Thursday, March 25, 2010

Final Post

I started this blog 4 years ago when I first went to Japan to teach English. I have now left Japan after an unforgettable, life changing experience. During that time I really enjoyed my teaching work. I spent my first year working for NOVA, a chain english conversation school or eikaiwa 英会話, in Matsumoto city. The next three years I taught in the Japanese state school system. The first year at a Junior High School in Ueda City and the next two years teaching in many Elementary Schools in Matsumoto city. The work was fun and rewarding and I made many friends through it.
Living in Japan gave me a chance to travel to many interesting places inside and outside the country. I visited Mexico, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Laos and Thailand. Inside Japan I visited more than half of the countries 47 prefectures. Living amongst the Northern Japanese Alps allowed me to ski on some of the best slopes in Asia regularly. In the summer I hiked many Japan's biggest and best mountains. I got into running and completed two full marathons. Through these activites I made many good friends, Japanese and foreigner or gaijin 外人 alike.
I got to know the culture and found out the best and the worst of Japan. The best: so many wonderful Japanese foods and dishes, the shinkansen bullet trains and simple efficiency, futuristic gleaming modern architecture side by side with beautiful traditional buildings, karaoke and other Japanese inventions, the work ethic and manners, cherry blossom time or hanami 花見. The worst: beurocracy, even now a failure to aknowledge and come to terms with World War 2, strange Japanese takes on western culture like the KFC Christmas bucket of chicken or teenage girls or ギャル trying to look western by wearing coloured contact lense and dyeing their hair orange.
During my time in Japan there was a revolving door of five different Japanese prime ministers. My family and friends all moved on with their lives. Notably my brother got married, moved to the USA and had a baby. My internet alias Matt Santos predicted the election of Barack Obama as life mirrored art and TV's the West Wing proved uncannily accurate.
This is not the end of my association with Japan. I have become fluent in Japanese and recently passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test level 2. I intend to continue studying and maybe even try to find a job where I can use my Japanese skills. My love life has had its ups and downs but I am now very happily together with a Japanese lady. She will join me in England soon. I will certainly go back to visit and may go back and work in Japan again. This is the end of this blog though. It served it's purpose to reassure and inform my friends and relatives back in England of what I'm doing. It was also a diary and a personal history for me although edited of the more private or scandalous episodes of my Japanese life. It will remain on the internet for the consumption of people who know or people who don't. Thanks for everything, Japan. See you soon. さようなら

Friday, March 12, 2010

My last day at school

On Wednesday I taught my last day of school. I visit 15 elementary schools in the Matsumoto area so I had already had numerous farewells at the different schools but it was still sad to say goodbye. The previous weeks had seen the start of springlike weather so I had changed the tyres on my car back to summer tyres. So I was as suprised and put out as anyone when I learned Tuesday night had the heaviest March snowfall for 50 years. To make my matters worse my last day was spent visiting two small schools in Shiga mura, a small suburb of Matsumoto up a mountain and about one hours drive away. But as it was my last day I decided I had to try to get to school. With the bad conditions and the wrong tyres I set of 30 minutes early. My first task was to dig my car out of a foot of snow. I proceeded as cautiously as I could and found myself 90 minutes later still very far from school. Fearing I would be late or couldn't make I phoned ahead but 20 minutes later, after nearly two hours of fraught driving in difficult conditions I made it to Nakagawa elementary. I had about 5 minutes to prepare for my first class. We played giant "snakes and ladders" with year 5; reviewing all the English I taught them. It seemed to go well. 2nd lesson was with year 6. For my benefit they organised some games in the sports hall which because of the weather was below freezing temperature and your breath misted up in front of you. We first played "Fruit basket". This game is something of cliche; in my opinion played by lazy teachers with little imagination and I dislike it. I had spent the last two years of my job successfully avoiding using it despite it's ubiquity amongst other English teachers. However, the kid's insisted so I played along and everyone seemed to enjoy it. We then played "イスとおり” or musical chairs. Murayama sensei had remembered a conversation we had about a year ago and used Crowded House, one of my favourite bands, as the music. So New Zealand New Wave 80's pop was the music for musical chairs. Finally we played dodgeball; a game that is crazy popular in Japanese elementary schools. Despite having a whole team around me I was inevitably the target of almost all of the balls thrown but still it was fun.
I had brought my guitar with me with the intention of playing one goodbye song at the end of 2nd lesson. However, Yamamoto sensei spotted this in the staff room and interupted 2nd lesson to ask me:
"Kevin sensei! Today we were supposed to do cleaning outside after 2nd lesson but we can't becuase of the snow. Can you do a 20 minute guitar concert for the whole school?! It will start in 10 minutes."
I had little choice but to say yes and so I sang through a few beatles songs. It was well recieved but a tougher audience might not have been so impressed. There was time for thanks, farewells and a few photos before I had to go down the road to Gojo Elementary school.
Gojo is the smallest school in Matsumoto with only 36 students total and destined for merger with Nakagawa school in a few years. It had started raining now as the temperture rose. 4th period I had a lesson with the 5th grade, all 7 of them. We studied food and ordering in restuarants. They did very well with the English and it was a nice lesson. I ate lunch with the 4th graders, all 5 of them. They asked me to play dodgeball with them and so I again was the main target throughout the match. A special English assembly had been arranged prior and we played some games involving learning the names of sports. I was again requested to play the guitar and so I sang "Yesterday" with all the teachers mouthing the words! I knew the Beatles were popular everywhere but I was still surprised. Then I was present a thank you card and was asked to shake each student's hand individually. A small school so forturnately it didn't take too long. 5th lesson I taught the 6th grade, all 6 of them. We learnt about jobs and I asked each student their career ambitions. They were variously doctor, pharmacist, voice actor, manga cartoonist, dancer and baseball player; all fine aspirations. In form time at the end of school I was once again asked to play dodgeball. By the time I had said my goodbyes and left the rain had turned into snow again and I drove home with great caution.
And so my last day had finished. In many respects quite a typical day; in many respects untypical. It contained all the best and worst aspects of my job. I got to teach fun lessons to happy, enthusiastic students. I got to spend time in lovely small old fashioned schools and school buildings before they are soon torn down and merged. I had to pretend to like things I didn't. I got to share my language and culture with students who have hardly ever seen a non-Japanese person. I had to an awful lot of driving.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Obama ruined my Christmas (sort of)

あけましておめでとう!Happy new year everyone. I spent my Christmas in the USA, where my brother now lives, with my family and met my nephew for the first time. My nephew is lovely and full of character but like most 9 months old takes a lot of looking after. His daily routine is much like a panda's - he spends more than 80% of the time sleeping and eating. I look forward to seeing him grow up.
My brother lives near Austin, Texas. You can't fly there directly from Japan so you have to transit somewhere. I decided to turn this into an opportunity and on the way back had a two day stopover in Hawaii.

On the first day I went to Pearl Harbor. It was a very interesting site and they have fitting memorials to the people that died there and during the Second World War. I have now seen WW2 sites on four continents now (Tunisia, the beaches of Normandy, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and now Pearl Harbor) and always struggle to comprehend the scale, physically and historically, of these events and how much they shaped the world as it is now.

I followed that by a walk through downtown Honolulu and Waikiki beach. The influence of various immigrant communities, not least the Japanese, is very noticeable and makes it a nice place to explore. Waikiki beach is full of tourists and yet very beautiful inspite of all of the souvenir shops, etc.

My second day I hired a rental car and drove around Oahu island. I didn't reserve so the only car available was a Jeep SUV. It was massive and a beast to drive. I just about got to grips driving it and set off driving around the coast. Along the way numerous places are signposted as "Scenic points" though you could park your car just about anywhere on the coast and have a lovely view. I made my way clockwise around the island taking in the views and I stopped for a swim. In the afternoon I hoped to go to the North Shore and Kaena Point which I am told is the prime spot for whale and sea turtle spotting. However, the US President was also on holiday in Hawaii at the same time and on that particular day at the same time he went to the North Shore. Shortly before the start of the hiking trail to Kaena Point the secret service blocked the road and I was told to turn my car around. Disappointed I headed back and passed the presidents motorcade. There were about 10 police cars, 5 blacked out SUV's, 2 blacked out limousines and an ambulance. I can't imagine living with that level of security all the time. It was a shame I couldn't go to the North Shore though I understand why President Obama has so much security. He didn't really ruin my Christmas. Truthfully I had a great time and hope you had a happy Christmas too.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Monkey Dogs

I'd like to share this article from today's Mainichi shinbun newspaper about "Monkey Dogs" in Omachi, near Matsumoto, where my girlfriend lives. Excuse my amateur translation.

Monkey Dogs Training Display
7th December 2009
To publicise the activity of "Monkey Dogs", or dogs employed to chase monkeys away from agricultural land and back up into the surrounding mountains, a training display was held yesterday at Shinano Omachi train station square.
Omachi city was in 2005 the first city in the whole country to introduce a team of "Monkey Dogs". To help manage the cost of running the scheme the dogs are housed and kept by farmers in the area. At the moment 17 specially trained dogs are in place living on nearby farms and in each of these farms they have been effective in curtailing the damage to crops caused by monkeys.
At yestersdays display 15 dogs were on show and paraded in front of the station. Then at the station square Ryuyu Isomoto, a representative of Azumino Dog School in Azumino city, led the dog owners as they lined up and walked their animals and practiced giving them orders.
Mr Isomoto said "At each location where we have a Monkey Dog they are able to chase away invading monkeys".
by Minorino Nakazawa



市内のモンキードッグが集まって行われた訓 練=大町市のJR信濃大町駅前広場で

The "Monkey Dogs gather outside JR Shinano Omachi train station square for training.







Snow Hiking

I went hiking in the snow with my friend Japan Hiking the other week. Down in Matsumoto city itself we've had little snowfall yet but go up a bit to the surrounding mountains and you can see winter has arrived. The ski resorts open soon and I look forward to enjoy probably my last Japanese ski season.
I've never been hiking in the snow before so it was a real experience. We climbed Yakedake which means "burning mountain" and appropriately enough is an active volcano. I was wearing full winter gear; crampons, thermal underwear, gloves, ski jacket etc. I needed it because there was considerable snow fall. We started at 1600 metres and climbed up to 2350 metres. The summit was just another 100 metres but by that point the snow was so high we couldn't find the path. We headed back disappointed. It was a great experience and a first for me (I've never had my trousers freeze before!). I hope to go again.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Kentucky Christmas

Christmas is fast approaching. I know this because the KFC near my house has dressed it's life sized Col Sanders statue in a Santa Claus uniform. I'm not sure when or how this tradition started but Christmas in Japan is now synonamous with eating fried chicken and cake and Kentucky Fried Chicken take full advantage of this by offering their "Christmas Bucket". As unappealing as this sounds KFC becomes fully booked weeks before Christmas as Japanese people celebrate Christmas by eating fried chicken out of a bucket just as Jesus intended. Japanese competitors MOS Burger have got in the action too (see their puntastic poster pictured). I am happy to report that I won't spending Christmas day in Japan.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Omachi Marathon

Regular readers may recall two years ago I ran in the Tokyo marathon and swore I'd never run another marathon. Well I have to eat those words now as I ran my second full marathon last Sunday in Omachi, a town north of Matsumoto. The memory of the pain of running it has faded and a desire to get a better time has been nagging me. I persuaded my girlfriend to run with me (though she opted for the 5km race instead). I have run other races recently and been enjoying training for it.
The conditions were great. A small field, good weather and a relatively flat course. It was a beautiful autumn day and the leaves were changing colour and the nearby mountains were seeing the first snow at the summit. The first 30 km went by quickly and uneventfully and so I could enjoy the view. Apparently all the training I had done did not stop me "hitting the wall"- that old runners cliche. The next few kilometres were an ordeal and though I managed to keep running my pace dropped off. To compound matters, 5 km from the finish my fragile hamstring which had behaved itself for 37km gave up and I had to limp the rest. I alternated between a running limp and a walking limp. I was in real pain and only kept up any kind of pace because of the supporters lining the route. I crossed the finish line and overcome with pain I collapsed and burst into tears. After a rest and some TLC from girlfriend (who had run very well in her own race) I contemplated what I had just done.
I had a few goals in mind before the race. First I wanted to beat my previous time. I did by more than 45 minutes. Second, I wanted to finish ahead of anyone in a costume. I did just. The clown ran me close right at the end. Third, I wanted to run in under 4 hours. I managed 4hours4mins37seconds and came 216th out of 1000 entrants in the marathon race. Close but no cigar.
Though the race hurt a lot I'm pretty sure I've done no permanent damage and I'm walking close to normal again. It was agony right at the end but most of the race was very enjoyable. I'm not going to make any rash promises about giving up running or not now. Most likely in a couple of years I'll forget the pain and want to get a better time again.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Silver Week Hiking in Tateyama

I have written on this blog before about hiking in Japan. I enjoy it and am very lucky to be in the middle of the Japan Alps and have so many places to hike. The mountains I have climbed in Japan, though quite high, have not been too challenging in that you don't need any specialist equipment (other than boots) or training. My friend Japan Hiking invited me on a three day hike through some of the toughest terrain in Japan. I jumped at the chance so during Silver Week, a coincidence of national holidays that creates a five day weekend every six years, Japan Hiking, his fiance, a Japanese friend of ours and myself set off.
The start and finish of our hike was the Kurobe dam, Japan's biggest. It is hard to imagine how this huge public works project ever happened. It took thousands of workers, billions
of dollars and decades to make this massive dam in the middle of nowhere and now as well as producing electricity it is an unlikely tourist attraction. We camped the first night near the Dam. I lost paper, scissor, rock and had to camp in undergrowth whilst everyone else had nice, flat pitches.
The next day we hiked from a starting height of 1500m up to 3000m and the top of Tateyama. You can take a cable car for most of the ascent
but we skipped that and hiked it to the surprise of the day trippers we bumped into. After we
followed the ridge and then hiking down to our campsite at 2500m we had walked for ten hours and I was exhausted. I had lugged some beers up the mountain and we drank them that evening and they tasted lovely and well deserved.
The next day was no let up. In the morning we climbed up Tsurugi dake. We dropped off our bags at the base and set off. The route was the most difficult I've ever climbed. Rocks mostly with 20 chain rope sections where it gets too steep to simply clamber up. The weather was rainy but perhaps that was a blessing since it wasn't crowded with people and you cou
ldn't see the sheer drops below. A few frayed nerves and along the way but we made it to the summit at 2999m and back. Having long legs made up for lack of climbing experience on this section and I enjoyed it a lot though it was a lot harder than I thought. We reunited with our bags, had lunch and then continued towards the next campsite. In between us and there was a 大雪渓 or snow valley. I was looking forward to this part the most and I had
bought crampons especially for it. By chance there were a couple of mountain patrol men on the same path. The warned us the snow had collapsed in the middle and showed us where to get on. Otherwise we would have been stuck in the middle of the snow and would've had to waste hours trudging back and around. There were amazing views down the snow valley and hiking with crampons proved to be easy enough.
The final day we hiked back to the Kurobe Dam. The path wasn't well used and proved to be a maze of ladders, ropes, rickety bridges and not flat at any point. In fact the whole hike was not flat at any point over difficult terrain. It was a
real challenge. I couldn't have done it without the help of the experienced climbers with me. Carrying a backpack with my tent and gear for three days added to the difficulty as well. All in all it was a hard but amazing hiking trip.