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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Christmas Journey Part I: Farewell Johen!

So, with our glasses emptied and our microphones hung up for another year, it was time to bid farewell to Johen and jump on the nightbus to Osaka. For the nine-and-a-half hour epic I was anticipating, the bus ride was actually surprisingly bearable. Boarding the bus sufficiently knackered was a good plan, since it allowed me to sleep  for the majority of the journey.

Disembarking to a dusky, 6AM Osaka was a little eerie (my Mum definitely wouldn’t have approved), but after wandering the streets, suitcase in tow, for about an hour (o_O), I managed to locate my hostel. By the time I arrived, the sun had risen and a new day was just beginning in Osaka. Even then, I was a good EIGHT HOURS too early to check in. But the owner, appreciating I’d travelled nine hours with nowhere else to stay, must have taken pity on me, since she let me take a nap on her sofa in the basement. Sure I’m high maintenance a lot of the time, but I know how to rough it too when I have to!

Of course, even I couldn’t manage to drag a nap out for eight hours, so after waking up relatively refreshed, I set off to have a look around some of the sights of Osaka I didn’t get to see last time. Primarily, Osaka castle.
There I was, snapping away, when, out of nowhere, a kindly Japanese man taps me on the shoulder with a “Konnichiwa!” and a handshake. Before I know it, he’s taking me on an improvised tour of the castle grounds, showing me to the best photograph spots and gifting me with some of his own homemade onigami. (“You can keep it as a memory!” he insisted). Of course, he expected nothing in return. I scolded myself for initially being suspicious of his motives...this was just genuine, Japanese kindness. Something I’m lucky enough to be well acquainted with by now.

Something else I’m also well acquainted with is the Japanese Drunk, and tonight I met perhaps the craziest of them all. J Hoppers, the hostel I’m staying at, was hosting a drinking party for its guests... and it was led by a Mr. Yuan. From the moment we set off from the hotel, I suspected he’d already put a few away. He punctuated every sentence with a hearty bellow which cut off as suddenly as it started (equal parts hilarious and creepy), and his catchphrase, “IT’S OKAY!” soon became the slogan of the night. During the course of our dinner together, he attempted a series of increasingly strange magic tricks... beginning with a doughnut which he offered us to eat. I took the plunge, picked it up and attempted to tear it into pieces to share around. Well, as it so happened, this particular doughnut was made of rubber. Not that I knew this before I ripped it in two. I thought it was a little tough, but just figured it’d gone stale or something. Turns out I ended up destroying one of his key props. I’d feel bad if it wasn’t so WEIRD. Not settled with his rubber doughnut trick, he followed it up with a story about how he’d trained at the Emperor’s Temple for two years and gained magic powers. Namely, the ability to make a Nissin Noodle Cup levitate... not that impressive when you spot the magnet he’s clutching in his hand. Still, while he may not be coming for David Blane’s crown anytime soon, he certainly had us all in stitches.

All in all then, an interesting 24 hours in Osaka! Next stop... Hong Kong! Yup, my travel route looks a little something like THIS:

Got my alarm set to wake up bright and early tomorrow morning and jump on the bus to the airport. Time for a whole new adventure to begin! See you on the other side!

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Step into [a healthier] Christmas!

I can't quite believe how quickly the past four months have gone, but - believe it or not - it's less than two weeks until Christmas! Of course, I wasted no time getting the tree up and decorating...

I didn't even have to buy it! Rummaging through my cupboards, I was thrilled to find my predecessor had left me one, fully boxed and intact! Amazing. I've also been lucky enough to receive some Christmas cards from home over the past week!

Surprisingly, I managed to do all my Christmas shopping and get it sent off (hopefully) on time! I certainly had to pay for the privilege... Y6000 to be exact (or around £40 for you English readers). Of course, it didn't help having a family of THIRTEEN to buy presents for. I knew it was never going to be a cheap endeavour... but WHO CARES?! IT'S CHRISTMAS!

As to my Christmas plans, I'm off West to China! I'm flying to Hong Kong from Osaka on Monday (12/19), where I'm staying with my friend Tiffany from Cambridge. Then, on the 23rd, I'm flying to Beijing, where I'll meet Claire - one of my best friends who I haven't seen since graduation - who I'll stay with in Tianjin until New Years' Day. Excited doesn't even come close. Perhaps it wasn't the most sensible idea to book my flight back to Japan on New Years' Day after what's sure to be a night's heavy partying and even heavier drinking, but I booked pretty late and dates weren't that flexible. It'll certainly be a memorable journey home if nothing else! 

Before all that, though, I've got to get to the airport. You can imagine my shock when I found that my inconvenient, nowhere town offered a direct, overnight bus service to Osaka. But, before you consider being impressed, remember...this is Johen. Nothing's that convenient. Yep. I may be just one bus ride away from Osaka, but that bus ride's going to take me a staggering NINE-AND-A-HALF HOURS... leaving Johen at 9.00pm on Saturday, and arriving in Osaka at 6.30am Sunday morning. Still, it's cheap and I don't have to worry about getting lost navigating the Japanese railway system...

Not quite sure what bit of a 9.5 hour journey registers as "EXPRESS", but sure...

...that being said, I'm going to be arriving in Osaka at 06.30am when my hostel won't check me in until 3.00pm. Just thank the Heavens for 24-hour McDonalds. You might think it seems like something of an unenviable voyage, but I know the end goal's going to be worth it. Plus, I always think there's something quite romantic about taking such a long journey. Especially this time around, when it's Christmas and I've got friends waiting at the other end of it all. Of course, I'm sure even I'll be giving up on the romance of it all after nine hours on a cramped coach with no iPod battery and only a screaming Japanese baby for company.

And it's not just the tiredness of a long journey I'm going to have to fight against. The weather's taken a sharp turn for the worst in the past few days, too. In short, THINGS ARE FUCKING COLD. Not that it stops everybody at my base school acting as if it were still summer. Yep, they all acknowledge that the temperatures are approaching zero, yet nobody seems to do anything about it. In the staff room, they refuse to switch the AC to heating mode and just leave it switched off, opting for the altogether more logical option of opening all the windows and letting the blistery winter winds in. Then they'll complain "さむいね!!" as if it's somehow out of their hands. It's insane. I'd laugh at the ridiculousness of it all if my facial muscles could unfreeze for long enough to crack more than a pained smile.

Luckily at home, I've got my heating and my kotatsu to keep me toasty. My kotatsu in particular is something of a dream. Basically, it's a big table with a heater built into the bottom, under the top of which you put a thick winter blanket to trap all the heat in and keep your bottom half warm. Confused? Here's a snap of Megu and Shogo modelling mine!

Just the thing to keep you cozy in these winter months! And when it's topped off with a hearty pot of homemade kimchi stew, you really can't go wrong!

Me, Megu and Shogo have got into something of a routine now. Whenever we're all mutually free, Megu will pick me up and we'll all go jogging together in the local park. Today, we clocked up a total of 4.2km jogged. I'm not sure if that's a particularly impressive distance to run in one session, but for Mr. Not-so-sporty, it's the world. It's a great chance to unwind after work and catch up with my two best Japanese friends. After we're done jogging, we'll then inevitably go back to somebody's house/a local eaterie to hang out over a post-exercise bite to eat. Monday, it was my house for kimchi nabe. Today, we went to Megu's, ate more nabe and watched a Harry Potter DVD. I always have dinner before I go jogging, but by the time I've done several laps of the park, I manage to build up an appetite enough to eat a whole 'nother supper. With all this bike-riding, jogging and nutritionally-balanced school-lunching, I can't help but think Japan is making me a whole let healthier!

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Saturday, December 10, 2011


So somehow this week I managed to find myself invited to four different enkais in a row. On Wednesday, we had my volleyball social...

On Thursday, it was my adult class's Christmas party...

On Friday, it was time to get together with my Japanese friends for our monthly party...

And today, Saturday, I went to Megu's house for a takoyaki/okonomyiaki party!

Understandably, then, after the past four days I'm EXHAUSTED. Awkwardly, after my adult class's party on Thursday, Friday was the second time I found myself being woken up by my boss (shouting through my letterbox) and driving me to work. Whoops. I should probably save such behaviour until after they've given me the green-light when it comes to recontracting! 

Nevertheless, today was arguably one of the best days I've had since arriving in Japan back in August. It's so nice to have found a group of people I can call "friends" not just in the sense of "people to hang out with", but genuine friends in the same way I'd refer to my friends back home. Sure, I can't communicate with them with anything resembling the same level of precision that I can with my English friends, but even though our words may not be able to bring us together, our experiences can, and for that I'm really grateful. Me, Megu and Shogo are, in particular, starting to become something of a three-person clique. Using Megu's own words from a text she sent me: "we are the trio like a three way traffic signal, aren't we?" Amazing.

So, just a handful of hours after saying goodbye on Friday evening, on Saturday morning we all gathered at Megu's house for a okonomiyaki/takoyaki party! Huddled around Megu's kotatsu to fend off the palpable cold, we cooked up a bevvy of Japanese specialties. First, we made our own okonomyaki... which, if you remember, is the Japanese savoury pancake I mentioned a few posts ago. Once we'd devoured a good few of those, we cooked up some takoyaki too - renowned as Osaka's traditional dish, takoyaki consists of fried octopus balls, mixed with a selection of ingredients - in our case, kimchi, salad and cheese!

Our homemade takoyaki (octopus balls).

Takoyaki - work in progress.

The girls take it in turns to flip the okonomiyaki with varying degrees of success. 

We've got a running joke that Megu's stomach is a "black hole" - the girl can literally eat anything you put in front of her and still have room for more. Lucky really, considering the sheer volume of food we managed to cook up.

Having cleaned our plates and given up any hope of moving for a good few hours, we curled up in front of the TV, whilst I helped Megu to practice her English (and my Japanese) by translating the lyrics to (amongst other songs) Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory". A few weeks ago, I'd made her some CDs of my favourite English music and, after listening to them, she'd picked out "Edge of Glory" as the one she most wanted to sing together at karaoke. So, in typical adorable Japanese style, she's been making flashcards of the lyrics so that she can better remember them. Internationalisation or what?

And, as if we hadn't already packed enough into the day, when the evening rolled around, we jumped in Shinko's car and headed off to Kochi for a dinner of yakiniku (fried meat) with one of my first grade students and his mum.

Adorable doesn't even come close.

The traffic signal in all its glory.

Nor, in fact, does perfect. After a blissfully hectic week, I'm at last off to bed to have my first sleep without an alarm to wake me since God-knows-when. It's that kind of accomplished feeling of tiredness. Accomplished because I know that, having started from nothing, I've managed to cement myself a group of real Japanese friends, and because, after four months here, I can at last say that I'm feeling truly settled. Long may it last.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Volleyballs and water bottles.

After a long weekend in Matsuyama, it was time to settle back down to life in Johen. And what better way to do so than over a few games of volleyball with my Japanese friends? Turns out what I'd thought might have been a permanent fixture was, in fact, just a seasonal competition - the final of which was on Wednesday. Sadly, we - the Ainan Yakuba (Town Office) Volleyball Team - didn't finish in first place, but that doesn't mean that we didn't have a blast!

I've never been the sportiest of people - as my abilities on the court soon showed - but even I got swept away in the hype of it all on the few occasions I found myself scoring a winning point. There are few things capable of inducing the same immediate rush you feel when you score a point and everyone cheers your name and runs on the pitch to high-five you.

Although we may not have won the tournament, there was a prize that the Ainan Yakuba team did pick up: that for the most number of aces scored! Obviously I can claim not a shred of the credit for this, since I think I only scored one myself, but the fruits of our team's success were shared by all! At the end, we found ourselves presented with an excitingly large, wrapped box. I asked Shogo what he thought it might be and he replied "Beer?" with a hopeful smile. The reality was a little less exciting...

Yup, our prize for all that hard work was 50 bottles of Evian's finest. Well, it's certainly the healthier option...

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Monday, December 5, 2011

むずかしいね! Playing the Dating Game in Japan

So this weekend we had our annual mid-year JET seminar in Matsuyama. A chance for all 90-something of us Ehime ALTs to get together, get inappropriately sloshed share teaching ideas and collectively reflect on our time spent in Japan so far.

This year, the organisers had set up a wall outside of one of the meeting rooms divided into two sections: REASONS TO RECONTRACT and REASONS TO GO HOME。 There, JET could contribute sticky notes proffering their own ideas on the Big Question I myself started to confront below. Amid the patchwork of post-its in the REASONS TO GO HOME section (personal favourite of which read “Teabags”... which some hero had embellished to read “Teabagging”) was a note which simply read “Small dating pool”. I was immediately both surprised and relieved to see that someone else had vocalized my own thoughts. But what is it that makes it so difficult for us gaijins to find a potential partner in Japan?

If the evidence is to be believed, more Japanese people are single than ever before. So surely this should be a prime time for pairing off? Well, not when you consider that a sizeable percentage don’t even want a partner. The BBC quotes “a belief that it is impossible to find a good partner...[past] the age of 25”. It’s a belief which I myself have already come face-to-face with in my short time here. One particularly sensitive Japanese grandmother once explained it to me by analogy with a Christmas cake: explaining that she wanted to pair her 20-something granddaughter off soon, she based her desperation on the belief that “past the 25th, she’ll be good to no-one”. But, obviously, that’s a load of rubbish. If you’ve got enough tin foil, you can keep that motherfucker fresh well past Christmas day. Sadly, nobody seems to have told the Japanese that. It’s certainly true that they’re more prone to “settling down” much younger than we in the West are used to. Students have often acted with incredulity when I explain that, no, I’m not married, and the ring on my finger is, in fact, a birthday present, not a wedding ring. And I’m only 21. I can only imagine the kind of pressure a Japanese single four years my senior gets. 

Of course, the Christmas Cake myth is only part of the problem. The other part, whether we like it or not, is us. Love may be blind, but it certainly isn’t deaf, and the simple truth of the matter is that the language barrier between us non-Japanese-speaking gaijin and our potential mates can often signal an early death for a potential partnership. That’s certainly no revelation, but nonetheless it’s a whole new minefield of problems compared to those when we’re playing on our home-field. Just last Friday I found myself on my first intentional Japanese date (I say “intentional” because I’m sure I’ve been in situations in the past four months which have been dates without me realizing). Meeting at McDonalds at 7 (no, that wasn’t the venue of our date, just a convenient rendezvous point), it became almost immediately apparent that the night was going to be something of an uphill struggle when I couldn’t even ask my date where’d be a good place to drink for the evening. Thus, I was more than a little surprised when, halfway through, I was asked (in Japanese) whether I wanted to go for dinner together tomorrow. I smiled and said that sounded good, but when tomorrow rolled around, I made excuses for myself and said I couldn’t go. Of course, it wasn’t just the language barrier – I reckon if I’d liked my date enough in the first place, I probably would’ve persevered – but when even explaining your most simple interests can’t be accomplished without your phone’s inbuilt translator, you know it’s too much like hard work. And that was just the first date. 

So, the sad truth is that it looks like I might be needing some of my own tin foil for a while! On the plus side, I'm certainly not alone in realising this. And when all else fails, the awesome Life After the BOE comic series is here to remind you that, really, we JETs are all in the same boat. 

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