Tricksy treats

Halloween, as a teacher, drives me to despair. I don't particularly have an affection for all the hocus pocus, though I do remember the amazing parties my parents used to hold for me and my brother in our garage, which was suitably transformed for the evening. I'd have to rate it somewhere below Guy Fawkes Night in terms of festivals I look forward to. I am smug that its origins are firmly placed within the British Isles, Celtic tradition spreading throughout the fledgling kingdoms, and not from the candy-soaked corporate shores of the good old U S of A.

Japan is as usual ignorant of this small fact, and sees only money signs at this time of year. Cute characters emerge in Halloween costumes, while Universal Studios and Disney execs rub their hands with glee. My students know about trick or treat and jack'o'lanterns, but not that Halloween is similar -if more sinister- to Japan's Obon season, that it was once the end of the old year, and that carving pumpkins and food-giving was a way in which to protect households from malevolent spirits.

Two weeks of elementary school and the howling war-cries of 'candy please!' has just about driven me insane. I am one more funny hat and moustached glasses away from the funny farm.
Every day this week I have awoken from unsettling dreams of hundreds of tiny mummies in pumpkin Halloween masks, all holding out their spindly bandaged arms and demanding candy, which I don't have. Before the rioting begins, a massive and massively pissed off whale swallows us whole, room and all. Why mummies? Well I have no idea. Why a whale? Well that would be the unsavoury fact that last week I accidentally ate whale for school lunch. Carefully diced and smothered in sauce, no-one would answer my enquiries about what I was stuffing in my mouth. After gulping down the last mouthful, the teachers reluctance to explain what the dish was made me suspicious. It dawned on me that it was whale (I was tricked into eating it a few years back...a tremendous joke). How on earth did this whale die for scientific research? Japan as yet refuses to admit it is a commercial whaler. I assume the whale in my belly right now was whisked from a lab and canned before you could say 'whales are beautiful, intelligent creatures who can hold a decent note'.

So has my Halloween been spent thus far. With an increasing desire to carry a supply of sweets around with me and randomly start hurling them at people, I have had about my fill of this sickly-sweet, not at all macabre season of the dead. Happy Halloween one and all.

30 10 06 - 11:19 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Bartlet and Co.

Quite simply the best TV show ever.

29 10 06 - 10:53 - Kieren - Photostory| five comments - §

A very incomplete guide to Japanese Anime Part One: The Early Years

Over the past couple of weeks I have had to make listening exercises for the students. As this is usually so mind numbingly boring some students actually die, I thought I would try and make the activities more relevant to them and just a tiny bit more interesting. Thus I have become a massive researcher of Japanese anime on TV. (more)

27 10 06 - 11:25 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

It's Gojira! Run!

I try to think back on my C of E primary school and imagine how it compares with the Japanese elementaries I work at. They are a kind of mixture between British primary and secondary schools... though a lot more recognisable than, say, junior high schools with their pseudo-Germanic, turn-of-the-century uniforms and American calender and timetabling. Elementary school at its heart is the same as when I was young, except with snazzier blazers. Maybe a little more anachronistic, though I am not saying this is a bad thing. There is regular morning exercises, parading to assembly and scrubbing down the school each lunch-time. It seems antiquated and endearing at the same time. Why shouldn't there be more exercise for our increasingly roly-poly nation, and why shouldn't students clean up their own mess? What truly bothers and bamboozles me, is the bizarre scheduling. At school I always studied to a fixed timetable. In Japan everything is adhoc and inexplicably complicated. 'Today's first class will be Thursday 4th period, the next class is cancelled, and after that two Monday afternoon classes, but in reverse order' and so on. The first two classes today were cancelled so all the students could run. There is no sports day, no marathon, no need for the sudden burst of exercise. Students were made to run because I suspect the school feels that anything approaching a normal timetable would be madness. Did I join them? I may not be fully awake at this time of day, but I am not mad. It looks like nothing so much as crowds fleeing from Godzilla. And just perhaps that is what they are training for.

25 10 06 - 12:09 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Wi-Fi trade thriving outside the PokeMon Centre

Well, I wasn't expecting this. An innocent trip to the Pokemon Centre near Osaka Umeda station one saturday in October revealed a hidden world. The shop was nothing particularly surprising, but... ...then I got outside, and took a look around. It was a bit like the moment in a horror movie when the hero realises that all the people in front of him are actually already zombies.
I was surrounded. A family of DS players sat right in front of me. Two 'otaku' (geeks) flanking me, crouched under the giant pokemon sign. An assortment of teenage gangs, DSes in hand and playing, dotted around the coffee shops. A mother and daughter combo, the list goes on. I saw around fifty DS players, all trading wirelessly and anonymously using the new PokeMon Wi-Fi. I walked away a few rare pokemon richer, and a little impressed that these pokemon flash-mobs exist just half an hour away on the train!

25 10 06 - 10:06 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Marching off to war

25 10 06 - 09:58 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Parade of the Ages

Kyotoites woke up in 1867 to a new reality and with a massive headache, having had the rug pulled out from under their feet. Overnight Kyoto had ceased to be the Imperial Capital of Japan. In a giant shift of political power the Emperor had closed up house and moved his entire court to Edo, which would from then on be called Tokyo (the Eastern Capital). The aristocracy left town, and with them countless traditional businesses and artisans. Kyoto's heart had been cut out.

Less than 30 years later, the city was feeling jubilant. All things Japanese were coveted by the Western powers, and Japanese art was making a big splash abroad. Most of these exported arts and crafts originated in Kyoto. Thus, to celebrate the fact that the city was very much not a backwater and by no means insignificant, the government held the Jidai Matsuri: a colourful, exotic costume party dedicated to the old capital's 1,100 year history. The parade coincided with the opening of the Heian Jingu Shrine (a scale model of the original Imperial Palace), dedicated to the founder of Kyoto (Emperor Kanmu 781-806) and the city's last reigning emperor (Emperor Komei 1847-1866).

More than a hundred years later, the Jidai Matsuri is as proudly celebrated as ever. It is a rare chance to glimpse costumes, palanquins and weaponry that was worn, ridden and used in over a thousand years of Japanese history. Care was taken to make each costume as authentic as possible, thus they were woven, dyed and cut according to historical records.

With Dale waving banners at the Gay Pride in Osaka (!) and Rhod nesting in front of Zelda to recover from a migraine, I took Dale's wife (!!) Erina and daughter Kitty along with me. The parade sets off from the Imperial Palace and slowly makes its way in a huge circle back to the Heian Jingu. As both the starting and finishing points are overly crowded, we walked along one of the cordoned off streets until we found a gap on the curb. Settling down, we had the perfect view of the festival, albeit in modern surroundings.

As festivals go, it wasn't particularly exciting, but it was relaxing and quite an eye-opener to see the exotic and bizarre array of costumes. I really enjoyed the laid back atmosphere, and we were really lucky that Kitty got the chance to have her picture taken when the parade had stopped for a breather. A kind old man motioned her over, so with a desperate fumbling for my cellphone camera (having wasted the battery on my Canon) we managed to take it just before the cart had to move on. She may have been the only one lucky enough to have her photo taken in the middle of the parade!

22 10 06 - 12:20 - Kieren - Photostory| one comment - §

The world of the scamps

A rare glimpse into the world of the little scamps at elementary school. These little guys were racing to make a teddy bear from the parts that had been scattered in front of the blackboard. The whole thing is a bit macabre, but trust me, the severed parts get reunited with the cute bears in the end.
Every few months I have to travel to two elementary schools to hang out with the kids. Essentially my job is pointless when I am there. I simply have to turn up at the class and have fun. It's not fulfilling. I feel like I should be doing something more constructive, but still it's hard not to smile with the first graders.

20 10 06 - 10:55 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Vote now for who you think looks most like a 70s funk rocker

1) Tomomi Elton. 2) Misako Elton. 3) Mizu-kun Elton.
4) Yama-chan Elton. 5) Akko Elton. 6) Rhod Elton.
7) Ryo-chan Elton. 8) Ki Elton. 9) Erik Elton.

16 10 06 - 14:45 - Kieren - Photostory| one comment - §

Tak attack!

Tak and Micke arrived for barely a day in Kyoto on their Tokyo-centric tour of Japan. Come on chaps, didn't anyone tell you that Kansai is where all the culture and fun is to be had? Rhod took them around a temple, a shrine and the Mecca of geek streets. Tomorrow they skim Hiroshima on their way back to the capital. Only I have a feeling no-one told them that Hiroshima is in the wrong direction...

15 10 06 - 09:56 - Kieren - Photostory| two comments - §

No frogs, thank you!

It all started so well, with a jolly good present opening and classy French fusion restaurant booked. However, the problems can be traced back to this exact moment and an innocent bottle of champagne.
Mysterious bottles would keep appearing out of nowhere, and find themselves abused by Misako and Tomomi. Then it happened. Tomomi had drunk the restaurant dry and literally fell down, pickled and perfectly preserved. Always the mark of an excellent birthday party.

14 10 06 - 16:20 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The Venice of Japan

When I was younger I was pretty lucky to have traveled more than a couple of times to Venice with my parents. Tokushima is criss-crossed with rivers and canals, the sea plays an important part in the culture and industry of the city. Fishing boats crowd the waterways and tourism provides a hefty chunk of Tokushima's annual earnings. But there is no similiarity that I can think of that would connect the two cities in anything but a madman's mind. I know that for domestic holidays the allure of something more exotic and international is always a big pull (thus the odd theme parks scattered around Japan that try to recreate other countries and cities...Parque Espana in Mie and Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki to name a few), but to compare the uniqueness of these cities is to miss the point entirely. People travel here because it is 'Japan'.

The trip away from home was good for the senses. Not sure if I can see clearly now, but always nice to let some fresh air into the noodle and return to Kyoto with a different perspective on Japan. One creepy experience happened on the last day. I convinced Rhod, Erina and Dale to take a taxi to the foot of Mount Bizan where there is a small Buddhist temple called Zuigan-ji. On one side there is a small, red pagoda sticking out of the forest, on the other peaceful gardens and sober buildings, almost swallowed by the trees. Whilst peeking inside the temple, Kitty said she could see an old man sitting and writing at a low table. Later she said he was following her and laughing, running after us as we left. There were no old men, we saw no priests. An explanation could be the statues of jizo and buddha, but they certainly weren't running after anyone. An overactive imagination, or a glimpse into some other place? It was suitably chilling, and rounded off our time in Tokushima nicely.

We were away for a couple of days and returned to a rush of news. Mitsuko, my crazy house-mate when I was living in Kobe, is getting married. She told me about Yoshiteru (used to be a pro-baseball player) in March, which means that he has proposed in under 6 months. Nice going. At first I though the rush to travel up to her parents in Fukushima and organise the ceremony for early next year might be to do with the tiny patter of feet, but my concerns have since been laid to rest. Mi-chan has dated some serious two-timing fuckwits and I am so happy she found a guy who will treat her how she deserves. I have a selfish twinge of regret that she may settle down to be a typical Japanese housewife, but hope that the insane spark of humour in her isn't put out. Congratulations Mi.

The sun setting these past few days has been violently beautiful, the skies scratched with clouds and stained with colour. As the summer lingers with its last breath, the trees begin to shudder off their leaves for the long haul of winter. It must be Autumn, because walking back along the tree lined thoroughfare beside our apartment, swarms of men were stripping the trees bare. Only a few leaves have fallen, yet the city sends out a small team of gardeners to quite literally pluck every last leaf from the branches. No matter that the trees are not quite ready for the long sleep, that the leaves are still green or that the weather is still not cold enough to close the windows of a night. That matters little in comparison with the psychosis that takes ahold of the public. Leaves if left to fall would be messy and dangerous. Disfigured and managed trees look much better. Yet again the Japanese obsession with trying to manage nature. If only the trees could fight back. Autumn is coming, but because the government tells us so. How would they like it if we stripped off their blankets mid-Winter and told them that Spring had arrived early whether they liked it or not?

11 10 06 - 11:01 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Vortex

The slim stretch of water that separates the southern tip of Awaji Island from the the eastern edge of Shikoku is barely 1,300 metres wide. The narrow Naruto Straights channel the waters of the Pacific to the calm waters of the Seto 'Inland' Sea and vice versa twice a day. The ebb and flow of the tides cause extremely rapid currents because at its most dramatic, the difference between the sea and ocean is over 1.7 metres. The currents are the fastest in Japan and third fastest in the world. When the tides are high and the conditions right, huge whirlpools form and fade along the length of the straights.

The elusive eddies carve swirling holes into the water that can appear for a few minutes or the barest of seconds, ranging from a few metres to the spring-flood size of around 50 feet. As they travel in excess of 15 to 20 miles an hour, catching sight of the water uzushio can be frustrating and difficult. Unfortunately for us, the conditions for the whirlpools were less than perfect and the best glimpse I had was on the coach traveling to Tokushima the day before. Nontheless the Naruto Straights are an awe inspiring and mesmerising sight.

Catching a local bus from Tokushima city centre, we rode over the dozens bridges that span the labyrinth of river deltas and climbed through some picturesque gorges to reach Naruto National Park (Part of the Seto Sea Conservation Area) and the huge Onaruto Bridge whcih links Shikoku to Awaji. Knowing that the wind and season were against us, we decided not to take a boat trip through the straights, although part of me regretted not feeling the tug and pull of the currents or being wholly immersed in nature. My heart sank to see that even in the two years since my last visit, the peninsular has become a carpet of carparking and the congestion is laughable. It seems that the National Park does not extend to the land.

We paid to stroll along the Uzonomichi Walkway, a kind of enclosed platform hung off the bottom of the bridge with glass panelling substituting the floor at regular intervals. In spite of the mesh, standing on the reinforced glass takes some balls and the rushing waters far below do nothing to settle the stomach. With the wind particularly strong, we were battered and blown about and still unable to see anything but the barest outline of potential whirlpools. Still, it was hard not to love the whole experience.

11 10 06 - 10:52 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

So why not dance?

Even with a gun to my head, you would not force me into Tokushima during The Festival of the Dead (Obon). The likelihood of finding a spare hotel room, or even a spare bench, is almost nil. The 'great dance of the Awa' (Awa Odori) is perhaps the most famous of the bon dances across Japan, a four day festival from August 12th to 15th. Over 1.3 million spectators and 80,000 participants, dressed in colourful yukata (summer kimono) and half-moon shaped straw hats, parade throughout the city, waving their hands and shuffling their feet to an insistent two-beat rhythm, played on taiko drums, flutes and shamisen. With street parties and side shows, this is Japan's answer to Mardis Gras.

Fortunately the hotels are empty now, August has passed, and the city has recovered from its drunken summer. But that does not mean we couldn't catch a glimpse of the dance. The cable car station at the bottom of Mount Bizan houses a museum (Awa Odori Kaikan) to the Awa Odori and throughout the afternoon there are small performances and instruction in a small theatre. We went to watch, more than a little dubious that this would be worth the money we paid. It was worth it. Very much so. A professional troupe of dancers displayed the styles of dancing, while a nubile old chap explained the words they chant and how to perfom each action, each gesture.

In celebration of completing the construction of his castle, Hachisuka Iemasa (in 1587) held a massive city-wide party. The people enjoyed themselves so much that they held another the following year, and so on, down the centuries. The festival was only named the Awa Odori after WWII. Now it is massively organised and a huge money-spinner for the prefecture. The dancers famously chant, 'The dancing fool and the watching fool are equally foolish. So why not dance?'

At the end of the short show, the audience were invited to join in with the professionals. Contemplating this in advance, I hid well out of the way with Rhod and Dale, whilst Kitty bounded happily on stage much to Erina's chagrin. Thus she represented our small little group, dancing with the fools, while fools watched on.

11 10 06 - 10:40 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The virtuous island

Built on the delta of the Yoshino-gawa (Shikoku's longest river) and bisected by the Shinmachi-gawa, Tokushima is known across Japan for its summer dance festival (the Awa Odori) and as the -somewhat dubious- Venice of Japan. Named as 'the virtuous island' by Hachisuka Iemasa (a supporter of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi), he built his castle here in 1586. His clan ruled until the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when in 1868 it became a prefecture after the razing of the castle and the restoration of the Emperor. Now all that remains of Hachisuka's home are a few stone walls, part of the moat and the Shenshuku-teien (a beautiful, formal garden designated one of the best in Japan). So why Tokushima? I had vague recollections of journeying to the city after catching a glimpse of the whirlpools between Awaji Island and Shikoku, but couldn't remember much of the town itself. Although it is most famous for its bon dance, I have never been so foolhardy to think of visiting in August when the number of visitors swells to well over double the number of residents. Rhod showed an interest, so we booked a short trip with Erina, Dale, Kitty, Misako and Akko. 3 hours from Kyoto, you cannot help but to be awed by the coastal beauty of Shikoku, with its turtle crowded beaches* (arriving to lay their eggs) and spattering of islands and waterways. Shikoku at its heart is as yet untouched, though the cities are beginning to eat it away, and new bridges bring traffic and industry ploughing through. Kyoto this is not. The pace of life is that of any small Japanese city. Mount Bizan looms over the wide boulevards, the dozens of waterways and scores of bridges. While it is not for everyone, I really enjoyed the cheap hotel, relaxed pace and friendly looks (foreigners are few in number). What struck me most about Tokushima was that the city (while not gifted with funds or great numbers of attractions) makes a great effort to entertain. Over just one weekend we saw a free show of Japanese puppet theatre (a speciality of the area), a skateboarding show (points for effort, no points for competence), went to a milk festival (!), strolled along the riverside evening market, and took a relaxing boat trip. All for free. I really loved the laid back air of this backwater city, and while I wouldn't want to live there, I intend to visit again someday.
(more)

11 10 06 - 10:29 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

TimeOut (not a happy post)

A truly lovely break away with Ki and some good friends in Tokushima (details and photos to follow from Ki) and a very last minute meetup with a friend from The Internet rounded off a highly successful bank holiday weekend.

Then we return, having not looked at a computer or news outlet for three days, and it's all Korea Nuclear Tests, Somalia Vs. Ethiopia, Economic Doom, Hit-and-run this, Youth guilty of that. And that horrible feeling of 'back to reality' sinks in.

Note to self: destroy all news organisations in their current form, prioritise local important events, communicate better with people who make you happy, communicate less with internet strangers who like to disagree about the relative advantages/disadvantages of game hardware. But mostly the news organisation thing.

The happy post will follow tomorrow I should think. Please look forward to learning about uplifting dancers, amazing tidal phenomena, friendly people, pretty shrines, lots of laughter, and a boat ride on the waterways of 'the Venice of Japan'. That last bit is their words, certainly not ours, though ;)

09 10 06 - 15:55 - rhod - Photostory| two comments - §

We was robbed

I have a massive problem with a bilingual student winning the Osaka prelimeneries of the 58th H.I.H Prince Takamado National English Speech Contest. Her father is Swiss (trilingual no less) and her mother speaks fluent English. So what exactly is the point in holding a contest? I might as well take the stage. I am just a little bit outraged. Now, there is the small issue of race which makes this subject a bit touchy. Is it racist to ban students who are bilingual (considering those who are bilingual in most cases have one parent who is foreign and a natural English speaker)? The girl was Japanese (the husband taking on the wife's nationality) but she speaks English on a daily basis. Surely this is insane? Shouldn't there be different tiers to the contest - a separate, 'native speakers' English contest would have given the winner some competition, and the losers a chance.

Haruka (the second grade student from my school) did an amazing job. She worked tirelessly for three months to memorise the speech that had been translated for her, then studied blurb until she fully understood it back to front. She practised intonation, gestures and divided her sparse free time between volleyball club, cram school and the speech. In all honesty she couldn't have scooped the first prize, but it wasn't about winning, it was about taking part. I was immensely proud of her, and feel not one bit disappointed that she is not going to Tokyo for the finals.

But I am mad. Not by the over-officious bullshit of Japanese ceremony, not by the unqualified judges and constant plugging of the two sponsors (Coca Cola and the Daily Yomiuri- the worst English language newspaper in Japan), but because nothing in this contest was fair. How can a speech about the emptiness of modern life (5th prize) and the malpractise of doctors (6th prize) compare with the mind-numbing 'Beauty of Ballet' (2nd prize)? Not only were the topics widely differing, but the judges were looking for pantomime orators rather than natural and heartfelt presence on stage. The whole afternoon was a mockery and the two students who made me sit up and think, with spectacular performances, were relegated to runner up places. The smiling, pristine and pretty girls who won talked like Americans on steroids and were so narcissistic they spent the rest of the afternoon admiring their reflections in their trophies. They are welcome to them. The other students (you know who you are) will go on to great things. Sometimes a smile and flick of the hair is not enough.

05 10 06 - 12:36 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Birds of a feather

In the dusky haze of early evening, flocks of birds take flight to find a resting place for the night. The tiny islands of Lake Biwa are just visible, scattered on the horizon. Peaceful aplenty.

05 10 06 - 12:25 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Inmates

I was taken to the zoo at Colchester when I was young, and I clearly remember the sad bear enclosures stuffed away beside the main highway, all of them tiny and concrete. There was not a tree in sight and the bears would pace back and forth foaming at the muzzle or else sprawl lifelessly on the old tyres that had been tossed in with them. My mum and dad were always affected greatly, and hated seeing the animals like this, but would take us so that my brother and I could see the different animals we had learnt about. Colchester transformed its zoo soon after and now boasts enclosures rather than cages. The animals are still prisoners, but they can stretch their legs this way and frolick amongst the vegetation.

Well, Kyoto zoo is how Colchester used to be, except much worse.

Kyoto Municipal Zoo is the second oldest in Japan, and it shows. Possibly because the government continues to support it, rather than privatise, cash seems to be a massive problem. I am not going to involve myself, here at least, in a discussion about how badly Japan 'generally' treats animals (very badly, in a nutshell). Kyoto Zoo is, quite clearly, a lot more concerned with having creatures, than conserving or caring for them. I've been to four or five zoos in Japan and Kyoto is the worst, but only by the skin of its teeth. The general standard is this low. So why post photos? Why not simply ignore it? Well, these animals are amazing and beautiful and, despite their adverse conditions, took my breath away. Even with the regret and sadness for their plight, the huge variety on show served as a good reminder to us of how the animal kingdom is magnificent, and still mysterious.

I hate that they are caged like this. I hate the decaying exhibitions and displays. I hate that there is more care for the childrens playground than for the formidable Brown Bears. Without visible conservation projects, and with no endangered species under protection, surely there is no reason that this depressing museum should not be dismantled (and the creatures sent somewhere they can be respected as they deserve).

I wasn't going to start ranting (I really want you to check out the 'this post's gallery' link below for some great snaps), but it is a little late now. I feel for these animals. It was wonderful that Kitty could see them, but not in these conditions. When she is older she can visit some British wildlife parks and see how you can merge exhibition and conservation. Rather than a glorious, handsome polar bear with no clean water, no snow, no ice, and with no place to stretch his legs.

01 10 06 - 04:34 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

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Rhod and Ki's tour of life in Kyoto, Japan.

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