Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I'm a celebrity... [but don't] get me out of here!

So, there's been quite a bit happening here in Ainan-cho over the past few days which has been pushing me even further towards the decision to say YES to re-contracting... some of it insane, some of it just pure fun.

When I bought my Rilakkuma onesie
for £6, I never expected it to be such
a hit with the locals...
On the insane side of things, I had a pretty hilarious experience on Saturday night. Drinking at a local izakaya, I made a new group of friends who were, for once, the same age as me! (Mental note: izakayas are cheaper, less creepy and attract a younger crowd than hostess bars... definitely my new hangout of choice). In a town where everyone either seems to be sixteen or sixty, that might seem pretty mental in itself. But sadly, that's not the peak of the story. No, the peak occurred when one of my new friends, who, you should note, this was my first time meeting, turned to me and said, "Oh! Jim! Look at this!" and showed me a picture he had saved on his phone. But this wasn't just any old photo. Oh no. It was a photo of me. In my Rilakkuma onesie. Shitfaced. Considering I'd never met him before, I couldn't decide whether to be cracked up or creeped out. In the end, I settled for a little bit of both. Being the only foreigner in town, I've come accustomed to my pseudo-celebrity status by now, but this took it to a whole new level. Mental, and just another example of how ridiculous life here can be. Not quite sure I'm ready to give up that ridiculousness just yet.

This has also been the week that I joined Ainan Yakuba's volleyball team! My friend, Megu, the one responsible for drawing me the awesome picture I blogged about a few posts back , invited me to watch a game on Monday evening, and before I knew it, I'd gone from spectator to participant and am now a fully-fledged member of the team. I've got my first proper matches next Monday and Wednesday, and then apparently there's a team social after the game next Wednesday evening too! I've never been much of a sportsman, but, as I gathered from watching the matches yesterday evening, nobody really takes themselves too seriously, so even though I don't have particular confidence in my abilities on the pitch, it's all just about letting loose and having fun.. and that I can do!

After Monday's introduction to the volleyball team, me, Megu, Shogo and team captain Shigeki went to a local combini and grabbed ourselves some dinner. Then, we took it back to mine and huddled round my kotatsu where we whiled the next few hours away just chatting and enjoying each other's company. It wasn't until Megu innocently asked what the time that, looking at my watch, I realised it was half past midnight and we'd hung out together for the best part of SIX HOURS. Whoops. I guess time really does fly when you're having fun! After almost four months in Japan now, I really feel that my Japanese is coming along, too. I mean, it's still pretty elementary, but considering I spoke literally none when I arrived, and now I know my hiragana, katakana and can hold a simple conversation, I'd say I've made good progress! And I also feel that I'm slowly starting to build up the kind of social life I was more accustomed to at home - now I've joined the volleyball team and have made some real Japanese friends in Megu and Shogo, I don't see any reason to quit just yet! 

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Big Re-Contracting Question

So Winter's fast approaching, and when we're not busy doing everything to protect ourselves from the overnight transition to Arctic temperatures, there's one thing that's on every JET's mind: re-contracting. Despite having only been here for little over three months, now's the time when we JETs find ourselves being delivered our re-contracting papers and asked whether we want to stay in Japan for another year or not. The deadline's not until Feburary - but even then, whatever way it goes, the decision will have been made after just six months in Japan, and, if we say YES to re-contracting, will bind us for a further EIGHTEEN... so, in short, there's a lot to think about.

A large part of my reason for coming to Japan in the first place was my experience as a teacher in Seoul for two months back in 2009. Having spent almost double that same period of time in Japan now, I can see that the two experiences don't really compare. First of all, Seoul, being Korea's capital, is a HUGE city: a bustling metropolis of over 10 million people. Johen, on the other hand, is about as inaka (rural) as it gets... with a dwindling population of around 9,000 and not even a train station to its name. The closest thing to a "big city" we have is Matsuyama, and that's three-and-a-half-hours away, with a population 1/20th the size of Seoul's. That's certainly taken some getting used to.

Whilst adapting to a rural lifestyle has perhaps been one of the more difficult parts of my life on JET so far, not everything about the inaka is a negative. As you may have gathered from my previous posts and photographs, Johen really is a beautiful town. I've never lived in the countryside, so living in an apartment surrounded by mountains, rivers and rice fields has been a first, and an amazing one at that. What's more, being the only foreign teacher in my town, I'm way more a part of the community than I ever could have been in Seoul. Just popping to the local shops, I'll be surprised if I don't bump into someone along the way who greets me with a bow and a "Hello, Jim-sensei!"... or more usually, it'll be a group of my kids who will run up to me screaming it. For the hundreds of times it's happened so far, it still hasn't lost its ability to leave me grinning like a goon.

Another big difference is the job itself. In Korea, I was privately hired by a summer school, teaching classes no bigger than two students with lesson plans I was responsible for making single-handedly. Here, my class sizes range from six to forty students... and not once have I had to actually plan a lesson. Most days, I simply arrive at school and am asked "Jim, can you come to this period?", where I'll turn up and make the most of whatever my JTE's prepared for that day's class. That’s not to say I have no creative input in what we teach. But it does mean that the work burden is much less than I experienced in Seoul. Unsurprisingly, then, I inevitably find myself with a lot of free time. Sometimes, too much. Of course every JET will find themselves in a different situation... but from where I'm sitting, the job is very comfortable indeed. And, of course, teaching a class of forty is much more exciting than teaching a class of two! There are twenty times the number of personalities in the room, twenty times more kids to mess around with and twenty times the number of jokes to share. In terms of the actual work I do here, Japan wins hands down.

That being so, why isn’t the decision to re-contract a simple one? Well, there’s no disputing that I’m still not fully adapted to the inaka lifestyle. Sometimes there can be days, even whole weeks when I won’t have a proper conversation in English to another person, and my Japanese isn’t good enough to fill the void. That can be pretty tough. Often I envy the other JETs who have a bevy of English-speaking co-workers on their doorstep. Here in Johen, it’s literally just me. And sometimes that in itself can be enough to make me think about not re-contracting.

But then the other part of me thinks that re-contracting wouldn’t be saying no to another year, it would be quitting. Sure, there are things about my life in Japan here that haven’t come easy, but if I decide not to stay, part of me would feel like I’d given up trying to overcome those difficulties and taken the easy way out instead. And let’s not forget – not everything about life here is difficult... some of it is, simply put, amazing. The people, the places... the experiences I could never dream of having at home. I've blogged about them all enough for you to understand what I mean by now! Plus I’m still young enough where I can take this kind of time out without it having any real detrimental impact on my future. I've got the rest of my life to re-acquaint myself with life back in England. As big as the JET Programme is, this is still an amazing opportunity and perhaps deciding to stay for just one year doesn’t do justice enough to that fact. There’s still so much I love about Japan and I’d hate to get home and regret it.

So, as may be apparent... whilst my thought process is by no means conclusively pointing in one direction or the other, my gut tells me that I should stay another year. Expect another blog post when I make my mind up for definite.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sparkling girl brings about a revolution!!

Phew, what a few days. Three parties in four days finally caught up with me this morning in spectacular fashion. Sleepily fumbling for my alarm, I make the rookie error of thinking "Just a few more minutes in bed...". That was at 6.45 AM. Next thing I know, my JTE is calling my name through my letter box. "Jim! Jim! Daijoubuka?" I roll over and look at my watch. It's now 9AM. School started an hour ago. SHIIIIIT. Still in yesterday's clothes, I hurriedly put my shoes on, dash out the house and bounce off to school. Of course, everyone's heard the news. And everyone thinks it's hilarious. Even our Kendo Teacher, who usually terrifies the hell out of me, is laughing and asking me if I'm alright. Then when I tell him it's because I went out drinking until God knows when, he bursts out laughing and pats me on the back. Banter.

The reason for the Monday night enkai itself was hilariously tenuous. The delivery of the news went a little something like this:

JTE: "Jim-sensei, we're throwing you a leaving party on Monday!". 
Me: "Umm, WHAT? Where am I going?!"
JTE: "Huh? Ohhh, sorry, I mean a welcome party!"

Some pretty damaging mis-translation going on right there. And, considering I arrived in August and it's now almost December, nobody was fooled by this thinly-veiled excuse for a piss-up. Not that it stopped any of us. And, yet again, I managed to carry it on to a san-jikai. Somewhere along the way, the Japanese teachers I was drinking with found themselves obsessed with the word "kinky". "WE ARE KINKY BROTHERS". "I AM TOO KINKY" were some favourite one-liners. And they were English teachers, so they knew exactly what they were saying!


The weekend before was a similar story of excess. Me and Erika had been planning to go to fancy-dress karaoke for a while and, when we finally did, months of anticipation built up into a costume FRENZY. This being a little too public a forum to air some of the pictures that resulted (most notably me as a playboy bunny)... here's a slightly more vanilla depiction of our night's activities. If you've got me on Facebook, you'll know what I'm talking about. If not... sucks to be you!

In other news, I also managed to get my Japanese Driving License at last! Three hours of interviews, eye-tests and form-filling later (all the while accompanied by my Japanese Translator who refused to take any payment for his services!), I was presented with my licence:

On top of that, I got my Re-Entry Permit stamped into my passport so that, when I go to China this Christmas, I can get back into the country! PRODUCTIVITY FTW. Yep, them's the Christmas plans alright. I'm going to be spending a few days in Hong Kong with Tiffany, a friend from university, then am swinging on over to Beijing, where I'll spend Christmas and New Year's with Claire, another university friend. Woop woop!

(Oh, and in case you're wondering what the title of this post is about... it was the super-cute phrase written on one of Erika's towels! Kawaiii, ne?!)

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

It's a wonderful life.

So I took Nicola (my bike) out for a ride yesterday and re-acquainted myself with my BEAUTIFUL town. There's little I enjoy more than turning my iPod on and cycling through Ainan's deserted country roads. Gorgeous.

Obviously I'm doing it all again today. You don't get bored of views like this in a hurry.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011


あげぽよ is Japanese slang which means "tension up!" Most Japanese people I talk to (being of an older generation) have no idea what it means, but my school kids and younger friends do. So, whenever you're feeling on it, you point your two fingers to the sky and scream "AGEPOYOOOO!" Just like I'm doing in this AMAZING picture Megu drew for me:

Needless to say, when we all got together again for another party last night, the tension was definitely UP and stayed UP for a good few hours! I'll let the photos do the talking!

あげぽよ indeed!

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Monday, November 7, 2011


Another day in Japan, another evening at home studying, Skyping and eating ramen... except this wasn't just another day in Japan. Nope, three months in and it was time for me to take my first big trip! Having started this whole adventure in Tokyo, Japan's biggest city, it seemed apt that this time round I venture to Osaka... Japan's second-biggest city for days full of exploring in the sunshine, and nights full of drink, drink drinking.

Arriving at Matsuyama airport, I was thrilled to be asked if I wanted to be bumped up to an earlier flight for no extra cost... well, I say "flight"... I don't mean your conventional Boeing 747. If number’s any indicator of size, this thing barely qualified as a Boeing 47. Yep, the whole plane was powered entirely by propellers, carrying little over fifty passengers. Of those fifty, I was, of course, the only non-Japanese passenger... despite that, the flight attendants still chose to repeat all their Japanese messages in English - I'm sure it's just standard procedure, but it certainly made me feel special... and a little conscious. So of course I did my best, “ooh I’m listening intently” face during the safety talks, instead of ignoring them and flicking through the duty free mag like I normally would.

Arriving in Osaka early, it wasn't quite time to check into my hotel, so instead I went for a wonder and stumbled upon this casual city-centre temple. I love the complete clash of old and new that defines so many Asian cities, Japan included. I saw it in Seoul and I see it here too. In one eyeful, you can see a centuries-old temple set against the backdrop of a bustling city. Amazing.

A couple hours after arriving, I met up with Tom, my friend from Hiroshima... but it wasn't long before, being foreigners in the big city, we'd made ourselves a bevvy of new gaijin friends... Sam from Hokkaido, Joel from Kyushuu and Rupert from Saitaima to name just a few! Together we drank and danced our three nights away. At one point, our two-man hotel room was hosting a room party of about fifteen. When I said gaijins in Japan are magnetic, I really wasn't lying. Over the course of our short stay, our favourite hangout became a bar called Frenzy, where Lady Gaga had karaoke'd to herself back in 2009! ...and, needless to say, after a good few chu-hais, we made sure to follow in her footsteps. From there, we took the party to a local club boasting the kind of offer that'd cause a political shitstorm at home: namely, pay 2000Y to get entry and two drinks - unless you're foreign, when you'll get THREE. (And, unless you're me, when you'll find a random, talk them into giving you their tokens and get SIX). It was the first time I'd stepped foot onto a dancefloor since my other life back in London and GOD did it feel amazing. And as if that wasn’t good enough, you can imagine my jubilation when I bumped into Elayna and a bevy of other Ehime JETs to party the night away with! Literal perfection.

I even managed to pick myself up some new Japanese slang along the way. Namely, that here the term for “village bike” is actually “public toilet”... I’ll leave the exact connotations to your imagination. Hahaha. The source of my new slang was a new Japanese friend called Shu, who thought that “fucking” was just a casually acceptable way of saying “really”. That being so, he’d liberally pepper his conversation with it, all with a sweet smile on his face as if he were being the politest man in the world... “no, no, you’re fucking wrong *smile*”, “oh, can you pass me the chair – I fucking need to sit down! *smile*” ...he said it with such sweetness and cheer, we’d just burst out laughing every time. Adorable.

The only downside to the whole trip was that it was so shortlived! After a brief re-acquaintance with the kind of life I’d grown accustomed to at home, returning to my inaka isolation was certainly much harder than I'd anticipated it being. I mean, my inaka life certainly has its charm, but I just don't know if that's enough to supply what I'm missing from the bustling city life that I'm used to. Not that that's even unique to a city - Cambridge was tiny and I loved living there. I guess it's more just lacking the kind of community which I was used to at home, and which I managed to find in Osaka. Hopefully when I get my car (soon!), I'll feel a little more connected!

And it wasn’t just the nightlife that I had to tear myself away from – our daytime adventures were awesome too! On Thursday, me and Tom hit up the Kaiyukan, billed as one of the world’s largest aquariums. Then, on Friday, we hopped on the train to Kyoto and went to a Monkey Park. (It’s probably not on the top of most people’s “To Do” lists when in Kyoto, but we were intrigued, okay? Plus I’ll definitely end up back there at some point – I didn’t get a chance to walk the streets of Gion, where Memoirs of a Geisha is set, and I’m definitely not leaving Japan without having done that first!) I thought it was going to be your traditional lol-look-at-that-monkey-in-a-cage schebang, but the joke was on me... these monkeys were ROAMING FREE. It was semi-unsettling fearing you may be lynched from the treetops at any given second, but also pretty awesome. I mean, where else could I have got an awesome shot like this?

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Parades, panties and a cultural pageant

Ah, Sunday, the day of rest. After a long week teaching kids, teenagers and adults alike, it's time to catch up some well-earned sleep. That is, unless you're a teacher in Japan, where you may find that the motto "sleep is for the dead" is embraced a little too-literally. Yep, forget the Sabbath, this Sunday was time for Johen's very own Bunkasai ("文化祭" or "Culture Festival")... an opportunity for the kids to perform various skits (which they've been practicing every afternoon for weeks) in front of their teachers, parents and, most importantly, me. You name it, the kids were doing it: across an eight-hour marathon, we were treated to calligraphy demonstrations, sing-a-thons, student dramas, comedy, acrobatics and, occasionally, a touch of child cross-dressing. Throw in a Donald-Duck-onesie-clad parent gyrating onstage to a live orchestral version of "Maru, Maru, Mori, Mori" (see earlier post) and you’ve got yourself a perfect Sunday afternoon. I may not have been getting much sleep, but this was a dreamworld of homemade entertainment.

With a non-stop weekend of waking up on floors and Bunkasai, you can imagine how thrilled I was on Monday to settle down to a quiet night in with nothing but Sex and the City and a freshly-made bed. Bliss. Well, it would’ve been. Remember my Japanese Dad I posted about a while ago? He certainly has a habit of tempting me out drinking on school nights. That, and I have all the self-restraint of a fat woman at McDonald’s whenever he calls. So it’s Monday night, and after a characteristically transactional phone call “JIM. WE DRINK. YOU COME?”, I once again find myself out with the locals. Except this time, there’s a new face. We’ll call him Karaoke Man.

There's a reason he's sweating... he knows the forfeit he's
gonna have to face if he loses.

Now, Karaoke Man has a particular hobby which he likes to show off. Can you guess what it is? I’ll give you a clue... it’s not stamp-collecting. So there we are: me, my two Japanese Dads and Karaoke Man, innocently drinking and understanding about 10% of what each other are saying. Then, to spice things up a little, Karaoke Man suggests we play a little game. Of course, I understand none of the rules of his proposition until a microphone’s thrust in my hand and I’m singing Kelly Clarkson’s, “Walk This Way”. All I do know is that we’re apparently all taking it in turns to sing a song, and the person with the lowest score at the end is going to have to perform some form of forfeit. Three songs in and I’m in last place, despite what I thought was a killer performance (if I do say so myself). Now I start to panic. What the fuck am I going to have to do?! Japanese Dad #1 and Karaoke Man are sitting there in the warm light of their victory, with looks on their faces that tell me, whatever the forfeit is, it’s not going to be pretty.

Luckily, it’s not a forfeit I end up having to do. Yep, Japanese Dad #2 steps up to the mark, making a complete shitshow of his Japanese enka and putting himself in last place by a comfortable six points. THANK YOU, KARAOKE GODS. So, what was his forfeit? Well. Er... I’m just going to say it.

He had to buy our hostess a pair of panties.

As if that wasn’t fucked up enough, there was, inexplicably, a box of individually gift-wrapped women’s panties sitting on the bar from which he could make his choice. Rummaging through, he casually asked the hostess her size before picking out a frilly pink pair and presenting her with them. Wow. Just when I was considering the idea that these hostess bars weren’t as messed up as I’d initially thought. I take it all back.


Sadly, I didn't have my camera on me... but the lion looked
pretty much identical to this!

Thankfully, from the black hole of decency that was Monday night’s panty-buying experience, things were looking up today, thanks to the fact that it was Ainan-cho’s very own festival! Well, I say “festival”... Ainan being a rural village, it’s not quite on the Matsuyama scale... rather, what it appeared to consist of was four of Ainan’s biggest lads roaming around town carrying a float, recruiting kids, and periodically stopping to put on a drum-‘n’-dance performance.  Not that I’m putting it down! What I managed to see of it was awesome. They stopped at Johen JHS during a break between lessons, and the whole school gathered outside to watch their performance. Three kids, decked out in the most amazing fluorescent-coloured outfits I’ve seen since being here, banged away on their taiko drums whilst two of the men danced in time in their Chinese-style lion outfits. I'd thought it was a dragon at first, but my friend assured me it was a lion, called "Karashishi"... and that it brings good fortune to all those who it visits.

Sure, Karashishi's one-man dance didn't have the same scale as a Matsuyama street festival, but this way I actually managed to get up close and see something without a crowd obstructing it all! To finish it all off, Karashishi ran into the crowd, creepily clacking its unhinged jaw away as it came face-to-face with the terrified audience. One of the teachers told me that, in the past, it was used as a scare-tactic to keep children in line, warning them that the Karashishi would seek vengeance if they ever acted naughtily. ...all I can say is, with a sight like that burned into their mind’s eye from a young age, no wonder they’re so bloody well behaved all the time!

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