Chasing Cherry Blossoms
about mearchive

Monday, January 30, 2012

Snowflakes, sugar-cubes and signing The Paper.

So it's been something of a while since I last blogged! It seems like so much has happened since! Perhaps most interestingly is my burgeoning friendship with a fellow ALT called Christian. In a somewhat paradigm-breaking move, we've crossed the prefectural boundary (between Ehime and Kochi) and become really good friends! In a way, it's strange that it's taken me six months to cross the border and tap into the goldmine of JETs who've been living in neighbouring Kochi all along... I'm only a 20-minute bus-ride away from Sukumo, the nearest big city in Kochi, whereas Matsuyama, Ehime's own capital, still remains a three-and-a-half hour voyage away! Still, better late than never, right?!

Last week was also the week I signed my re-contracting papers! The uncertainty which I faced back in November has, I'm glad to say, well and truly disappeared. In fact, I'd say I was pretty much positive about my decision as early as the beginning of December. I just can't see any reason why I'd want to go home yet. Japan has completely captured my heart. I love the people, the places, the food... and all the crazy/amazing experiences it seems I'm having on a daily basis. The people here are just the most kind-hearted people I've ever met. And I won't lie, the novelty of being a local celebrity still hasn't worn off. My life here is, if anything, even more carefree than when I was a student. I've got nobody to support, no exams to study for, I'm earning a decent salary, I can spend every weekend dressing up as hot dogs and partying with a different group of friends... I'd be crazy to head back to the Real World after just six months! For now, I'm avoiding being a real adult for as long as possible, just living in my own ridiculous little bubble, and that's the way I like it.

I've also found that my relationship with my students seems to have gone skyward within the past few weeks. And when you're a teacher, a good relationship with your kids is a currency worth every penny. And that's the thing: I feel like they're my kids now. I get so smug when I hear that JETs in other locations rotate schools each year and have to start from scratch with a whole new bunch of students. I'd hate that. I've spent the past six months getting to know my kids better, so the thought that we've still got at least eighteen more months together is great! I'd set up a post-box last year in which the kids could write me letters, both as a way to practice their English and for us to get to know each other better, and it'd essentially been collecting dust for most of 2011. Well, I reminded one of my ichinensai classes of its existence last week and just an hour later, I found four letters in it! I wrote each kid back an individual letter (on some adorable Disney writing paper) and let them all pick two prizes from a lucky-dip box of \100-store wares ("Generosity" is my middle name). Of course, I made sure that when they did so, they did it in front of the rest of the class. Nothing like a bit of casual jealousy to provoke some friendly letter-writing competition. I considered it a success when my JTE turned to me afterwards with a wry smile and simply said, "I think you're going to have to buy more prizes for next week".

In scarier news, this morning I had my first (perhaps overdue!) experience with the Japanese Phantom. I am, of course, talking about the Earthquake. Being shaken awake at 3AM by a tremor so deafening and powerful that your doors rattle in their frames was more than a little unsettling, but luckily after a few seconds, everything settled and there was no recurrence. It wasn't just the first time I'd experienced an earthquake here, but the first time I'd experienced one full stop. I'd remembered a friend saying that when earthquakes trigger tsunamis, you usually won't get any sign of the tsunami until around fifteen minutes after you feel the first tremors... so obviously for the next fifteen minutes after I'd been shaken awake, I sat there, in the dark, in pure terror, wondering if I was about to meet my own watery demise. All it took was a rogue car speeding past, which I (embarrassingly) misheard as the sound of gushing waves, to convince me that, yup, it really was the end. Let's just say that it's an experience I hope doesn't repeat itself anytime soon!

Luckily, my other Japanese "first" last week was of the more enjoyable variety! As if to celebrate my decision to stay in Japan for another year (or perhaps signal to me that I shouldn't be getting too ahead of myself here!), I experienced my first big dose of the White Stuff since arriving! Sadly, it all melted before I had the opportunity to get a picture, but for Monday and Tuesday of last week, the Love Princess was transformed into a beautiful little snowglobe. It's fair to say that snow's something of a novelty here in Johen, so you can imagine how excited my kids were at it all! Of course, it wasn't just they who were driven a little crazy... it seems the cold weather froze a few of my co-workers' sanity cells too! On Tuesday, I was casually (not) working away in the staffroom, when all of a sudden, classical music begins bursting through the school's speakers. With all the speed and panic of wartime civilians reacting to an air raid siren, my work colleagues hurriedly donned blindfolds (which they just happened to have tucked away in pockets and zippers) and began... stacking sugarcubes. My favourite part came half-way through the initial frenzy. One co-worker had clearly been caught a little off-guard by the music's arrival and, with no blindfold to call her own, had to improvise. Her solution? To hitch up her flu-mask and create an impromptu blinder. Full points for creativity. And as if all that wasn't enough, proceedings were taken even further up the crazy scale when a random from the Board of Education burst in, microphone in hand, and began bouncing around the room yelling words of encouragement to the sugarcube-stacking soldiers. I still don't quite understand how any of it was real life. I just know that I don't want anyone to burst this bubble anytime soon.

Image Hosted by

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Mask.

So, as the winter drags on in Japan, more and more of my students are falling prey to the flu. At least a few times daily, I'll be sitting in the office, when a teacher will answer the telephone, mutter the word "influenza" with a resigned sigh, before getting up and signing something off on a specially-constructed board in the corner of the staffroom. It's all a bit ominous, really. Lucky, then, that there's the ubiquitous flu mask to save all our asses.

In the West, the sight of a flu mask is something we'd associate with pictures of the SARS outbreak on the news back in the early 2000s. Here in Japan, however, they're a staple part of everyday life. No matter what the illness, big or small, chances are, if you're Japanese, it will be tightly guarded with a mask. They're so ubiquitous, in fact, that there isn't just one variety. Oh no, there are a bundle of different types.

First, you have your standard, full-face-covering affair:

If that's a little too conventional for you, you can opt for something a little more fierce and angular:

Still not satisfied? Well, this is Japan, you don't need to cut cuteness from your diet just because hives have taken over your face - oh no, you can go for an all-out kawaii facial assault.

Alternatively, you could stand brave in the face of illness and opt to scare the shit out of your diarrhea with something a little more ballsy...

Or if you consider yourself something of a fashionista, then accessorise your malady with a to-die-for face mask. Flu is the new black, Miss Thing! Everyone's doing it!

Sadly, I haven't been able to find varieties #3 through #5 in the stores myself, so I've had to settle for something a little more orthodox. Probably for the best. Plus, I think variety #2 has a certain "shark" look to it... nothing gets a kid listening better than the thought that you're ready to take a bite out of their flesh at any given moment.

That, and I can just imagine the "ええええええええええへ!"s I'd be greeted with if I turned up at school with a gnome's pubic bush on my face.

Stay healthy!

Image Hosted by

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My New Year's Resolution

We’re already eleven days into the New Year, but it’s been a busy week settling back in and getting ready for the new school term, so a blog post has eluded me until now – still, better late than never!

So, 2011... where to begin? Such a big year: graduating, turning 21 and moving halfway across the globe to Japan. The six months since graduation have already flown by. And, just like that, Cambridge is someone else’s playground. I guess nothing lasts forever. It’s all just about making the most of it whilst it’s still around, right? So, although it's sad that my university days are gone, I'm happy because I know I did just that. There’s this Mandy Moore (cringer?) lyric that springs to mind (from this song); it goes: “I won’t hold anything back/And I won’t hold anything in/Feel like I know where this is going/And I might know how it ends/But I’m still willing to begin”. Yeah, I like that.

It’s the same with Japan – even though I now know for sure that I’m going to be applying to recontract, I equally know that someday it’s all going to be over, so I’ve just got to seize it, for however long it does last. I guess you could call that my new year’s resolution.

And, as I’ve made a start on linking lyrics to what I post, I’ll leave you with this. A song that’s consistently worked its way up my “Most Played” list on iTunes in the past few months:

Will we think about tomorrow like we think about now?
Can we survive it out there?
Can we make it somehow?
I guess I thought that this would never end,
And suddenly it's like we're women and men.
Will the past be a shadow that will follow us round?
Will these memories fade when I leave this town?
I keep on thinking that it's not goodbye,
Keep on thinking it's a time to fly

Happy New Year, everybody!

Image Hosted by

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Christmas Journey Part IV: China: Part II!

On Tuesday, me and Claire jumped on the train from Tianjin to Beijing to take a look around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Obviously in our foreign ignorance, we had not a clue where we were heading and almost headed home thinking we’d seen Tiananmen Square when we hadn’t even set foot inside it. We’d looked around the Forbidden City for a while, posed for our picture in front of Mao’s portrait, laughed at the guard’s War-era Germany-style uniforms, and were just heading off to lunch to ponder why the world’s biggest public square (Tiananmen) seemed underwhelmingly small, when it dawned on us. Looking across the street, the penny dropped.  “Shit, that’s Tiananmen Square”. Some would say degrading, but we got there in the end.

Sunset at the Forbidden City

Christmas Day itself was much more difficult than I envisioned it being. Having spent the past twenty Christmases with my family in England, it just didn’t even feel like Christmas being so far away from home. I haven’t really felt much homesickness in the past five months (how has it been FIVE months?) – I mean, obviously I miss my family and friends a tonne, but that’s kind of been overshadowed by all the new and exciting experiences I’ve been having. Either way, I certainly felt homesick on Christmas Day. A Skype call home to the family, and some pretty big news from my brother, was enough to bring the tears. Thankfully, all of their presents arrived on time and everyone seemed pretty chuffed with their new Japanese wares. But looking through the Skype window into my living room thousands of miles away, full of family, was tougher than I thought it was going to be, for sure.

Still, there wasn’t much time to be sad! Let’s just say a year ago I didn’t imagine I’d be spending my Christmas getting down at an African students’ party, winning the Christmas raffle. We’d been handed our raffle tickets when we first sat down, but, being the inquisitive type, I hadn’t taken the two seconds to check my number. So, when number 100 was called, I didn’t even realise it was us. Before I’d even had a chance to put the verbal full stop on my sentence saying how funny it would be if we won, one glance at my ticket showed that we had, in fact, done just that, that very second. Too funny. So I’m now the owner of a delicious bottle of women’s perfume. What’s more, there’s a photo of me accepting my prize soon to be put in some African Students’ publication. Internationalisation or what?

After Christmas passed, it definitely felt like an invisible burden had been lifted and both me and Claire got a new lease of life to explore some more of China’s most famous sights. And where more famous than the Great Wall? Whereas, or perhaps because, Tiananmen Square had crept upon us as something of a slightly underwhelming surprise, expectations for the Wall itself were low. Reports from friends had been that it was overrated as a tourist attraction, and that in the winter months in particular we’d struggle to make much fun of it. Well, I’m glad we stuck to our guns and went anyway, because we had a great time!


The sights from the Wall were really pretty extraordinary and it wasn’t so busy that they were impossible to appreciate. After we’d made our way to the top, we then made our way back down to do some omiyage shopping for some of my JTEs and Japanese friends. It was my first experience haggling with a shopkeeper over the price of their goods and I fucking loved it. Apprentice candidates eat your heart out. I know some of my Japanese friends read this, so I don’t want to give away what I ended up buying them, but let’s just say we negotiated hard and walked away with some quality bargains! Perhaps most impressively, me and Claire saw two panda hats we liked and after having initially been offered one for Y180, we ended up walking away with two for Y100. Win.

Understandably, the sight of what appeared to be a foreign couple wandering around Beijing in matching panda hats was apparently too much for some passersby to take. We were definitely feeling smug at how cute we knew we looked. And when our cuteness caused one particularly intrigued Chinese man to stare so hard he seemingly forgot how to walk and fell down the subway stairs, our smugness was vindicated.

So, after two weeks of travelling, it was time to pack up my panda hat and jump on a plane back to Japan! Travelling straight from the club to the airport at 5AM probably wasn't the wisest idea I've ever had, but my journey home ended up being a relatively smooth one... smooth, but LONG, clocking in at a grand total of 26.5 HOURS. Wow. I eventually arrived back in Johen at 7.30AM this morning. Not bothering to unpack, I jumped straight into bed for a quick nap. ...only to awake ten hours later, dazed and confused at 5.30PM. I knew I was tired, but that's a new record, for sure!

Well then, after four rambling entries, that's it for my Christmas Journey of 2011! Megu's coming to pick me up early tomorrow morning to head to Matsuyama for some post-Christmas sales shopping, so I should grab a (relatively) early night... as if I need more sleep! I want to write a post reflecting on 2011 as a whole/what I hope for 2012 sometime soon, but I'll save it for another day. For now... Happy New Year and good night!

Image Hosted by

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Christmas Journey Part III: China: Part I!

So after a nine-hour night bus ride, numerous taxis and four aeroplanes, I finally made it to my final destination: Beijing. Well, that wasn’t quite the end: my friend Claire, who I’m staying with, lives in a city called Tianjin, two hours south of Beijing – so one more bus ride on top of that and I was ready to settle into my new home for the week!

Meeting Claire's friends!

After a few days in China, there are clearly some pretty tangible differences between mine and Claire’s situations. In terms of where Claire lives, our two situations don’t really compare: people in Tianjin don’t think of it as much of a big city, but compared to Johen, it’s huge. Twelve-million people huge, to be precise. And there’s a pretty big foreign community here too – again, not that anyone in Tianjin would refer to it as “pretty big”, but from my viewpoint of “the only gaijin in the village”, it’s big. More generally, I also think that people in Japan are much more openly friendly than the people I’ve met in China. I’ve definitely been touched by the friendliness of some of the Chinese people I’ve met – giving me seats on the bus and helping me find the right subway tickets without even asking – but as a whole I feel a lot more like an unwelcome outsider here. My Japanese experience, on the other hand, has so far has been defined by the friendliness of the Japanese people, so I imagine that if I lived here I’d be having a completely different adventure. Because of that I think although city life in Tianjin seems to be a lot more convenient in a lot of ways, I can imagine it’s a lot harder too.  And, of course, life’s definitely much more fast paced here in the city compared to the sleepy countryside I’m lucky enough to call home. In Tianjin especially, it seems like there’s not an hour of the day when the cars aren’t furiously tooting their horns from the streets below. Too much like stress for me (...and yet more evidence that the transition from City to Country Boy has been fully completed).

On the issue of politeness, I guess I should concede that, in fairness to the Chinese people, we’ve hardly been saints over the past few days, either. Our taxi driver home on Christmas day certainly hadn’t taken his dose of Christmas spirit that morning, and when we were counting our notes to pay him, he impatiently demanded we hand him the money. I was pretty sure it wasn’t enough, so asked for a moment to carry on counting, but he was insistent he just couldn’t wait a second longer and angrily motioned for it. Well, I thought, if you’re going to be that rude, you can suck up the consequences. So I gave it to him. By the time we were a few feet away from the taxi, he’d realised why I’d been asking him to wait, honked his horn and furiously shouted at us to pay him the rest. Too little, too late, Rude Chinese Man. “Run!” Claire shouted. So that’s what we did. Later, loser.

To get a sense of just how big Tianjin is, me and Claire took a night ride on the Tianjin Eye where we could see all the city lights below. Usually you’d have to pay to hire your own private capsule, but luckily for us, I think we were the only people on it!

Less fortunate was the fifteen minutes we spent devising our escape route when we genuinely thought the Eye had stopped moving (“I’m just not climbing that ladder down.”). Awkward.

It’s been pretty cold here too. Temperatures have been hovering around zero for the majority of my stay, which is apparently pretty mild by Tianjin standards – I’m not usually a fan of the cold weather, but I think it’s going to make the Japanese winter I’m returning to seem much milder.

... not that I’m planning on hanging up my Rilakkumma onesie anytime soon.

Image Hosted by

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Christmas Journey Part II: Hello, Hong Kong!

Monday morning finally came and it was time to set off for Hong Kong! After a refreshingly uneventful journey, including a stopover in Shanghai, I arrived at Hong Kong airport. From there, I was just a train ride away from Central where my friend Tiffany was waiting to meet me. Of course, there had to be some hitch – luckily, mine wasn’t too major. Turns out that the day I was flying out was incidentally my pay day. That’s meant to be a good thing, right? WRONG. As much as I looked, and as much as I asked at Customer Information, the airport terminal just didn’t have an ATM that would take my little-known Japanese Farmers’ Bank Card (I’m SUCH a country boy). So the only dollar I had to exchange for my journey was that which was already in my pocket. The awkward moment when you inadvertently end up travelling on a student budget.

Wallet significantly lighter than I’d hoped, the next few days were a blur of exploring, trying new foods (including a surprisingly good chicken feet salad) and generally soaking up the Hong Kong atmosphere. We shopped at the street markets, played at the local arcades, tried some interesting Asian deserts and explored the Hong Kong nightlife, too!

On the last day, me and Tiffany took the train to the Avenue of Stars to take in the beautiful Hong Kong skyline at night. It was a little too dark to get a photograph good enough to do justice to the scale and prettiness of all the city lights shimmering on the water at night, but we tried!

As a city, Hong Kong was certainly busier than any place I can remember in Japan. I mean, Tokyo’s probably busier, but my time there was spent during my first three days on the JET Programme when I was jetlagged, dazed and incapable of really appreciating it.  It just seemed like Hong Kong was constantly abuzz with traffic and people... certainly much more densely populated than what I’ve seen in Japan. It was also more of a sprawling patchwork of a city than any I’ve been to before – streets going up and down, jutting off at different angles and curling around; neon-lit shopping arcades and bustling pedestrian crossings set against arched trees jutting out from the city walls, sea views and inner-city temples. It certainly felt much more raw and organic than London or Tokyo.

On the usually-dull topic of traffic... I found myself caught off guard by how funny taking the local buses turned out to be. For the smaller buses, there’s just no such thing as a “bus stop”. If you want to get off, you just yell at the driver, he abruptly stops and you jump out. That also means that if you want to get on one, there’s no particular place you have to wait – you just wander the busy roads to wherever they happen to be heading.  Add into the mix some ridiculously bumpy Hong Kong roads and you’ve got yourself one hilarious experience. Organised chaos, for sure.

Somewhere amidst all of that, me and Tiffany took some time out to treat ourselves to a Thai massage. Well, I say “treat”... at one point, my little Thai masseuse climbed onto my back on all fours (using both her knees and her hands to work on my back), before rolling me over and contorting me into something I can only describe as resembling a human pretzel. Halfway through, I burst out laughing right in her face – not because it particularly tiggled, just because the way she was massaging me was so comical I couldn’t help but crack up. Luckily, she got it and burst out laughing too. Funny shit.

Coming from Japan, where a lot seems to be expended on learning English with very little gain, I was shocked to see how good the general level of English was in Hong Kong. Sometimes, I think half of the problem in Japan isn’t so much with ability, and more with the fact that people are so inhibited and conscious that their English is bad that even if they speak it a little bit, chances are you’ll never hear them dare to use it. Definitely something to be learnt from Hong Kong, Japan!

Having somehow stretched my pennies across an eventful four days in Hong Kong, it was time to say farewell to Tiffany and head off for the next leg of my Christmas adventure – to Beijing to meet Claire! Watch this space for Part III of my Christmas journey!
Layout adapted from a creation by tuesdaynight / Click here to go home.