obscured by smoke from previous fireworks, but that didn't stop the boom from stirring your stomach. The size and amount of fireworks released was mind-boggling. My favourites at Kasiwazaki were the fireworks that scooted along the sea before exploding on the surface and, in the finale, the fireworks on parachutes that slowly fell after all the bursts had died away. It was an amazing display and I was glad we all braved the rain to come out and see it.

For the Nagaoka hanabi, the weather was much better. The Nagaoka festival is reputated to have the best firework display in Japan. It was certainly impressive in terms of length and variety. Maybe I had been spoilt by teh Kashiwazai fireworks, or maybe sitting down further away from the display was not as overwhelming as standing on the seashore in the rain, but I was less impressed by the Nagaoka Hanabi as a whole. Saying that, there were some spectacular highlights including two 'Sanjakudama' which bloom for 600 metres, a simultaneous 300-bloom, and more parachute fireworks.

There are more festivals in Niigata-ken this summer, but I don't think the hanabi displays will come close to matching these too. I hope I can see them again next year.

I'll be definatley missing something over the next year, and that'll be three mates I made this year. Rowan, Kabeer and Natsumi will all be going back home this summer. The izakiya after teh Nagaoka fireworks was the last time I'll see the three of them. I'm hoping that they'll come back for snowboarding or that I'll drop in on them sometime on my future travels. Good luck fellers, and keep in touch.

Last Two Weeks: New Faces, New Enthusiasm

Since Fuji Rock, two new ALT's have come to Tokamachi. The first one I met was Russ. He's Aimee's replacement from South Carolina, America. I first met him when we went to see the fireworks in Nagaoka. He's a nice feller who realy interested in seeing everything about Japan. At teh moment he's amazed by all the things near his apartment; the rice fields, the roads, the neighbours. It seems so long ago when I felt like that. I mentioned to him that one of my regrets was not taking anough photos of teh things around me while they were still interesting to me. The next time I saw Russ he said he'd spent an hour or so riding around and taking photos.

The other new ALT is Lopaka, from Hawaii. He's Brian's replacement and lives out in Nakasato (a village on the way to Tsunan) and I met him in Daikichi before Debs and I took him to our Japanese class. The Japanese used in class was difficult for him since he is still learning the Kana, but he gave everthing a try and even showed teh rest of the class a traditional Hawaiian dance (we were learning about Japanese dancing for the Tokamachi Festival).

They're both really nice blokes, interesting and easy to get on with so I think the next year with them will be a great one. They're also eager to try news things and really enthusiastic so I'm sure they'll have a great time here. Conversations with them are full of amazing things they have seen, optomisitic travelling plans and curious questions about Japanese language and culture which is great but, after a while, gets a little annoying. But then, I'm sure I was the same when I first arrived, and enthusiasm for a new country is a good thing so surely I should welcome such an attitude? Maybe their enthusiasm is annoying because it reminds me of how much my own enthusiasm has dampened over the last year. But this need not be a bad thing. Instead of becoming frustrated, I should take this as a kick-up-the-arse to break some of the routines I've established and make Japan interesting again. I should look back over my year, as Erik has recently, see what I've done and what I've achieved and, more importantly, try to remember what I wanted from Japan a year ago. Then, I should take inspriation from Russ and Lopaka and actually look forward to getting the most out of Japan over the next year.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

"Normal service will resume...."

I had trouble with my ISP last week. For some reason I couldn't access my website from home, which meant I couldn't update it. The problem has cleared up, but now I have a backlog of blog entries and phots that I need to organise. Hopefully I can get it all sorted over this weekend. The last week or two have been really eventful and I want to tell you all about it!

Monday, August 01, 2005

Fuji Rock: Back to Civilisation

What a weekend!!! Fuji Rock rocks!!!
I've had my shower, slept for hours this afternoon and have my washing machine working overtime. About to get picked up by Erik for a post-Fuji Rock quiet movie night, so briefly, here were the bands I saw:

Friday: little bit of Simple Plan, little bit of Soil and teh Pimp Sessions then Cake, Kaiser Chiefs (who rocked!), The Music, little bit of Charlottle Hatherley, missed Coldplay on purpose, bit of Rosso and then Foo Fighters!!

Saturday: Los Lobos cancelled, Julliette and the Licks (feat. julliette Lewis),
bit of Leyona, Dachambo (absolutley wicked), Maximo Park, Tokyo Ska Para, Asian Dub Foundation, Beck, Fatboy Slim and after, Towa Tei DJ set

Sunday: Went up the gondola, Magic Numbers, Ego Wrappin', Aqualung, Los Lobos acustic at the British Council, Futureheads, Beach Boys, Royksopp, Moby, Strange Love Psychedelico on TV, New Order, Primal Scream and after Peter Hook DJ set

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