Wednesday, 26 May 2010

PostHeaderIcon Obachan Tours: Kobe

 
It's a sad state of affairs when my closest (and only) Japanese friends are an assortment of old women who I only know through my English class.  For a number of years they have invited the local English teachers on a weekend trip to somewhere on Shikoku.  When I say invited; I mean... coerced.  A prerequisite of such an agreement by the foreigners is that they will not be the only one attending such festivities.  Two years ago I was told by the head old lady that "We will go on a trip together next month" and before I knew it I was on my way north to Takamatsu.  In order to save the grand total of about a tenner on train fares she booked us on the special 6-7 hour 'back arse of nowhere' journey.  Patience was not my best character trait of that weekend.  I don't think the ladies were too impressed with our early morning drinking binge on that particular trip.  Noah and I stayed up to about 5am dressed as a cow and a tube of mayonnaise until the night was brought to an end by an American girl called Deverely whom Noah did not take a shine to.  The following morning we sauntered down and refused to see any sights until we had fed our bellies full of saturated fat.  I guess those wounds have healed as I was invited again this year after last year's solo effort by veteran David in Yasuda.  I refused to answer whether I was coming this year until I was certain that David was.  Also, I let it be known to Naomi that the ladies were very excited about her possible involvement.  Therefore, my stroke of Machiavellian manipulation left me in a situation where I could relax in my seat of miseryarseness whilst my two travelling comrades serenaded the golden oldies with their camp humour and friendliness.
 This is some statue dedicated to some Scottish person from history.  There were actually a lot of famous Scotsmen who came to Japan in the 19th century.  A lot of them were engineers.

The destination this year was very ambitious as we aimed to leave the island of Shikoku and venture to the city of Kobe on the mainland.  The lessons of previous years had been learned and we insisted on hiring a massive car to drive us all there.  Kobe is one of the biggest cities in Japan and sits alongside Osaka in the bay of the same name.  Historically, it is famous for being one of the international trade hubs following the opening up of Japan in the 19th century.  The city name is synonymous with a famous type of cattle that is raised in the area.  Kobe beef is famous around the world because of its unique (expensive) marbled texture.  Apparently, the cows are fed beer and massaged with sake.  I've actually eaten Kobe beef a few years ago on my last family holiday when we went to Dubai.  We were pretending to be rich one day and went to the 7 star hotel that sticks out in the water.  Some Australian bloke was going around the restaurant and cutting slices off a whole cow.  I was stuffed and reluctantly accepted some.  It was pretty good although it was exceptionally fatty.  Anyway, the stuff in Kobe is stupidly expensive so we didn't get that but we did get an amazing piece of steak that I'll mention later.  The city is also the location of Japan's last major earthquake that destroyed a lot of the city in 1995.
 
 This statue was knocked over in the earthquake.  The clock stopped and it has now evolved into a memorial of sorts.  She appears to be riding a fish naked.

Anyway, the trip itself went as well as could be expected.  The women are friendly and energetic but there comes a point when you realise you're spending the weekend with old people.  The three of us began to relax and let them take over all the things that require reading or speaking Japanese.  However, it again comes back to the essential point that they are old people and they're  scared of technology.  For example, the GPS in the car kept breaking and neither of us could fix it... one half knew the Japanese and the other knew how to work it.  When we eventually arrived in Kobe we headed to Chinatown for lunch.  The gaggle of oldies started mulling about in search of a restaurant.  We passed many places that looked good before they settled for some average restaurant with about as much authenticity as the one down the road from my town.  A pet hate of mine was the next test of my patience as they called the waitress over to order despite not everyone at the table seeing the menu.  My dreams of delicious duck vanished as I ordered ramen by mistake.  We spent the rest of the afternoon marching across the city to reach the museum.  Sadly, the part of the museum about Kobe's history was replaced with an Ancient Egyptian exhibition.  That was apparently the extent of their plans for the day as they wanted us to head for dinner and karaoke at four in the afternoon.  This was all the more surprising considering they had rushed me out of a shop when I was buying a drink earlier in the day.  We disagreed and went for a wander in the park with a beer before suggesting we get some drinks before heading to dinner.  We found a cool bar with cheap beers that was incidentally below a train line.  The women were startled every five minutes as one went by.  Our next destination was the carefully selected yakiniku restaurant called Holy Molly.  I thought this was a rather unusual name for such an establishment as they are usually called Mr Nakamura's BBQ restaurant and the like.  It turned out it was  just a bar in the seedy district of town.  How head old lady got this completely wrong is still a mystery to me.  Anyway, no harm was done as Naomi and I took charge and headed to the nearest proper restaurant.  It turned out to be an excellent choice as the chef cooked our steaks with garlic chips and melted butter infront of us.  To fast forward events slightly... we ended up in a karaoke bar that was run by the the brother of the local cinema owner in east Kochi.  Nothing quite beats a Saturday night singing along with your O.A.P bitches.  It was actually a lot of fun.
In Steak Land (ステーキランド).  We all ordered the cheapest steak set but it was a good feed all the same.

As a side dish they offered rice or bread.  I was expecting a crusty loaf but they gave me a crossisant.  Keep trying, Japan.  You'll get it right one day.

 
 A true highlights of the trip was meeting some TV stars with faultering careers.  These twins are called Za Tachi and had their 15 minutes of fame a few years ago.  Check this drivel on youtube.

 
I just included this because it makes me look super cool.

The following day was marked by the croaked voices of our elder friends as they all succombed to a terrible cough.  The head old lady continued to take charge of things and fail in spectacular fashion.  She directed us to Port Island and when we asked what was there she just repeated the name.  The island turned out to be nothing more than a large industrial estate and.... a port.  However, she was punished for such a lackadaisical attitude when we drove our car/bus to IKEA.  It had been many years since I visited the Mecca of D.I.Y but I knew exactly what I wanted from the blue and yellow warehouse; Swedish meatballs.  However, my plans were scuppered when I was informed by the power of facial expression that this was not an adequate setting to feast together.  In the end we headed to the earthquake memorial park which was the only place I really wanted to see.  Some of the women spent a grand total of two minutes looking before they left us to go get a Japanese lunch in a hotel.  In the end we went to a terrible fast food vendor that didn't have any burgers.  It was alright though because we just talked about history with my favourite old lady.  The other speechless group returned from lunch and fell asleep in the back of the car as we drove them home. 
 
The picture above is part of the memorial for the Kobe earthquake of 1995.  It totally destroyed the port in Kobe and the industry has never really recovered.  It killed around 7000 people who were crushed in their homes as they were designed to withstand typhoons rather than  earthquakes.  Also, it destroyed the highway in the background and many modern buildings.  The reason for such a high level of damage was because the quake was shallow and struck almost directly under the city.  This meant that the ground moved from side to side rather than a more up and down motion.  This shallow earthquake was drastically more violent than previous building regulations had anticipated.  The reclaimed land of the port turned to quicksand.  The Japanese public were shocked by the lack of preperation and many new laws and plans were put into practice in the following years.

I was possibly a bit harsh on my old chums as I did have quite an enjoyable weekend all the same.  Kobe was a let down itself because it just looked any other city and the 'international feeling' was non-existent again.  It means I won't regret not seeing it though so that's at least one box ticked there.  It was fun but there was always the feeling that the weekend was an extension of work or some form of babysitting.  Anyway, that just about concludes another one of these travelling round-ups.  I'm going to be skint until the summer at least so hopefully my future posts will abandon this excruciating form of writing.  I feel trapped in past memories unable to rant against the present day pains I go through.  Goodbye.
Monday, 24 May 2010

PostHeaderIcon A Journey to the Nine Provinces


I’ve mentioned the ‘Golden Week’ holidays every year I’ve been here but nevertheless… there are a collection of public holidays in Japan at the start of May.  They don’t actually add up to a week and are usually spaced out in an infuriating manner.  For example, the Thursday of the first week will be a holiday and Monday-Wednesday in the following week will be as well BUT a lot of people still need to work on the Friday.  So… it isn’t a week’s holiday unless you’re a cheeky English teacher who books that day off in advance.  The interesting thing about this period is it is one of the few times where Japanese people feel able to go on a holiday.  I’ve read (and witnessed) workers only taking off about half of their holiday days because they’re all stupid.  I don’t know why they don’t collectively agree to take them all so nobody can feel guilty about taking a break.  Anyway, this period means that Japan is covered in Japanese people who creep out of their neon illuminated offices and venture outside into the fresh air.  Therefore, every hotel in Japan is packed and the flights out of the country triple in price.  I’m a little bit skint and tired of making my way to Kansai Airport… so Naomi and I went on a road trip in the direction of west.  We ventured to the island of Kyushu (九 nine and 州 provinces/state) which is one of the four main islands of Japan.  We set off a day early to avoid the traffic and the journey took us across our island before we got on a ferry for a few hours and arrived in a land that initially looked exactly the same.  We managed to take in the whole of north Kyushu in about six days.  I’m impressed we did that much as our holiday routine usually revolves around waking up at lunch and drinking at breakfast.

I'm a bit rushed for time this week so I think I'll just upload some pictures and comment on them instead of writing a massive post.  I think our trip to Kyushu was easily the best holiday I've had in Japan.  I'm glad we decided not to waste money on a  flight to Hong Kong or Taiwan as we had originally thought about doing . Although Kyushu (and especially Nagasaki prefecture) was obviously still Japan... it was the first I've visited somewhere  here that felt a bit different.  I've been to all the "international" cities here and haven't found anything different to any other city on the mainland.  However, the scenery and architecture of Nagasaki deluded me on occasions to thinking we were actually driving along a Spanish or Italian coastline.  Of course... this was aided with the fantastic week of weather that luckily appeared after an exceptionally wet April.  However, the most outstanding scenery came a few days before when we visited Japan's largest, active volcano in Kumamoto prefecture.  I'll explain more in the pictures below but the view was glorious.  The first few days were definitely the best as we avoided the initial crowds and managed to book a few nights in really nice and comfortable hostels.  Another thing I noticed was that the people in Kyushu were exceptionally friendly.  The people in Shikoku are similar in that they are laid back and interested in you but the difference was that they were a bit more internationalised in Nagasaki and the like so they talked in an almost normal manner with you.  Alright... I'll upload some pictures and see how many memories appear in the old brain box.

There are three wonders of nature in this picture.  The first is grass in Japan.  The second is cows in Japan.  The third is the caldera.  I didn't know what one was so I'll explain for you.  Mount Aso was a massive volcano about 100,000 years ago and an eruption apparently covered half of the island.  A caldera is the result of the volcano collpasing on top of its magma chamber.  Therefore, the mountains around the edge were actually part of the volcano.  There is almost a perfect circle stretching 27km across this area and the town and volcano are in the middle of the perfect scenery.

We drove up to the tourist friendly crater.  We were lucky as the volcano was quite active thatr day. There was green water in the crater that was bubbling away nicely.  There was a lovely aroma of eggs in the air and my shoes started to melt a little bit.  I got glue all over my bloody socks.


There were plenty of shelters at the top.  We were messing about in them because it reminded me of a WW2 bunker or something.  It's interesting to think of people actually needing to use them one day since you know... it's a massive, active volcano.

I have nothing interesting to write here I'm afraid.  I uploaded too many pictures and it broke this blog entry a number of times.  I'll use the deleted ones for other posts.  This one managed to survive.  I look sexy though.

I was really witty and tagged Naomi on facebook with this.  There's no bad translation to mock so I'll teach what volcano is in Japanese.  火山 reads as kazan and the two basic kanji mean fire and mountain.

I locked the keys in the car because I'm a fool.  I've only started locking my doors because I leave my iPhone in it sometimes.  I don't know why I do it because Japanese people won't steal anything... especially in a volcano car park.  Anyway, Naomi got a coat hanger off a lady and I managed to lift the lock up through a small gap in the door.  It was either that or a broken window for the rest of the trip.

Another piece of lovely scenery just down the road from the crater.  We nearly got a helicopter ride over the area but we were trying to be sensible with the ¥ens for once.  They had horse rides there too.  A delicacy in Kyushu is raw horse meat.

Naomi and I had a heated argument once because she didn't know what the cover of the Volvic water bottle lookd like.  Well, it looks like this even though it's a different mountain.  This one is called Komezuka and translates as 'rice mound'. On a sidenote... I noticed that the bottled water I sometimes buy comes from this area.


We drove and got another ferry over to Nagasaki prefecture.  We arrived at about 3pm but managed to cover the main tourists spots faster than an implosion of a plutonium core.  Nagasaki is only the third city in Japan that I've seen with an old tram network.  The other two were Hiroshima and.... Kochi.  It somehow seemed okay to pose with the peace statue in the background.  This was not the case in Hiroshima where hordes of Japanese smile with the dome in the background whilst everyone else stands around looking sorrowful and awkward.


The Peace Park in Nagasaki has a wide collection of donated monuments from various countries.  My favourite part was the communist mound composing of the U.S.S.R, the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia.  Incidentally, every single one in the whole park was a mother protecting her child.  Some were dead and some were just about to die.  Every single one.  


The bomb detonated about 500 metres above the black marker on the mound.  The church spire in the background was originally in the hills close to the area.  My guess is that they moved it down to here because they needed to compete with the far superior dome that Hiroshima has.


Nagasaki was the original foreign port in Japan when the Portuguese and Dutch first arrived in the 16th century.  The former's attempt at converting Japanese people to Christianity was initially successful but pissed the rulers off so much that they were banished and helped lead to Japanese isolation (apart from Dutch traders in Nagasaki) for two centuries.  Christianity in Japan and Nagasaki managed to survive this somehow... and therefore lead to the great number of churches still present in the city.
We left Nagasagi and drove north towards Sasebo.  It's the second largest city in the prefecture and is famous for an American military base.  That was rather ugly but around the corner there was a lovely piece of nature called the '99 islands' or 九十九島.  We went on a boat trip around them.  The man was surprised that we wanted to go on the pirate boat instead of the normal one.
 
This was the view of the area from a platform at the top.  There are actually 208 (or 206) islands but  I agree that the name isn't as catchy.  I took this picture through my 1000 yen sunglasses because I'm an artistic genius.  One of them looks like a shark and two look like submarines.

Our journey began to face a few stumbling blocks in terms of reserving places to stay and running out of places to visit.  We drove to the north-west of Kyushu to see a pretty rubbish castle at Hirado or something.  We didn't really eat anything until we arrived in Fukuoka a few hours later.  Then we didn't really do much there despite it being the biggest city on the island.  We did see a monkey though.  Anyway, we saw a small sign for a waterfall earlier in the day and it proved to be the highlight.

This is the cover of our forthcoming album.

I was woken up in Fukuoka by these taxi drivers.  They were shouting and bowing non-stop.  They would switch positions and each of them would become the leader.  They did this for over an hour.  I have no idea.

The last visit of our journey was the port town of Beppu.  It is quite famous in Japan for onsens, gambling and the sex industry.  It is a very popular spot for Golden Week and it was absolutely mobbed.  This is a famous geyser that goes off every twenty minutes.  Japanese people came swarming in... took a picture and then buggered off again in a second.  I was knackered from driving so we were the last to leave.

The smoke in this picture is actually steam from the ground./onsens.  We found it impossible to find an onsen that wasn't fully booked.  We eventually found one down a tiny road that was run by an old couple.  It was the cheapest and most authentic one I've seen.  In the end we decided that Beppu was too busy and we changed our ferry time to late that evening.  I drove back to Kochi throughout the night after downing a few red bulls to keep me awake.  The sun began to rise in the last stretch of road on Shikoku and the mountains/sky looked like the background of this blog.  The highway down to Kochi is pretty much a straight tunnel so I sang David Bowie songs to myself for about an hour or two to keep me awake.  It was great.

That's about it for my Kyushu trip.  I'd recommend a similar trip to anyone who currently lives in Japan.  It was quite a slow and dull affair to upload all those bloody pictures.  Also, it's hard for me to be inspired to write about positive stuff.  Still, I had a great holiday with Naomi and it reignited a feeling in me that I really enjoy living in Japan and that I want to see a lot more of it before I leave.
Friday, 14 May 2010

PostHeaderIcon Japanese thinking in action

"Hmmm there are no car park spaces near the town hall.  I suppose I should have walked from my house around the corner.  I couldn't possibly park in the disabled space as that would break the rules.  Such rules are important to follow because they aid disabled people in easy access to the building and provide additional space for them to exit the vehicle.  Hmm this is a problem. I know... "
Wednesday, 12 May 2010

PostHeaderIcon Tabako

It appears I haven't posted on my blog for a solid two weeks.  I'm sorry to all those dedicated readers who  (never bother their arse to comment) clicked on the bookmark only to have seen the same picture of a cup of tea.  The reason for my lack of posts was due to a week long holiday, an illness/hangover combo and an addiction to the British election coverage.  I feel like I've lost a bit of my edge for writing long rants so I thought I'd make a simple post with some pictures.  It's interesting if you haven't seen them but other foreigners tend to photograph these a lot so it's not the most original thing I've ever posted.  So here they are... Japan's "smoking manners" posters.

I threw my cigarette butt into the drain.  That is to say, I hid it in the drain.
My lit cigarette always points toward others, never toward myself.
Stand ashtrays.  Disposing of a lit cigarette in one just creates more smoke.

I've seen a number of these posters on ashtrays around train stations and the like.  I took these three  pictures at Tano train station but I was upset because my favourite one wasn't there.  It suggested that a "lit cigarette is at the same height as a child's face".  I'm not entirely sure what that one was suggesting really... always look out for children when you light up or you'll reduce their eyes to smouldering craters?  The other highlights included the declaration that smoke should have the same social stigma as farts.  The saddest tale went to the young boy who went to the beach in search of shells but only found cigarette butts.  The latter was accompanied with a sad looking child with a bucket and spade of course.  Indeed, they all continued the trend of only using English for the labels at the bottom of the poster.. BEACH, SHELLS, BUTTS!  Very dramatic altogether.

I quite like the posters because they are faintly amusing on their own but the English lines read rather strangely.  There are no major spelling or grammar mistakes but they don't have a very natural flow to them.  However, I've seen enough bad direct translations that I assume they've given a fairly decent attempt to get the points across.  In the end though the humour for a native English speak arises from this translation and thus leads to the numerous websites and blogs about it.  The thing I wonder about is why they translated them as there are so few foreigners here.  My only guess is that English was used because it is still viewed as sexy and cool when it comes to companies and adverts.

The interesting thing about this campaign is that none of the posters feature a message that suggests that you should give up smoking.  There is nothing that mentions how they are slowly eating away and destroying your insides.  Instead, it's all very light hearted suggestions that you shouldn't litter and that you should be careful about your second hand smoke.  Indeed, this is about as far as it goes for criticism of smoking in Japan.  Indeed, even this campaign is only aimed at shaming Japanese people who don't keep up an expected etiquette.  The idea of smoking being the problem is never brought into question and instead it is the individual who is blamed for their lack of responsibility.  A main reason (or you know... obvious reason) for this would be that they were commissioned by Japan Tobacco.  They are one of the largest tobacco companies in the world and own some foreign brands such as Camel and Benson and Hedges.  In Japan, some of their popular brands are called Peace and Hope.   By far the most surprising fact about them is that the Japanese Ministry of Finance owns a majority of shares in the company.  Indeed, until 1985 the tobacco industry in Japan was run by a state monopoly.  It's therefore no surprise to find that smoking is quite popular in Japan and there is a direct contrast with the recent implementation of smoking bans in other western countries.  I have therefore found myself living with the familiar smells of post-drinking smoke on my clothes after a few years of only smelling body odour in boozing establishments.

Urgh.  I'll be honest with you.  I was just going to post those pictures so I could do a quick blog post and then run away.  That's easier said than done though as I always start to expand these posts to encompass everything including the bloody history of the Japanese tobacco industry.  The basic point is that almost every middle-aged salaryman in Japan is a smoker.  Japan has one of the highest rates of smokers in the developed world and I believe it is the only one to have seen an increase.  I believe they have recently added warning labels on the packets but the same level of awareness is not visible as it is in other countries.  Even countries like Thailand sell packets with pictures of throat cancer and lung disease and it even put me off buying some cigars on holiday. I'm not really an anti-smoker myself and I don't like it when a government starts punishing people with an addiction by raising taxes on cigarettes to "help people quit".  However, the price of cigarettes in this country is exceptionally cheap compared to back home.  There is a standardised price of about 300 yen which is £2 or the equivalent of two bottles of coke out the vending machine.  Indeed, until recently anyone could buy a packet from a vending machine on the street.  Personally, I feel the degree of "coolness" that is attributed to smoking here is akin to the post-war world of America.  For example, I've seen comic books and anime with the main characters smoking, billboards with a seductive woman smoking and selling furniture and pretty much every generic Japanese actor smokes in the midst of his romanticised anguish.  I'm not exactly outraged myself but I'm just explaining how the attitude towards smoking in Japan hasn't changed in decades.  It's especially surprising that the tobacco companies have been state run and the price of a packet has hardly risen.  It's almost like they're trying to kill off their aging population so they won't have the pension crisis that everyone has feared.

I forgot to mention that Japanese cigarettes are also pretty weak.  A lot of Japanese women appear to smoke but they usually nurture a pack of peach flavoured lites for a week.  Indeed, the men appear to chain smoke during the day but I've witnessed many have a few puffs before throwing it in the ash tray (the adverts above are obsessed with people stubbing them out it seems).  That's not to say they aren't addicted but I often wonder how much of it is some sort of strange, Japanese... conformity.  It's almost like an adult version of Big Dave peer pressuring his mates into smoking behind the big sheds with him.  Also, I'm not saying this is the only reason as I reckon that cigarettes actually provide an important relief for stressed Japanese workers.  They do work themselves into the ground the poor buggers (even if they're just pretending to work hard sometimes) and I get the impression the bitter, black coffee and smoking break keeps them from snapping and killing everyone in their workplace.  Japanese stress:  Keeping the tobacco companies in business since the bubble burst.

Contradictorily to my opening paragraph, this last point is entirely of my own curiousity.  When I started studying Japanese I would drive along in my car and attempt to read shop signs and the like for practice.  I noticed that convenient stores would have the kanji for alcohol (酒) and a sign for tobacco.  The latter did not have a kanji so I expected it to be written in katakana (タバコ) as that is the alphabet used for foreign loan words.  However, the signs are written in hiragana (たばこ)which is used for Japanese words without kanji (amongst other things as grammar etc).  Therefore, I asked a lot of Japanese people why this was the case but it was apparently the first time they had noticed.  I think they just assumed that tobacco comes from Japan along with pasta, curry, televisions and cars.  So, why is tobacco written in hiragana?  I wrote that previous line to boost my search results.  The answer is that katakana was not used for foreign words until Japan opened up to the West in the middle of the 19th century. The words kept their pronunciation but were given an appropriate kanji.  Such an example is tempura (天ぷら) which is fried prawns that were introduced by the Portuguese.  However, the kanji for tobacco fell into disuse and because the word was so common in the Japanese language it maintained the use of hiragana instead of katakana.

Here is a link to the full collection of the smoking manner posters.  Enjoy.
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About Me

I am a 24 year old Scotsman currently teaching English to Japanese schoolchildren. I live in a small town on the east coast of Kochi prefecture.

Shashins