Martin In Japan

Our Man In Japan

Monday, September 25, 2006

Photos Suspended

I've been getting a bit concerned that I might be breaking several rules and regulations by having photos of my schools, pupils and teachers on my website.

I'm in the process of finding out exactly what the ruling are, but in the meantime I've decided that I should remove all photos that are in any way connected with the schools.

Unfortunately, with so many photos on my site, this is going to take quite a while. So, to be on the safe side, I've decided to remove all photos. I'll restore any albums that I can as soon as I can.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Weekend starts here

Another week over (albeit, a shorter week than usual) and another two days to recover and enjoy Japan before lessons again on Monday.

My original plan for this weekend was to meet my brother and his girlfriend in Tokyo and see the Tokyo Games Show and maybe take in a bit of Sumo too. But, alas, he had to use his holiday money to repair his car and can;t afford to come for the moment.

So instead I'm going to go on Lopaka's trip to Obuse. Lopake is the Regional Advisor for teh ALT in and around Tokamachi and Muikamachi. So he's organised this weekend away so we can all hang out and get to know the new ALTs. I've been to Obuse before (once with Helen, once with my brothers and once with one of my teachers) and love the place. It's only a small village but it has so many interesting things to see; galleries, museums, bonsais, gardens, chestnut ice-cream. We'll stay in a ryokan on Saturday night and then on Sunday we'll got to the Monkey onsen before driving back home.

Should be a nice, relaxing weekend, which is just perfect before the high-tension of next weekend's footy tournament.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reducing the cost of motoring

Or "Another of Martin's Bright Ideas".

Again, throught the internet I keep hearing how the cost of petrol is going up and up in the UK and in America (the last time I went home, petrol was aroun 99p per litre). It is no different in Japan. When I first got a car two years ago, I would be paying around 115yen (55p) a litre. At the moment, it's around 145yen (70p) a litre. Obviously a 27 percent increase over two years is way above inflation and I've been trying to think of ways to reduce the cost. I'm running a manual-gear kei-car, and with it's 0.6 litre engine I doubt I can get a car with better fuel efficiency. It runs on petrol, so I have no hope of running on bio-diesel or chip fat. I'm keeping my journeys in the car to a minimum; if it's in Tokamachi town centre, I use my bike. But there are always journeys I can't avoid; Monday and Wednesdays in Tsunan (35km/21 mile roundtrip), Tuesdays in Kawanishi (12km/8 mile roundtrip), footy training, events etc in Niigata (180km/112 mile roundtrip). So is there a way to reduce cost for those trips?

There is a way: stick to the speed limit. Everyone knows that the faster you go, the more fuel you use, and that rate isn't linear but exponential (i.e. fuel economy at 80km/h is more than twice that of 40km/h). But how big an effect is it? Well, on my trips to Niigata if I drive around 120km/h on the expressway, the roundtrip would need a full tank of fuel. If I drive at the speed limit, 80km/h, I use only HALF a tank of fuel on the roundtrip. "Oh but Martin, it would take a lot longer to drive at 80km/h." Actually, it doesn't. A single journey from Tokamachi to Niigata at a top speed of 120km/h takes about 1h 15 min. A single journey from Tokamachi to Niigata at a top speed of 80km/h takes about 1h 30 minutes. So, a saving of half a tank of fuel (1,800 yen / £8.50) for an extra 15 minutes driving. So on employment terms, I'm getting paid 7,200yen/£34 an hour to stick to the speed limit. It's so simple I can't believe I hadn't thought of it before.

And when I reduce the amount of money I need to spend on petrol, it also means that I'm reducing the amount of emissions I'm creating, so both my Dirty Northern Bastard and my Green Inner Geek are happy.

The name of Nintendo's new games console

With the Tokyo Games Show on this weekend, I need to get this theory out in the open before someone else claims it.

So, the Big Three, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have been developing the next generation (some would argue fifth-generation) of games consoles. Microsoft have been very keen and they released the 'X-Box 360' last Christmas/January. Sony are developing the imaginatively titled 'Playstation 3', though the release date gets pushed further and further back depending on Blu-Ray (next generation DVD system). Nintendo's new machine is almost ready to go and will probably be released in November. The early on, the new machine was called the Nintendo 'Revolution' but along the way Nintendo changed name to the Nintendo 'Wii'.

Why the change and why change the name to 'Wii'? Well, some people have speculated that Revolution was cognitively too similar to 360 (360 degrees makes one revolution). Some have suggested that 'Wii' sounds like 'we' and in turn suggests that the console will be really fun for multiplayer games. Spelling 'we' as 'Wii' allows Nintendo to brand the word, which can said easily in many languages, as well as create a logo that looks like two people or like two of the new 'Wii' controllers (two more echos of the multiplayer theme).

All good reasons, and now I want to add my own theory. Break the word 'Wii' in two and you have 'W' and 'ii'. In Japanese, 'ii' means 'good' and in Japanese marketing, 'W' is pronounced 'double' (for example 'double burger' in Freshness Burger is written 'W burger'). So put the two together and 'Wii' means 'Double good'.

Right, time to go break my high score on Tetris and then find that super secret world in Super Mario Land.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

School Dinners at Home and in Japan

There are many differences between schools in the UK and schools in Japan and while working here I often day-dream of 'The Perfect Blend'; where the best bits of British Schools and the best bits of Japanese schools fuse into the Perfect System where every student achieves, everyone is happy, everyone is self-sufficient and everyone is healthy.

Maybe the key feature I'd like to see change in the UK is school dinners. Back home, school dinners have a reputation for being tasteless, junk food consisting of 95% fat (and my later experiences of school dinners certainly reinforce that reputation). I gave up with school dinners and took my dinner money to the local chippy for tasty junk food instead. Sometimes I'd have a packed lunch which would have cheese and resconstituted ham sandwiches, crips, chocolate, fizzy drink and an apple. Three options of differing taste but probably of equal nutritonal value.

So how does Japanese school dinners compare. Well there are two distinct systems I'm exposed to; one for senior high schools and one for junior high schools.

In senior high schools, students are encouraged to bring their own 'bento' lunch. FOr those that don't have a bento, or those who fancy a little extra, we have "Pan-ya san" (literally, 'bread shop man' so 'the baker'). The bakery comes to the high school with four trays full of bread related snacks; sandwiches, rolls, sweet breads etc. and the students buy as much or as little as they like.

In junior high schools, lunch is provided for the students. The lunch is provided to my school by outside caterers. Just before lunch, a team of students don white aprons and serve the lunch into plates and onto the tables. When they are done and all 90 meals are laid out, the other students (and myself) are allowed into the lunch room and the school can eat. The meal each day has a similar structure; a bowl of rice, some kind of soup, some kind of meat or fish, some kind of vegetable dish or salad, fruit for dessert and a carton of milk. Each meal is a different combination of salads, fish, meat and fruits but each meal provides an example of a good balanced diet. And it's always delicious, even if some of the dishes look a bit strange.

Maybe a key thing about school dinners in Japan is that students are not allowed to leave the school during school hours. If the senior high students don't want just bread for lunch, they should bring a bento and if they don't bring a bento and don;t want bread then they have to hungry until the end of school. If the junior high students don't want the healthy school meal, then they have to hungry until the end of school. It might be a heavy-handed way to force students (at least junior high students) to eat at least one healthy meal a day, but it certainly is no hardship.

This September in the UK, new Government guidelines for healthier school meals were introduced. Among the recommendations are:

"that pupils have least two servings a day of fruit and vegetables, that oily fish should be served at least once every three weeks and bread must be available every day.

Schools should also provide free, fresh drinking water and salt should not be available at lunch. Ketchup and mayonnaise should only be available in sachets and schools will be restricted to serving no more than two portions of deep-fried foods in a week. Manufactured meat products such as chicken nuggets may only be served occasionally.

The only savoury snacks available at lunchtime should be nuts and seeds with no added salt, fat or sugar"

Very healthy intentions indeed and ones that could potentially improve students diets and along with it their health and studying ability. And if the students pick up some healthy eating habits, the all the better.

But naturally, there has been some resistance to the School Meal Reform. Students in the UK, unable to get junk food from school, are taking their dinner money and spending it outside school. This means the catering companies, who also provided the vending machines before they were banned, are losing profits and are complaining to the government.

My worry is that if the catering companies lobby enough, the healthy meal guidelines might be taken back, the school meal situation goes back to square one and another set of obese, attention-defecit citizens are created for the future of the UK. It would be better if the catering companies could lobby to have the students restricted to school grounds during lunchtime (like in Japan) but then I'm sure some people will cry out about a "restriction of students' freedom of choice" and maybe some kind of "blow for democracy". (In my opinion, students, being immature, are so prone to the powerful influences of advertising and media that any choice is unlikely to be of their own true freewill. Likewise, denying students a choice is hardly a blow for democracy since you have to be at least 18 years old to be eligable to vote)

Right, time to get off my soapbox and go for lunch with the junior high students.

Coup in Thailand

There was Military Coup in Thailand this morning. I imagine thousands of people will now be cancelling their Christmas trips to Bangkok.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Long Bank Holiday Weekend

I've had today off because it is Respect for the Aged Day. What have I done with the three day week? Well, Friday afternoon I went down the gym and did some distance and weight training. Halfway through my run I met my old students from Tokamachi High School. The basketball team were at the gym practicing in the arena before a tournament on Saturday. I said hi and tried to explain that I was training for a tournament as best I could between breaths. I also bumped into the woman from climbing and chatted about why I hadn't been climbing since March (the finger I injured in January).

I went to Japanese class on Friday and was well chuffed that I could understand the whole lesson! Admittedly, it was wasn't rocket science (agemasu, moraimasu, comparisons) but for once I was able to follow everything. For an encore I watched "Tonari no Totoro" ("My Neighbour Totoro") in Japanese and, aside from three times where I had to stop and ask Keiko what the dad had just said, I pretty much understood that too. (Actually I had no choice but to watch Totoro in Japanese. For months now I've been looking in Tsutaya to rent a DVD copy and everytime the three DVD copies they have are rented out. So I had to rent the VHS, japanese only, copy)

Saturday morning I woke late and did my washing for next week. I picked up Keiko and we headed up to Niigata for a night out before footy training on Sunday. We met Keiko's mate Satoko and went to an izakaya in bandai. After we met Lindsey, Justine and Anna in Immigrants before moving on to HotSpot. It was a nice night, nomihodai going down well, but we did have a random stalking Linds and Russian also tried to start a fight with me! A very strange incident; I was on teh dance floor with the girls, this guy comes storming up to me, before I know it, I'm holding the guys arm in my hands making sure he doesn't punch me. He broke free and left the bar while I was stood trying to work out if I should be bleeding or not. Luckily I wasn't and went back to dancing and drinking.

When i woke up, I immediately regretted the two quick G&Ts before the end of the nomi hodai. I felt better after a shower and breakfast, which was good because I was going with Keiko to meet her other friend Sachiko and her six month baby Shou. I'd met Sachiko in Tokamachi once before so we where catching up with news quickly. Shou, however, took a while sizing up me and Keiko before he decided we where fun enough to play with!

After that I dropped Keiko off in town and picked up Luke from teh station and went to training. It was my first session of the new season and it was good to see the new squad. It's difficult to predict how well we'll do in Nagano, if only because we couldn't play eleven-a-side, but I've seen most of the players play in various tournaments around Niigata and I think we have a team capable of qualifying for Saitama. And once we're though to Saitama, we have plenty of time to organise friendly matches to get more experience of the team playing together.

After training, I picked up Keiko and we headed back to Tokamachi to watch the premiership matches. This morning I woke up at Keiko's and met her new nephew, Fuichiro. He was born two weeks ago and is tiny! It's amazing to think we were all that size once.

I spent the rest of today finally packing away the fish tank and buying my brother's birthday presents. The weather has been great, though I expect that to change when the latest typhoon hits central Honshu, and I don't feel like going back to work tomorrow. Guess I should take heart that it's only a four day week and I get paid on Thursday.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Come on City!!!

The tigers have won two games in a row (against Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester) and managed to pull themselves off teh bottom of the league for the first time this season. Yes!!! And not a moment too soon. Now I can wear my new City shirt with (a little) pride at footy training tomorrow!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What kind of blogger are you?

Not necessarily exhaustive, but mildly ammusing.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

New Photos

Now I have my broadband back, I can upload some new pictures. Go to my photos page and look for the red square.


A little boost to my day. My broadband has been connected in my new flat. Yay! I had assumed that switching phone account from location to another would have automatically switched teh Yahoo BB account too, but it didn't. I had to ring up, tell Yahoo BB I had moved and then wait two weeks before the request for NTT flick a switch in the exchange was processed.

Still, it's all done so I can upload some new photo sets I've organised.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nido aru koto wa Sando aru

Or "If it happens two times, we'll have it three times". Which sums up recent events perfectly. I lost Rex when he jumped out of the bucket while moving to my new apartment. Then the new companion fish I bought for Albi, Roary, died last Friday. Now, this morning, I find Albi has died. He'd become ill on Monday evening and was covered in white spots. I think Roary might have been a carrier of 'ich', apparently a common disease in fish, and when I put him in the tank last week the infection had passed on to Albi.

When I noticed syptoms in Albo, Musashi (japanese B&Q with pet section) was already closed so I couldn't get any treatment. The only thing I could do was put Albi into the clean water I was preparing for a water change. After school yesterday I checked Albi and he was showing signs of fin rot too. He was really ill. I went with Keiko to Musashi and she explained the problem to the guy in the fish section. I bought the treatment he recommended so and added it to the big tank. The pet section guy also said to return Albi to the big tank to so he could be treated too. And that's how I left him when I went to sleep, swimming in blue water.

When I woke, I found him still and lifeless in the middle of the tank. Another fish, the third one, dies in my custody. Eventhough it was just fish, I feel upset. Albi and Rex were given to me by a student last year. I'd given them a home and they've been a silent part of my life for the last 10 months. Maybe I should be impressed that something managed to live for so long under my supervision (longest age of a pot plant in Martin's care: twelve weeks).

So, I'll make another trip to the Shinano and that will be the end of the Albi and Rex story. Then the question will be what to do with the tank. Do I leave fish for the time being and get rid of the tank? Or do I fill the tank with new fish?

Dan Brown, eat your heart out

Da Vinci Code is nothing compared to Jesus the Rice Farmer.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Weekly Round-Up

Another seven days flying by. Here's what I got up to:

Monday 4th - First lessons back at Tsunan. Students seemed pleased to have my lesson, probably because typical ALT activities make English lesson more like larking around when compared to other classes. Met Keiko after work and we saw the rest of the art in Tsunan at Mount Park ski-jo. Less then a week left now to get as many stamps as we can on our passports!

Tuesday 5th - First day at Kawanishi. Introduced myself in English and Japanese to the teachers. Gave my introduction lesson to three different classes, each time receiving three completely different reactions. Keiko and I met again after work to finish seeing art between Kawanishi and Matsudai. Stopped at Musashi on the way back to buy new a new friend for Albi; Roary, a goldfish with tiger stripes. Drop in at Erik's for a chat and to pick up my art guide book.

Wednesday 6th - Back at Tsunan. Temperature dropped to around 21 degrees so I brought my Cadbury's omiyage in for everyone (it would have melted within minutes anytime before). Rang Yahoo BB to change my account to new flat. Told it might take two weeks. Great. Heavy rain in the evening ruins plans to see art after work. Finish off lesson planning at home for Sogo lessons.

Thursday 7th - Second set of lessons at Tokamachi Sogo. Didn't go quite as well as last week's introduction lesson. A bit worried about Roary when I got home. He's not moving much in the centre of the tank. Not eating either. Maybe Albi, who's much bigger, has scared him too much.

Friday 8th - Wake up and find Roary dead in the fish tank. Did he die of fright? I take his body out and go to school. Again, lessons could have been better. When I get back home, I find Roray has developed a yellow belly. Maybe he was properly ill and not just scared. Take him to the Shinano. Spend afternoon with Keiko looking at art around Mion Nakasato. Have a fun enkai in the evening with Tokamachi Sogo English teachers at Toyokichi.

Saturday 9th - Speech Contest in Joetsu. Look at art in Matsunoyama on the way back. Drive up to Katakai to see the display of massive fireworks (no, not a mis-phrase. These fireworks were really, really big. Big enough to shake the ground when they exploded). Took an inventive route between rice fields to beat the traffic home.

Sunday 10th - Last official day of the Art Triennial. Have an early start to see the last of art in Nakasato, Matsunoyama and Tokamachi. Go to Katakai again for the Sunday Display. Heavy rain in the afternoon put loads of people off travelling so was able to park within walking distance of the shrine. Found a great spot behind the Invitation Enclosure and stood for two hours going "Oooo", "Ahhhh", "Sugoi!!". Collapse in an exhusted heap when I get home.

That's the week in a nut shell. Again, lots of photos and video taken. I'll letyou know when I post them.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Summer 'Holiday' is Over

I remember when Summer Holiday meant six long weeks romping around farmer's fields, building dens in the park and forgetting how to hold a pen let alone write. Now I'm older, I spend all summer indoors and the days whizz by. Already it's September though July doesn't seem that long ago; when I was stuffing a suit into a suitcase and flying back to England to see my brother's graduation.

Time in August really has flown-by, so I must have been having fun. Here's an overview of what I got up to:

  • 24th July - 6th August: Trip home to see David's Graduation and Mum's Birthday. Hung around in London, Liverpool, Hull and Barnsley seeing family and friends. The British Food Orgy, which destroyed the good work my summer diet achieved, came to a climax at the Great British Beer Festival. One man, a pint glass, beers from around Britain and a large helping of pies equals the start of a beer belly.
  • 7th - 10th August: Spend every evening packing everything in my old flat ready for removel men to come and take everything to the new apartment moving on the 11th.
  • 8th - 11th August: Spend everyday in Muikamachi helping to run a seminar for the English teachers in the area.
  • 11th August: Go to new apartment to find all my stuff has been moved, but all over the new flat. Decide to leave it as it is until after the weekend
  • 12th - 13th August: SummerSonic Festival in Tokyo! Not as good as Fuji Rock, but I still managed to see some excellent bands (Cardigans, Spank Rock, Metallica, Daft Punk, Artic Monkeys, DJ Shadow, Massive Attack). (see previous posts for more)
  • 14th August: First decent night's sleep in my apartment. Slept right through from 11pm until 8am without a single truck waking me up. Bliss. Need to sort out the brightness in the mronings though
  • 15th-18th August: Organising materials at work by day. Unpacking boxes and trying to correct faults with new apartment by night.
  • 19th - 20th August: Spend two days travelling round Tokamachi seeing as many Art Triennial art works as possible
  • 21st August: Working at Tsunan and still unpacking
  • 22nd August: Help out at Hakkai High Schools open day
  • 23rd August: Working at Tsunan and still taking stuff out of boxes. Buy nice, sun-blocking curtains for even better sleep.
  • 24th August: Go ot Kawanishi High School and Tokamachi Sogo High School for the first time to meet the teachers. Start buying extra furniture for front room.
  • 25th August: Take part in the Marching Dance at the Tokamachi Festival
  • 26th August: Host a roof party to watch the fireworks. From my new roof we could see fireworks in Tokamachi, Kawanishi, Oguni and two other displays. Fantastic location! Rest of the night fades out of memory after Lopaka's mates introduce my to a new drinking game
  • 27th August: Wake up around 11am to the sound of local o-mikoshi (portable shrine) being carried outside my window. In the afternoon I carry the Tokamachi O-mikoshi with the Eki Dori people. In the evening I watch the final stages of the Tokamachi Festival nursing a sore back and bruised shoulders.
  • 28th August: Introduce myself to Tokamachi Sogo Koko at the opening ceremony. Have a chat and a coffee with the principal. Leave to go to Tsunan in the afternoon and prepare for Student Seminar
  • 29th - 30th August: Student Seminar in Myoko. Two days of English-club style activities to help encourage students' English studies. Good fun, great kids and lovely scenery
  • 31st August: First lessons at Tokamachi Sogo. Summer is officially over. Met all the teachers in English Department. Met half the students I will teach. All really good people so I think I will enjoy teaching here.
  • 1st September: Give lesons to the other half of my TSH students. Again, looks like this year could be fun. Go to Japanese class for the first time in weeks
  • 2nd - 3rd Spetember: JET Tour of the Art Triennial. Two days in a bus with a guide and 17 other ALTs. Saw around fifty artworks in teh triennial, most in the difficult to reach parts of teh mountains. Had a great time with the ALts, seeing great art and staying at the House of Light. photos to follow

So that brings me up to today. I'll work through my photos and post up the sets when I can. It's scary how fast everything has gone in this last month. I really hope that I can make the most of my last 11 months.

Aww, Mate.

Sad news about Steve Irwin. Do you think he'll sneak up on God and try piss him off with a big stick?

(if you don;t know who Steve Irwin is, have a look here and here.)

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