Minami (Japanese for south)

On Fridays I take a bus to the outer rural fringe of Niimi to work at my “secondary” school, Minami. It’s a considerably smaller school than Icchuu, where I teach from Monday through Thursday, and has about a hundred fewer students. I enjoy it because I get to work with Nathan, a fellow ALT from Portland Oregon.  I’ve learned a lot about teaching from Nate: Unlike the other ALTs , he only teaches at Minami and is now there in his fifth and final year. Due to his long-established teaching relationship with the Japanese senseis at Minami who teach English, in my first year I suppose it was only natural that, in class they would call upon him for help rather than me. In a classroom with three teachers, I was clearly the “third wheel”.

This year is different though. With two English classes now scheduled for the same “period”, Nate and I each have a class to assist in and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to interact more closely with the Minami students.

As a “warm-up” to classes we often play a song, with the unrealistic expectation that the students will actually sing along. Nate often “defaults” to One Direction, possibly the most nauseating “boy band” since NSYNC. How I look forward to the day I will not (at my advanced age), have to stand in front of a classroom and belt out “Best Song Ever”. I cannot fault Nate though; he’s giving them what they want to hear. The theme song from “Frozen”? PULLEEZE! Spare me! “The cold has “always” bothered me anyway”.



TV Star!

On Monday after classes, I hosted an Episode of “English Paradise” a local cable TV show. The film crew showed up at the school at 4:00pm. I’d studied the script over the weekend and by Sunday evening I was swanning around my apartment like Laurence Olivier honing every inflection and nuance. I had it down pat: I nailed it. I owned it!
I went to bed not worrying too much about having taken my last painkiller the night before. I didn’t sleep a “wink”. Every time I moved my knee was on fire. By the time the camera crew showed up I’d been awake for nearly 32 hours. I was near delirious. Using  his fingers the cameraman counted down three, two, one and I froze like a deer in the headlights. Nothing: Not a word. I honestly believed at that moment that, humiliated I’d be on a plane home within a few days.
Fortunately the crew was great. They joked & laughed and told me not to worry. We went into the school and, with a “second wind”, the interviews with the teachers and students in the school brass band all went well. We filmed the second half of the show in the studio later the same evening and it also seemed to go well. I hope so, it’ll probably be aired in a couple of weeks. Tough day!
I recently visited Kokura with some of my fellow teachers at Daiichu Junior High. The best day that Kokura has ever had, or ever likely will for that matter, was on August 9th, 1945. It was cloudy that day and the American bomber that had been tasked with annihilating much of the city could not pinpoint its’ primary target. They went on to devastate Nagasaki instead. By coincidence, we also visited Hiroshima on the same day.
Kokura is an attractive city on the southern island of Kyushu that is  linked by a bridge that traverses the Straits of Shimonoseki and connects with the main island of Honshu. It has a beautiful tourist-oriented waterfront and we spent the afternoon shopping and sightseeing, visiting a beautiful old Shinto temple and a massive indoor fish market that even sold the potentially fatal and expensive fugu fish. We went to a great restaurant afterwards that served a delicious traditional Japanese soup/stew called nabe. This particular variation of nabe is a local specialty and is made using offal. Awful though that may sound, it was delicious. Although I am reluctant to admit to it, I also tried whale sashimi. Even though I abhor whale hunting, it was presented to me as a special dish and I felt it would be ungracious to decline. I am after all, a guest in this country and rationalized the decision knowing that Canada continues to allow the killing of grizzly bears and wolves. I’m still a little conflicted about it though.
On our trip back to Niimi we spent a great afternoon on Miyajimi Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s considered a sacred island and has the magnificent Itsukushima “floating (seemingly at high tide) gate”. It also has many old shrines and temples. It is an enchantingly beautiful forested island and I would not have missed it for anything! Google it!

Stink Bugs!

I awakened yesterday morning knowing there was a stink bug in my room. That particularly pungent and unpleasant distinctive odor was unmistakable. It is a mystery to me how these flying, brown beetle-like insects manage to get indoors but; get in they do. As a rule they only emit that odious stench when either threatened or killed so I’m guessing he must have been in an ornery mood. I got out of bed with some trepidation thinking he might actually have been on the blankets. As it turned out though, he (or possibly she), was striding manfully (bugfully) across the floor. As I said though, you cannot simply squash them without incurring an olfactory assault: I had to be careful. Fortunately they seem oblivious to the presence of humans so it is easy to trap them with an inverted drink glass. Gently slide a postcard underneath the glass  and you have the little bugger trapped and ready for disposal outdoors.

Stink bugs are not the most pernicious of insects found in Japan though. In September one of the senseis at my school was bitten in her sleep by a large centipede that is known to be very aggressive, and her wrist was crimson-red and swollen for more than a week. There is also a bee (possibly benign but nonetheless intimidating), that is at least twice as large as any bee I have seen in Canada.

The most beautiful and elegant insect I’ve seen in Japan, is a large and jet-black dragonfly. It’s four wings, which are more or less shaped like a tongue depressor, look more like those of a butterfly than those of the dragonflies we see in North America.


The “100 Yen” (about $1.00 CDN), stores in Japan are  impressive. Everything really does cost just 100 yen and, as is the case everywhere in Japan, there is no additional tax. School supplies, food, clothing, kitchen ware, cleansers and cleaning supplies, hardware, blank CDs and DVDs, cosmetics, linen and much more are available. I love shopping there and they make the Canadian “Dollar Stores” seem expensive by comparison. I’d say there is nothing quite like it except that I’ve been told that the only “100 Yen” store not in Japan is in Vancouver. If true, I hope Vancouverites are taking full advantage of it.





Samurai Festival (Daimiyou Gyouretsu)

On October 15th, at the invitation of my friend Tsukasa, I was honored to participate in the annual Niimi Samurai Festival. I’ve known Tsukasa almost since arriving in Niimi more than a year ago. He is a “larger than life” character, very active in the community and with a great sense of humor. In his seventeenth year with the festival he is responsible for a team of “bearers” (wearing traditional samurai attire) who carry one of a number of shrines (Mikoshi), from a temple atop a hill, along the parade route and then back again. I was to be one of the bearers. Sounds easy no?

The Samurai Festival is steeped in tradition and dates back hundreds of years. Winding through the old Ginza district of town the route is marked every couple of hundred feet with conical mounds of sand about a foot high and topped with salt. Traditionally they acted more or less as sponges, intended to soak up the blood of insufficiently respectful parade attendees who were beheaded along the route. It is still considered “good form” to be seated when the parade passes.

On the morning of the parade, as I walked up the wide and steep steps terraced into the hillside and leading to the temple, I could not help but wonder if I was capable of seeing this through. Even though I’d taken painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs for my damaged left knee, it seemed pretty daunting. Reaching the temple and seeing the shrine itself  did nothing to assuage my trepidation. It weighs 500 kilograms and is supported by four thick wooden poles running through it that rest upon the shoulders of about a dozen bearers. After watching a demonstration of samurai sword-fighting and drinking saucers of a traditional and potent sake brewed by the temple, we set off.

Just lifting the Mikoshi from the sawhorses that supported it was a bit awkward. Working as a team, it took a while to gain a sense of equilibrium. As the lead Mikoshi, we also had to be mindful throughout the route that we could not be either too fast or too slow, knowing that the other Mikoshi were right behind us. I was in the front at the right hand side and, as we slowly descended the steep steps down into the town, kept thinking how easy it would be for one person to stumble and bring us all crashing down the hill. It worked out well enough though and we made it down the slope and into town.

It’s a big event and, even though it is most often held on a weekday, the parade route is lined with spectators. Even at this early stage I noticed that, because I’m a little taller than the average Japanese, the weight of the supporting pole on my left shoulder was crushing. The streets in the Ginza district are quite narrow leaving little room to maneuver in any but a forward direction. Each team has a leader who marches in front of the Mikoshi and exhorts them on with two short blasts from a whistle. The bearers respond with loud shouts of “WA-SHOI! – WA-SHOI!”, essentially meaning “heave-ho”.

Periodically, where the width of the street allows, the leader will unexpectedly push one of the supporting poles to either the left or right forcing the team to lurch and stumble in that direction. Not easy when you are supporting a 500 kilogram weight. Three girls wearing traditional dress and carrying large baskets accompany each Mikoshi. Spectators along the route put offerings (often a bottle of sake), into the baskets. Sounds good no? The downside is that, with each gift we have to raise the Mikoshi above our heads with arms fully extended, four times in rapid succession.

By the end of the first hour my knee was “on fire”, my left shoulder felt dislocated and I was drenched in sweat. Looking forward along the seemingly endless parade route, I could only say to myself, “one more step: one more step”. Quitting was tempting but not really an option: I could not allow myself to be the gai-jin who let the team down. I had after all, made the commitment to do this.

Fortunately, at the half-way point there is a scheduled break. We lowered the Mikoshi onto sawhorses and I almost collapsed gasping for breath. Cold beer (thank god!), snacks and beverages were provided. When my friend Masa, who had stood directly behind me and looked out for me along the route, offered me a cigarette (I have not smoked in eight years), I accepted without hesitation. With a frosty can of Asahi beer, it may have been the “best” cigarette I’ve ever smoked.

Although the route back to the temple is slightly longer, just knowing we were “over the hump” made it easier. I had mixed feelings when we turned the final corner leading up to the temple. Yes, it was the final stretch: Still though, there remained “the hill”. Each of the many steps was painful and I felt as if I was ascending Golgotha. When we finally lowered the Mikoshi onto the sawhorses though, all I felt was a sense of exhilaration. I’d completed it!

We drank more sake and then went to a great dinner hosted by Tsukasa at the local Community (Gotenmachi) Center. We drank and then went to my favorite pub, Nemunoki and drank some more (on a school night no less). It was a wonderful day: One I will never forget!


PS: I’m hoping to post a few pictures of the parade within a couple of days.




My friend Noba recently invited me to a Kabuki (traditional Japanese theater), performance in the nearby town of Takahashi. Although I feel that I have a responsibility to experience as much of Japanese culture as I can, I must admit that I had mixed feelings about attending. I suppose I thought it would be a bit slow and “mannered”. I mistaken: It was brilliant!
When we met to take the bus to Takahashi, I was surprised to find that Noba’s mother would be coming with us. Noba did not let me know in advance and it stuck me as quite touching that he felt no need to explain. Although she speaks no English, his mother was very charming and friendly. There were no more than five men on the bus and very few of the women (many of whom were wearing kimonos), were younger than myself. As is true everywhere else I suppose, the “younger generation” seems disinclined to experience their historical culture. Their loss!
The venue was a beautiful modern hall and the performers were among the best in Japan. With white-painted faces, black wigs and elaborate traditional costumes, the acting was nuanced and displayed remarkable, and often surprising athleticism. From behind trap doors built into the elaborate sets, actors would suddenly leap out onto the stage. I have never seen anything like it before: It was colorful, kinetic and the accompanying shamisen (a stringed Japanese instrument) music was great. It was brilliant and, to my “western eyes”, totally alien. I loved it!
It is expected that  ALTs will volunteer and participate in various cultural and teaching related events in the community. Last year I attended and helped teach English classes for the Niimi International Exchange Association, gave a couple of Power-Point presentations, helped out at the annual Halloween Party for younger children and assisted Andrew with his weekly evening English class. This year I’m looking forward to next week’s Halloween party on the eleventh and am honored to have been invited to actually participate in the annual Samurai Parade (Daimiyou Gyouretsu) on the 15th of October. It’s a great event steeped in tradition. Dressed in traditional garb, I’ll be in the Mikoshi, in which a fairly large and heavy shrine is borne on the shoulders of marchers along the parade route and culminating in the ascent of a fairly steep hill. Although I was worried it might put too much of a strain on my damaged left knee, I’ve been assured that I can at least partially “fake it”, with the other bearers shouldering most of the weight. Traditionally, participants drink great lashings of sake, made at a temple specifically for the occasion,  along the route. Should be fun; I’ll try to get some photos to post on the blog, as I did last year.
I must admit though, that I was a little less enthusiastic about another “volunteering” opportunity last Thursday. A few ALTs including myself attended a meeting a a large plastic manufacturing plant here in Niimi. As an expanding company they want their employees to have a grasp of English in order to explain technical aspects of the manufacturing process to English-speaking fellow employees and, to that end, asked for our help. I’d have been ok with that I suppose, but they also expected us to sign a confidentiality agreement AND provide photo copies of our passports. Given that this is a volunteer position (ie: non-paying), and that this is after all, a successful profit-making corporation, I felt it was a bit intrusive. Although I’m not sure what the other ALTs intend to do, I’ve declined, with some regret, to participate.


Come Fly with Me

I was pleased to hear that Air Canada will have direct flights  to and from Kansai Airport in Osaka and Vancouver commencing next summer. It’s funny think of how the perception of air travel has changed since Frank Sinatra sang “Come Fly With Me” in the distant 1950’s. Once the epitome of sophisticated jet-set travel, flying is now an unrelenting ordeal of interminable line-ups, lengthy waits, bad food and mobs of justifiably irritated people. Even when we finally get to board the plane we endure the ritual humiliation of taking the “walk of shame” through business class to get to the gulag at the rear.

I booked the least expensive return flight I could find via China Eastern Airlines from Osaka to Vancouver that entailed an ostensible one hour layover and connecting flight from Shanghai. The two flights to Vancouver were bearable (barely), but the trip back was almost enough to convince me that people given to “air rage” may be the only sane people on the plane.

Yes, ultimately I did make it back to Japan but it was a nightmarish trip deep into the heart of darkness. Shanghai airport is a massive Stalinist cinderblock seemingly designed to dissuade anyone visiting China. My flight from there to Osaka was delayed by three hours and, just to make things a tad more interesting, they changed the departure gate three times in the interim. Using a cane, and in dire pain from a torn cartilage in my left knee, I spent most of the three hours hobbling back and forth from one end of the airport to the other. By the time I finally landed in Osaka I’d been in transit and without sleep for more than 24 hours and  probably looked like Nick Nolte after a two week bender. Small wonder that, in my almost delirious condition, I was targeted for the full treatment at customs, 1:00am Osaka time. They painstakingly showed me photos of pot, cocaine and various pills and asked me if I happened to be carrying any of them. I suppose they assumed I’d point to a photo and say “Oh yes, I have great lashings of this one with me. It’s my favorite!” Throughout the ordeal though, I must admit they were unremittingly friendly and polite; I almost didn’t mind the delay and was very pleased to be back in the country. As airports go, Kansai is bright, modern and well designed with many comfortably appointed seating areas. At Shanghai Airport by comparison, the facilities are spartan and any inquiries are met with a gamut of responses ranging from utter indifference to thinly-veiled hostility.

After a body search and systematic disassembling of my carry-on, I crawled to the airport hotel where, fortunately I’d had the foresight to make a reservation. I took a very long hot shower, slept like the dead for six hours and then, rejuvenated, had a very pleasant bus and train ride back to Niimi.



My Apologies!

Yes, it has been quite a while since I last posted on the blog. Since my last posting I have been back to B.C., where I had to attend to some personal matters, not the least of which was determining why my left knee has been giving me so much pain. It seems the cartilage is damaged but, with the help of a few prescription drugs, and despite the fact that I am still hobbling around a bit, the problem is now well in hand.

Since getting back to Niimi on August 22nd, school has started and, so far September has been an eventful month. Sports Day (Undokai), fell on the 6th and, apart from graduation, it is the biggest event of the school year.  It is quite militaristic and, in preparing for the event,  the students spend hours on a hot playing field while the school band plays martial music, marching with legs raised high and arms swinging in perfect unison. It is far more disciplined than anything I have seen in a Canadian school.

In keeping with the Japanese tradition of emphasizing collective effort on behalf of the common good (as opposed to individual accomplishment), all of the Undokai events are team relay races that stress teamwork and cooperation. As they commonly say in Japan, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.

On the morning of Undokai the painstaking preparations for the event are clearly evident. The stage, band area, tents, and food concession stand have given the playing field a carnival-like ambiance. Japanese tend to be quite formal so it is no surprise the opening ceremony speeches tend to go on a bit. The band plays rousing Sousa marches: Let the games begin.

The students give it their best and, with compulsory sports club attendance and a pretty healthy Japanese diet, they are very fit.

Everyone wins!

I’ll be more diligent about writing in the future!

















It’s still raining!

Not long after after I arrived in Japan, Andrew told me the country has four distinct seasons; typhoon season, rainy season, too hot and too cold.

We are now well into the rainy season (June essentially) and, although it’s not raining at the moment, it is still well before noon and that pervasive grayness and leaden wet atmosphere that presages the afternoon deluge is already upon us. It will probably become increasingly muggy and dark and, as the day wears on, the afternoon downfall will bring a refreshing measure of relief.

Last week’s teeming rains were spectacular. The office staff at school watched as the seconds that separated the brilliant forked lightning from the ensuing thunderclaps lessened. We followed the path of the storm as the lightning moved from the surrounding hills down into the town and very close to the school itself. It was, I’m pretty sure, the first time I’ve seen lightning actually strike something.

On Friday I had to go to Okayama to apply for renewal of my residency card for another year. Apart from Okayama-jo (castle) and The Koraku-en Gardens, Okayama is an undistinguished modern-looking city of a little more than 700,000 people. The castle (since rebuilt using the original plans) and most of the city was heavily bombed during WW2, hence the lack of interesting historical sites or architecture. Fortunately the beautiful neighboring city of Kurashiki was spared the bombing.  But I digress…

Even though I’m not crazy about Okayama, I was looking forward to getting out of town for a day and  the train ride is beautiful, following as it does the meandering course of the Takahashi river through the surrounding mountains. It was about an hours ride comfortably spent listening to my IPod and reading Haruki Murakami.

I walked directly from the train station to the Immigration Office (Andrew’s directions were good – Always helpful in a country where the streets literally do often have no name), and dropped off the requisite information. They will let me know when the card is ready and I’ll have to return to pick it up in a couple of weeks. I’m certainly hoping it’s ready before July 20th when I return to Canada for a month.

Walking back to the train station I couldn’t resist stopping into a McDonald’s for a Big Mac; interestingly enough, something that would not even occur to me in Canada. It was identical to a North American Big Mac: Even the insipidly green lettuce was chopped into those same tiny little pieces. Ronald McDonald BTW, is called Donald McDonald in Japan. Go figure!

McDonald’s is just across the street from the train station. I boarded the next train to Niimi shortly after noon and was home by 1:00pm. It had been sunny and warm all morning but that pervasive “rainy season” pressure cooker was heating up. I hadn’t been home too long when the skies opened and the rain came down. I cracked a cold can of Asahi and walked out onto my covered balcony. The rain had cooled things down a little: It was refreshing. All in all, not a bad morning.







The mornings can be misleading.

Random Notes & a (reasonably) brief apology!

To those people (all four of them), who emailed in response to my last post, I’d like to offer an apology. It was never my intention to promote smoking: It’s  a lethal and expensive addiction. Full disclosure (a friend whose opinion I respect felt that I was being less than honest and suggested I do this); until seven years years ago I smoked a “pack-a-day” for long time. Mea culpa! Her contention was that, because I had a previous history as a smoker, I was probably more inclined to “accept” second hand smoke than a lifetime non-smoker. In this, she is no doubt correct.

The point I was trying to make though (possibly a little too forcefully), was that in Japan smoking doesn’t seem to be such a polarizing issue. At an enkai (staff party) in a restaurant, smokers will simply retire to an anteroom for a smoke before rejoining the party. People who find the smell offensive probably don’t patronize pubs where people smoke. The government insofar as I can see, seems to have some confidence that citizens will behave responsibly and does not appear to be that interested in overly regulating their lives. They certainly don’t send younger people into pubs to spy on their fellow citizens (as they have been known to do in British Columbia).  This attitude seems to manifest itself in far more ways than merely with regard to smoking. Beer is widely sold from vending machines on the street but I have yet to hear any stories of underage drinking or drunken driving as a result. Going to a pub or bar can be as informal as popping by a friend’s rec room. Free food is served casually, there does not appear to be an enforced closing time and, to a greater extent than I’ve noticed elsewhere, the “regulars” seem to share a convivial rapport with each other. Young teens join their parents, nosh on snacks and have soft drinks. Japan is not a “nanny state”.


Our Grade Three classes graduated last week and the ceremony was more moving than I’d anticipated. Although Japanese ceremonies are not noted for brevity, and this was no exception, the singing was beautiful and more than a few of the students were weeping. I liked the grade three students a lot and will miss them. Fortunately I have a copy of the new student yearbook to remember them by. At about $50. cdn, it seems a little expensive until you see it. Printed on high-quality glossy stock, it’s slip-cased with exclusively color photographs and very little text. The slip-case cover has the caption “SCHOOL LIFE: I never look at this album without being reminded of my happy school days.” Oddly enough; a sentiment I can agree with. The cover of the book itself says “Graduation: memory has been shining in your heart forever”. I’m a little less certain about that, but it’s sweet nonetheless. I’ll always treasure the book in any case.

Even though there are no classes scheduled for the next week or so and the students are on holiday, that doesn’t mean they are not at school. Although the “atmosphere” is a little more relaxed, the school “clubs” continue to function and membership in them is compulsory. Senseis and ALTs are expected to put in a full school day. There’s not really much for an ALT to do though, so I usually spend this time at my desk learning Japanese. I thought about this a little (but not too much) on Friday at Minami Junior High, as I stepped outside the building at about 9:00 am to watch the baseball club practice. It was by far the nicest day of this year with light breezes, temperatures in the mid-twenties and a cloudless sky. Spring has always been my favorite season, but I have never more looked forward to it than this year. Going through their drills, the baseball and soccer teams looked good: really digging in, hustling & lookin’ pretty snappy. Not at all bad for 12 and 13 year old kids I thought. The sun felt pretty good and I’d been watching for almost an hour before I remembered my iPod was in my pocket. It seemed a waste not to listen, so I popped on the “Stone Roses” and ambled around to the back of the school to watch the tennis club. As I cued up “Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds” on the iPod, I noticed the tennis club wasn’t doing too badly either. If you’ve played tennis at all you know it is not an easy game to learn. With most sports a decent athlete can acquit her/himself reasonably well with a little rudimentary instruction. Not so with tennis: Unless you put in the prerequisite practice, you will be a “bum” regardless of your inherent  athletic proclivities. That may be why they play “soft” tennis in Japan, with a rubber ball that slows the game down a bit. It doesn’t take much away from the sport though: it’s still highly competitive and fun to watch. I mused on this as I sought out “Let England Shake” by P.J. Harvey and continued my stroll around the perimeter of the school. On the far side of the school the gym door was wide open: The gym was divided in half by a net with the girls basketball club playing on one side and the table tennis club playing on the other. As expected, the basketball team looked pretty good as they went through their drills. I love table tennis and I’m reasonably good at it but, because club activities are pretty highly structured, I knew there was little chance I’d pick up a game. I watched them play for a while and then completed my circle of the school while listening to Queens of the Stone Age.

Fellow ALT Nathan showed up around this time: He was running quite late because he had a few work-related things to attend to in town and I was beginning to think he might not make it to school at all.  I was glad he did though because like myself, Nate is a huge and knowledgeable movie fan and I enjoy talking with him about film history.  We did a couple of leisurely laps around the school, chatting with students along the way. They had all just graduated so the prevailing mood was buoyant and friendly.

It was after 3:00 pm by this time and my bus (always punctual) passes the school at 3:27 pm. I retrieved my books from class, bid the customary farewell (osaki ni shitsurei shimas), and left to catch my bus. It’s a tough job: Someone has to do it.