Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Gaijin Smash - part 1

So here I am - finally posting from Japan!

Granted, I've already been here for over a month, but training for the job was intense (see further on) and I hadn't/haven't (I may end up posting this from my iPod from a street corner…) managed to get internet access set up in my apartment now that I've moved all the way down to a small town near(ish) Fukuoka.

So anyway, I rocked on over with Alitalia around the 18th October, and it was all good unlike my nightmare travelling with Iberia to and from Argentina (I will dedicate a post to this, as it is still an as yet unresolved issue). Alitalia isn't quite as good as the Asian airlines I've travelled with, but for a European carrier they weren't half bad despite being pretty tight on the luggage allowance - I was made to empty 1kg from my suitcase so that it would be 23kg, and take stuff out of my hand luggage to get it to 10kg. Yes that's right 33kg to PACK YOUR LIFE AWAY FOR A WHOLE YEAR.

Tokyo was much unchanged. I took a trip to my old apartment and the university to see how stuff was (pretty much the same), and I met with some old friends for a few drinks and food before getting the overnight bus to Nagoya to start training.

Now in England as far as I'm aware we don't have any overnight buses but I have experienced a fair few in Argentina and they are often phenomenally good. Japan's overnight bus was OK. OK if you are under 5'4". Unfortunately I am not and I practically had to crawl to my seat as I was too tall to stand up, and then I had to take up the whole of the aisle with my legs as there was no way on earth they would have fitted in the "space" i had been allocated. All I can say is I'm thankful to whoever gave me the aisle seat, as there is no way I would have fit by the window.

Nagoya was a new experience to me as I had never been to the city, and it remains a new experience as I still haven't really been to the city. I arrived at 6am having had barely any sleep, and tried to go to the office after having leisurely breakfast/sleep at the station only to be informed that I wasn't expected until 3pm… Lame. They said I could fill in the paperwork early and find my own way to the accommodation, but I assumed it was a bit of a hike and I didn't really fancy it with my 23.2kg suitcase and 10kg hand luggage (Hey, I had barely any sleep!) so I left my stuff in the office and set about getting an early lunch and drinking a looooong coffee while watching episodes of The Wire on my laptop (thanks Matt for the suggestion).

Come 3pm I was back in the office signing some forms and then I was taken by car to the training centre/accommodation which turned out to only be a 10 minute walk away. I spent the rest of that Saturday and Sunday overcoming the jet lag that I hadn't yet managed to kick, and meeting some of the other trainees. Had I realised training would be so intensive, I would have made more of a point of partying during those two days, as they were pretty much our only free days, aside from the following Sunday, during the whole of training.

I spent the first two days staying at the training centre attending seminars there, but on Tuesday afternoon I was told to pack my shit up and take the shinkansen to Osaka with half of the other trainees in order to continue my training there. We were put up in a hotel and from then on it was either attending group training sessions from 10am or going and viewing actual teachers teaching classes for the rest of the two weeks training. Doesn't sound like much, but when we were perhaps getting back at 11pm one night only to have to prepare lesson demos for the following day, and then getting up at 6am to get to the classroom for 9am - it took a lot out of me.

Thats not to say that I and the other trainees were not able to squeeze in a bit of the Big Ones., but they were quite literally squeezed in. My first day off was a Sunday, but people got back really late from visiting classrooms on Saturday, so there wasn't really much chance to have some Big Ones - I ended up going for a couple of brewskis with one of the other trainees and then calling it a night.

The next day off was after training finished on the following Saturday. We had a test in the Osaka office (I got top of the group with 92% - BOOM!), went over some last minute admin and then were finally released with train tickets to our various locations for Monday morning. The plan was to go and get the Big Ones started… Big Time. But unfortunately we started to shed people who didn't want to go out, until it ended up being just the 'LADS' - me, another English guy and a Canadian. The girls had all bailed for various reasons, and the Canadian guy was quick to point out that 'girls are like money - you need them to make them'; suggesting that our prospects for the evening were unlikely to be very good. However, he was able to remedy the situation somewhat by suggesting that we meet with two female friends of his that he had met the last time he was in Osaka.

We turned up half an hour late, and spent an hour looking for them before we finally found them and were able to get our first celebratory 'training is over' beer. The plan was to get the last train back to where our hotel was (at 12.10am), so at around 10.30pm we decided to go and do an hour of all-you-can-drink karaoke (Big Mistake).

Now, its at this point that I should explain the term 'Gaijin Smash'. Its a term I had heard before, but never really fully appreciated until this night. Gaijin Smashing, as far as I understand it, is breaking Japanese social norms by living up to the Japanese people's stereotypical views of foreigners being loud, forward and entertaining. Its not about being rude or offensive, or about breaking laws, but it is about doing things that normal Japanese people wouldn't do due to social expectations - such as talking on the train, walking down the street while eating, crossing an empty street when the red man is showing etc.

Anyway, so the five of us went to all-you-can-drink karaoke and did indeed proceed to drink all we could. I think we got through 5 pitchers of beer and 4 cocktails before our hour was up. We stumbled out of the building and proceeded to piggy-back each other all the way to the station (I think). It is at this point that my memory becomes a little hazy, and I am unsure exactly when we went our separate way from the girls, but we ended up taking the correct subway back towards the train station from where we would catch the last train back to where our hotel was. So far, so good.

Unfortunately this is where our luck ran out. You see, as we were all slightly inebriated, we proceeded to chat loudly on the train and ended up attracting the attention of a good looking Japanese girl (and her boyfriend, and the rest of the carriage) who was sat right next to where we were stood. All three of us then began talking to her, joking about how rubbish Canada was and how great the UK etc etc, until one of us suddenly questioned what station we were supposed to be getting off at - drawing our attention to the fact that we had been on the train for a lot longer than the two stops we were supposed to take. We charged off the train at the next station to the laughter of the Japanese girl and the evil eyes of her boyfriend, and jumped on the train heading in the opposite direction. This slip-up had cost us, and after having asked some of the passengers on that train, it turned out we had 2 minutes to get off the underground at the right stop, get through the ticket barriers, buy a train ticket and get the last train back. Not impossible, but bloody hard. Too hard it seemed, as we arrived to find that no train was now heading to our stop until 5am (in 4 hours and 50 minutes).

There was a train that was terminating 5 stops before our station, so I had the bright idea of catching that and then following the tracks the rest of the way home - a solid plan I'm sure you'll agree. Feeling confident once again, we spoke loudly in the carriage and attempted to strike up conversation with anyone who was close to us. This resulted in a lot of laughter when we explained our plan, as it turned out it would be at least a 2 hour walk from the final stop… Oh well, we were too far to turn back now.

I'd like to be able to sign off by saying that we got off at the last stop, followed the tracks and made it back in good time. But that would be incorrect.

One of us (I don't remember who) had the bright idea of buying a couple of 'beers for the road' and after about 40 minutes or so of walking, we were still drunk and pretty damn lost.

We stumbled upon a convenience store that was just off some major road, and popped in to... Get even more beer and ask for directions. The guy behind the counter was helpful and pointed us in a direction and even gave us some free snacks that had to be eaten before 5am, but insisted we still had a 2 and a half hour walk...

We set off again, but this time we became hopelessly lost. We passed various residential buildings and a few factories that were still open (2 in the morning!). In our drunken and lost state, we decided to inquire once again for directions at one of these factories. The guys were helpful, and showed us on google maps the marathon we had to walk. We set off again, and one of the guys even ran after us having printed off a map for us to use.

All was looking good. We took what we felt was the correct path for about 40 minutes, finally coming across another convenience store. We headed in to ask for further instructions, and seeing the guy behind the counter's shocked expression we realized it was the same one we had been in an hour earlier... Classic.

Well that was the last straw. Clearly without phones, gps and a clear head we were never going to find our way home (the guy insisted it was still at least a 2 hour walk). So we asked him where the nearest station was and set off towards there (with even more free onigiri/sushi).

The station was only 15 minutes away, but by then we felt like failures and couldn't be bothered to walk anymore. The first morning train would get us home faster than if we were to continue walking, so we entered the station and fell asleep next to some lockers (I tried to sleep in the photo booth, but my legs wouldn't fit!)

And that was that. We got the first train back, went straight to sleep and woke up around 2 feeling much better. Despite our shortcomings it was in hindsight a good adventure (at the time it was bloody awful!) and i feel it certainly deserves to be credited as a Smashing Big One.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Back Once Again for the Renegade Master

Well, I am indeed sitting here with a brew next to me, the window open and the grey sky of England above, but I never expected for this new entry to have been such a long time in coming.

Its been well over a year since my return to Blighty, and in that time I've drank copious cups of tea and coffee, successfully graduated from Japanese Studies with Spanish at University of Sheffield (2:1 - Boom), and done not a lot else really.

Big Ones have been few and far between with final year proving to be a right bitch with the work load and dissertation writing. However, I have been able to have a few, including the Lads Tour to Prague (Oi Oi!!), some Big Ones on the Welsh coast, and once again increasing my chances of high blood pressure through consuming copious amounts of wine and red meat in Argentina.

'So what next?' I hear you cry. Well, I wouldn't have started writing this entry if there wasn't something Big coming along and after having been on the dole for the last month or so, I am finally once again heading off east.

Unable to land a serious job in London I have decided to become an English teacher in Japan for a year in the hope of gaining some fluency to my Japanese, getting some work experience, and generally letting the Big Ones role once again. This means that I'll once again be putting pen to paper, or rather finger tip to keyboard, in the hope of providing an entertaining insight into my experiences for anyone who cares.

So grab yourself a glass of juice (Heg, I'm sure you don't need telling) and join me once again as I resume my search for the Big Ones.

Monday, 30 August 2010

That's All I Kansai!

Well, with only 5 days left my time in Japan is finally drawing to a close. I still can't believe a whole year has passed by so quickly!

Anyway, this entry is not intended to be about recollection - I'll save that for my follow-up entry in England. Instead, I am going to continue from where I left off last time.

If you will recall, I ended the last blog having just kicked Mt. Fuji's ass. Like I said previously, the downward journey took slightly longer for some, and this resulted in us not being able to set off home until 3pm.
The problem here was that many of us exchange students had been invited and were planning to attend the IFL's (Japanese international society at Rikkyo University) farewell party that evening which was due to begin at six. Our return to Ikebukuro (where the university and party were) took around 3 hours and we ended up cutting it pretty close. The main problem though, was that we had intended to shower and sleep a bit before going, but ended up not being able to. Nonetheless, the party was good fun (if not a little depressing) and we were all able to celebrate the "Big One's" of the year.

A few days later, on the 27th of July I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the wedding of two of my very good Japanese friends. Keiko and Daichan met in Sheffield during my first year at Sheffield. They were exchange students, Keiko having come with Naoko from Seijo University for a whole year, while Daichan had come from Hosei University for just six months. They stopped going out when Daichan returned in January, but once Keiko came back they got together again and have been with each other ever since.

This being my first ever wedding (not just in Japan, but anywhere) I wasn't really sure on what to expect. They had decided to go for a western style wedding, and the way this works in Japan is you rent out the services of a "wedding-chapel-resort-place" where they have a wedding chapel (obviously), banquet facilities, and they generally take care of all the preparations.

The whole thing was great, and I was really happy to have been invited. What I found unusual though was that both of the marrying couple's bosses and fellow employees had been invited to the ceremony - I was under the impression that it was only the nearest and dearest were invited (at least in England).

The food at the wedding (sorry Josephine!) was absolutely great. Having not been to any other weddings I have no real comparison, but every dish I had was delicious. The menu included foie gras with truffle sauce, filet mignon, and some incredible desserts.

Lucy and my mum came to visit soon after the wedding and we had a pretty rad time. It gave me the opportunity to show them around the city that I have been living in for the past 11 months. It also provided the chance to do a final bit of travelling, and so I took them to the Kansai region of Japan - more specifically, Kyoto and Nara.

As they had bought the Japan Rail Pass (something I highly recommend if you come to visit Japan), they were able to ride the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto for free, while I had to fork out £85 each way. Once we got there though, we did the usual touristy Kyoto tours to all the major shrines, castles and temples.
Kyoto really does have some beautiful temples and shrines, but due to the heat and high humidity it was hard to stay enthusiastic after seeing so many temples. I personally find Kyoto is never as incredible as people make it out to be - yes there are lots of nice old buildings to see, but apart from that if feels a lot like any other big Japanese city. Still, it is certainly worth the visit, and both my mum and sister enjoyed what they saw.

Nara on the other hand was much more to my liking. Perhaps it's because I have been to Kyoto 3 times now while that was my first trip to Nara, or maybe it's because Nara is much smaller, but either way I thought it was a much more relaxing place to go. In essence, Nara is a smaller version of Kyoto - it was once the capital of Japan, and has many old temples and shrines, including the famous "daibutsu" (a huge bronze statue of the Buddha) housed inside the biggest wooden building in the world - an impressive sight.
What makes Nara particularly good for sight seeing though, is that the majority of temples and shrines of interest are found in Nara Koen, a huge leafy park which lies to the east of the city. The park is also home to hundreds of wild deer which are not afraid to pester those who go to visit the park and temples. It was a pretty sweet place to go, and even though I got pretty badly sunburned while there, I would love to go back.

We only spent 3 nights in the Kansai region before returning to Tokyo (which is in the Kanto region), but upon our return I was able to organise a small day excursion to the mountainous "city" of Nikko along with my Japanese tutor who drove us. Nikko lies about 3 hours away from Tokyo, but has one of the most beautiful shrines I have ever seen, as well as a pretty epic waterfall.

The shrine is called Nikkō Tōshō-gū, and the complex contains the mausoleum of the final unifier and first major Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
It also contains the famous carving of the "Three wise monkeys" who see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

The waterfall, known as Kegon Falls, is in a leafy area to just outside the main city. The touristy surroundings make it a bit commercial, but it is still a great site to see. There's a lift that takes you to a platform right at the base of the drop and the spray hits you right in the face.

All in all, I'm pretty sure my mum and Lucy really enjoyed their time here. I know for a fact Lucy is already looking for a way to come back and stay a bit longer some time. Their coming though, made me realise that my time here is very almost at an end, even though I still feel I have barely scratched the surface of what this country has to offer.

I took them back to Narita airport (which is in Chiba prefecture, next to Tokyo) on the 9th August to catch their 9am flight (which meant that we had to leave Tokyo at 4.30am) only to find that the flight had been delayed by 3 hours. That worked out OK with me as I was going to hang around Narita until midday anyway as I was staying going to the coast of Chiba in the afternoon for my Spanish circle "camp" (basically, an night on the beach with the Rikkyo Spanish Society). This meant I kept them company until their actual flight, and then headed off myself.

What I have found on my year abroad so far, is that while it is easy to make acquaintances with the Japanese, it is hard to be accepted as a "friend". Due to the social norms here, everyone treats you very politely and warmly, but tend to keep you at arms length. by being invited on the Spanish circle "camp", I felt somewhat that I was being accepted.

One thing to point out though, is that while it is called the "Spanish circle", they don't really speak much Spanish. I found this out the first time I went along to their meetings.

Anyway, the camp proved to be a lot of fun. We went to the beach during the day, and had a bit of a drinking fest in the evening which went on though the night (although, the number of people kept dropping as people went off to sleep, be sick, or couple up...). Basically, the circle had rented a small dormitory right near the beach which had food and bedding provided. We turned up and made the most of what was on offer, and had a pretty fun time while doing it.

Basically, that's what has been going on. Obviously the days in between have been peppered with the usual Karaoke nights, all night sports, eating of sushi and what not - as well as having to say goodbye to the exchange students I have met over the year who are leaving early. It's a bit of a depressing time as I know that I too will soon be leaving, but a small part of me is looking forward to not have to put up with the insane level of humidity here at the moment.

I'm going to be realistic and say that this is probably my last entry from Japan. I haven't been great at getting a regular system of blogging done, but at least I have more or less managed one a month. This year has been really great, and I sincerely hope that I get the opportunity to come out here again and live some more big ones.

So this is it from Japan! Sayonara people - the next time you hear from me, I'll have a brew sitting next to me, the window open, and the grey miserable skies of England above me - big ones in their own special way!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

What the Fuji?!


When I decided to write this blog, I aimed to be getting an entry done once every fortnight(ish) - just to let people know how things have been going and what I have been up to.

Well, that plan has certainly been a complete failure.

Nonetheless, I aim to remedy this recent drought of blog news by providing a good update (most likely in two parts) right now. I would like to mention that since the last time I spoke here, I have indeed been pretty bloody busy (not that that is any form of excuse...)

So anyway, you will recall that last time I was singing Argentina's praises regarding their world cup performances. Well, Germany provided a cold hard slap in the face to wake me from that ridiculous dream. Yes, Argentina were playing very nicely up until that match, but realistically they were completely flawed and the defence was just waiting to be taken apart - which is exactly what happened. (i'm not posting a video of that monstrosity, but I will link to it). Suffice to say, it didn't put me in a very good mood for my Japanese exam the following day - I took the JLPT test a second time, but I have a strong feeling it will be "third times the charm".

With England (who were really should have been the ones to lose 4-0) and Japan (who did extremely well) both already out, I really had no one else really to support, and ended up watching most games impartially (although desperate for Germany to lose obviously). That's probably a good thing, as the final 4 games were somewhat of a let down, and culminated in a very slow and boring final which seemed to just drag on and on - that sensation was most likely added to by the fact the sun had already come up here.

Aside from the football, I was interviewed and appeared on Japanese TV (sorry, no link people, but it is on my facebook somewhere), and had university exams to contend with until around the 10th of July. I'm pretty sure they went OK - the revision for the JLPT helped, but I'm pretty sure I ballsed up the reading exam.

So what happened next?

To "celebrate" the completion of our studies at Rikkyo University (I'm not really sure that was the real reason), Lina organized a Mt. Fuji night climb for 26 of us exchange students. This was seriously going to be epic - reaching the top for the break of dawn apparently "blows your mind".

My shot of Fuji from when I went to Hakone

We figured it would be a bit of a mission and so decided to plan a bit before hand. We already had the coach journey there and back sorted out (thanks Lina!) - leave from university at 6pm getting there for around 8ish to start the 6+hour climb to the 頂上. But before we could do that, we each needed to prepare a few essentials. Now two things were clear with regards to what I needed to help kick this mountains ass - I hadn't packed for Japan with mountain climbing in mind, and I wasn't about to splash out big dollar to make up for that fact. Being in the same situation as me, and thinking along the same (stingy) lines, Ramses and Boyd joined me in hitting up the 100 yen shop the morning of the climb and we each spent about 1000 yen (£7.50ish) on cheap crappy torches, bottles of water, snacks, and rain ponchos. That along with a rucksack full of warm clothes, and my really knackered pair of pumas on my feet was all I (thought I) needed.

There are a total of 10 stations on the way up Mt. Fuji (3,776 m), and we arrived at station 5 (2,300 metres) by coach at around 8.30pm (the first 4 stations aren't really worth it - 5 is as far as a car can go). After a thirty minute pause for everyone to get used to the higher altitude and use the 30yen toilets, we got started.

The beginning was pretty easy, and we were able to stay as one big group, but it soon started getting pretty steep and we split up a bit. I wasn't at the front, but I was in the second small group of around 5 people heading up, and we were able to make good time. The route varied from gravel slopes to rocky climbs that needed you to use your hands to pull yourself up. Somewhere early on, there was a small panic that we wouldn't make it for daybreak, and this spurred us on. By around 11.30pm we had more or less got half way through the climb, and not only had the route become more narrow, but the temperature had severely dropped. The small group I was with was coping fine and we kept pushing on until we reached station 8 or 9 (around 3,250m), where we realised we were going to be far too early to the top for sunrise, and so decided to rest a while where we were as the temperature wouldn't be as low as at the top. We ended up waiting for an hour, allowing many of the others to join us before we made the final push to the top - arriving around 3am.

Sunrise was due at 4.30am, and we still had a bit of a cold wait. I was a bit disappointed to see the bright lights of vending machines at the top, but I have got used somewhat to seeing them everywhere in Japan, and the sight of them here didn't really surprise me.

Colours in the sky began to appear at around 4am - teasing us while we practically froze in the cold temperature and strong winds. The fatigue from the 5 hour climb was also beginning to set in, and if it hadn't been so cold I'm sure some of us would have fallen asleep.

The sun did finally show itself, and it was certainly an epic feeling watching the colours play out on the hills and mountains around us. Those of us who had brought a cheeky beer cracked it out in celebration and just enjoyed the moment.

I have to say that the beauty of the sunrise was again somewhat soured by the shops behind us opening up to try and sell us tacky charms and well overpriced food. Nonetheless, we were able to take in what we were experiencing, and once the sun became to bright to look at, we left the viewing area to take a look at the actual volcanic crater.

The journey down was a lot more straightforward than on the way up. It was a series of zigzagging gravel slopes that you could almost run down if it weren't for the danger of slipping. The view as we descended was also incredible - we literally walked through the clouds.

The first lot of us made it back to the at precisely 8am - a total of 5hours up, 3 hours at the top, and 3 hours down. However, some of our bus group took slightly longer, and we weren't able to leave until 3pm.

There is apparently a famous saying regarding Mt. Fuji that I am inclined to agree with: "He who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool". For me it was a great experience, being able to do it with lots of the people I have spent my year abroad with - and I would recommend giving it a go to anyone. But I don't think I can be bothered to try it again... too much of a mission.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Tsuyu Hot!

It is hot.

It really has become bloody hot.

About three or four days ago the "tsuyu" - rainy season, started here in Tokyo. What that means (apart from the obvious rain), is that the humidity becomes almost unbearable. The temperature hovers around 20-30 degrees, but the humidity makes this feel a lot worse. My apartment doesn't face the sun so it remains relatively cool, but as soon as I step outside I start working a sweat, and by the time I get to the station my T-shirt is soaked.

Not nice.

The frequent downpours don't provide much relief though, as the humidity remains and all that really changes is that you can't tell if it's the sweat or the rain that's responsible for your T-shirt being stuck to your back. (Most likely, it's a combination of the two).

The heat, along with the awkward times of the world cup matches, have resulted in me having pretty bad sleeping patterns for the past week or so. The match times here are 8.30pm, 11pm and 3.30am - not the best really if I intend to do something the following day... Nonetheless, I've been able to watch most of the matches (I rarely stay up for the 3.30 ones unless they're big games, or I have the chance to sleep the following day).

So what do I think? Well, firstly ARGENTINA are immense. Their first game against Nigeria was pretty crappy in my opinion, but i felt they more than made up for it by their performance against South Korea. Yes, the goals were not the best, and the cause of the Korean goal was awful, but at least they played real football (not the defensive rubbish most teams have been choosing to play), and they looked great for it.

ENGLAND on the other hand, were utterly rubbish (as usual, I might add). I stayed up last Saturday to watch the USA England game and was quite disappointed with the match as a whole. Yesterday's draw to Algeria was apparently even worse! (I failed to watch that as all night karaoke took priority). The highlights proved too boring to watch so I just skipped straight to the analysis and watched Lineker, Hansen and Shearer complain about how badly England played. (Don't worry, I won't link to that as it's not worth it).

JAPAN seemed pretty fortunate to grab that goal against Cameroon last Monday - their first goal ever in a world cup match outside of Japan (ie. not scored in 2002). I was a bit shocked at the lack of noticeable support for that game by the Japanese. I saw 2 people wearing Japan shirts all day - one of which was Ramses, and when we were watching the game at home, apart from us, we could hear nobody cheering or celebrating.

Kick-off for the The Netherlands-Japan game is in 25 minutes, and I don't think Japan will get quite so lucky this time around (although, The Netherlands didn't play too convincingly against Denmark...)

In other news, I was invited to be "interviewed" for a Japanese TV show. I basically just had to talk about something that I liked about Japan in Japanese. (I ended up choosing the fact that bicycles are registered here, so people are less likely to pinch them). The show either aired last night or will be airing this coming Friday - I'll try and record what I can so you guys can check out my awesome Japanese skillz!

Also, someone stole my shoes the other day - the second time in my life that I've had my shoes stolen (the last time was two years ago in Kyoto). I had a sports class so I left my shoes on the "shoe shelf" and changed into my trainers. When I went back after class they were no longer there...

Who the hell steals shoes???

Oh well. I filed a report and if they haven't shown up by next Thursday I'll just have to go out and buy them again. (I don't think they would fit many people here either - I have to go to a specialist store to find my size of shoe)

Anyway, kick off time...


Monday, 31 May 2010

The World Cup Looms

Yes I know I have been pretty bad at getting these entries done, and it isn't about to change now. Truth be told, not THAT much has happened since my last blog really. Classes seem to take up a lot of time and out side of that I've really just been doing the "usual", which involves the mandatory studying, but also lots of drinking, singing, dancing and what not.

I will get a full update nicely written for you soon, but with the world cup only 9 days away...

If you're wondering what team I will be supporting, could I support any country other than the one who to whom the scorer of this goal belongs?

Well, maybe...

(But of course, Argentina are always my number 1).

Friday, 16 April 2010

Island Hopping

Last time we spoke (you know what I mean), I was about to set off on a great and perilous journey north to the Island of Hokkaido, and more specifically Japan's fifth biggest city, Sapporo.

The name Hokkaido translates literally as "north sea way", and the island has strong ties with the sea (much like the rest of Japan), but it also has a very big link with dairy products and sheep (which are rather uncommon on the main island of Honshu). It is a lot further north than Tokyo, and therefore has a much colder temperature - it being around 7 degrees while we were there.

Naoko and I flew from Hanada airport early on Thursday morning, and arrived an hour and a half later in Sapporo. The first thing we noticed was that it was a lot more spacious than Tokyo. Perhaps spacious is the wrong word - it was simply quite empty. The main streets in Tokyo are always heaving with people, whatever the time of day. The main street coming out of Sapporo station was relatively deserted by comparison. The station too, seemed to lack the buzz that is always around the main stations in the capital.

The hotel we had was in a decent location, and was pretty swish for what we were paying. We dropped off the bags and head off back to the station to catch the local train all the way to Otaru.

Otaru is a much smaller city than Sapporo, located about 40 minutes away by train. It has a lot of history and is a major tourist destination because of the old buildings and scenic canal that runs through it. The fish in Otaru is also well known for being fresh, and I wasted no time in digging into a big bowl of "kaisendon" - raw fish and hot rice. In the evening after having wondered around the town and taken in the sights, we made our way back to the canal in order to go to the Otaru Beer Hall. Otaru beer comes highly recommended, and I have to say it was pretty damn good. We chose to stay there for dinner before getting a late train back to Sapporo and walking back to our hotel.

The next morning we got up early so that we could make the most of the day. We wondered around Sapporo, visiting the main sights including the old government building, the fish market, and "Sapporo Tower". For lunch, we went for "Soup Curry" - basically a very liquid Japanese style curry with a big bowl of rice. The restaurant we chose was rather interesting to say the least. It was recommended by one of the guide books we had, and the food didn't disappoint (I went for a "medium spicy" lamb ball curry - which proved to be ridiculously spicy), but the place was decorated with stained reggae and Jamaican flags, the seats were old and knackered, and this along with the reggae music that was being played didn't seem to fit with the business clientèle that were crammed in the dingy room.

We spent the evening with one of Naoko's high school friends who is studying in Hokkaido. She took us to a restaurant well know for its large selection of Japanese sake, and I made a decent job of trying a fair few.

Before catching our flight back in the evening, we spent the last day stocking up on as many of the other things Hokkaido and Sapporo have to offer, including ramen, yoghurt, pudding, milk, chocolate, and many other tasty treats. We also took a trio to Hokkaido university to look around, and marvel at the openness of the campus compared to how tightly packed universities are in Tokyo.

All in all, it was an awesome trip, and I recommend it if you have the chance, as it is certainly another side to Japan compared to the hectic life of Tokyo.

Since having got back from Tokyo, classes have finally started (3 months of holiday is too much in my opinion), and I am now well into my second semester - which turns out to be the first semester of the academic year here. I had to take a placement test again in order for them to decide what level of Japanese class I should be put into, and that turned out to be a bit of a joke. I was looking forward to complaining about it here at the time, but that having been three weeks ago, I've kind of lost the passion that it instilled in me. Suffice to say that it was well in line with the rest of the bureaucratic nonsense that this country seems to be plagued with. (I did manage to move up levels though).

So that's pretty much it folks. Obviously there's more to tell, but I'll keep some of it back so that I feel motivated to write another entry soon (yes that does make me sound lazy). Until next time!