Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas in Japan

I’m not going to lie, I found this very difficult. This is maybe the second time I’ve felt the pain of homesickness, and it’s not nice. Working on Christmas day, getting up, putting a suit on, no presents, no church, it all felt very odd. I made Christmas cards for the year 5 and year 6 children who didn’t receive one from Britain; I have to say it was nice to be able to give someone a card on Christmas day. I would have liked to have spent the evening with some English speaking mates who could possibly understand why Christmas is so important, but the end of year staff party got in the way.

I don’t dread these affairs as I did on first arriving. At first these were horribly difficult, wanting to make an impression but linguistically limited, wanting to be my normal overly boisterous self but confined by wariness of cultural differences.

However on Christmas day I solved both these problems by getting SERIOUSLY drunk.

If I could remember what happened I’m sure it would make fantastic reading, but sadly my memory only goes as far as a whisky drinking competition, that I seem to remember winning. I may have won that battle, but Suntory pure malt 10 year old won the war. I was informed the next day that apparently I had been ruffling people’s hair, kissing them on the cheek and assuring them that I did in fact love them. Which was jolly nice of me.

After waking up at 4.30am on Boxing day I was able to exchange presents with people at home over skype, which along with the 50 Christmas cards my kids had made me adorning my wall, gave me a generous injection of Christmas spirit. I got a man city away shirt with cooke sensei written on the back!

All in all then, a pretty good Christmas. I would say it was one I’d never forget but I’m already down by 9 hours as it is.


Snowboarding and Japanese Penises (or penii)

Now this is why I came to Japan. Not the penises, snowboarding. Yashima skijo isn’t the biggest ski area ever, but its local and one is able to strap oneself to bits of wood and go down a hill very fast. Fabulous.

Twas the Saturday before Christmas, and Yashima skijo opened its doors for the first time! Myself and Dougras ventured onto the foothills of Mount Chokai and had a time that could best be described as ‘just lovely’. As anticipated, I was by far the most incompetent participant, but at the end emerged with bones intact, a few bruises and mountain rescue were only called out after me once.

Naturally a day’s snowboarding took its toll on my muscles, and I needed a hot bath to get them working again. My apartment bath is not big enough, but happily there is a geothermally heated hot spring about 5 minutes walk from my apartment! Perfect. Also by cheerful coincidence nudity is compulsory, so I get to expose my genitals to Japanese men with no legal repercussions.

Modesty is obviously an issue here. For those unaccustomed to parading their love vegetables in front of strangers it can be a daunting prospect, regardless of how cucumberesque your phallus may be. The key is to strut. Easier for some than others, but waggle your sex sausage in the face of a judging Japanese crowd and all is right with the world.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Cultural Observation

Now because it's funny, and no one can understand me anyway so there's no harm, I am occasionally prone to walking into classrooms and stating loudly something along the lines of: 'I am Mr Cooke thy lord and master, bow before my muscular knowledge of English Grammar'.

Thing is though being bowed at all the time does strange things to your ego. Imagine being a teacher in a british school, and as you walk along the corridor a student bowing and saying 'thank you for your hard work'. While this is obviously normal in Japan, I can't help but think that it's fkin awesome, and actually yeh, I do deserve thanks for the 5 hours I spent on facebook today. If you think that was tough you should have seen the hard graft I put in browsing youtube earlier.

Another example of the fabulous levels of politeness to which I am witness when a student enters the staffroom they have to bow before saying 'I am being rude', then when they leave they say 'I have been rude'.

Yeh damn right you have! Now get out of my face, I'm playing online scrabble.

Poisoning, snow, and the kitchen bitch

There's something quite satisfying about sitting in a toasty office and watching snow cover the world outside. However I was not entirely reassured when my question 'is this gas heating safe? there's a funny smell', was answered with 'maybe not safe, but... very cheap!'. Oh well that's just fine then. We're all going to die and I haven't even taught my awesome cheese rolling lesson to every class yet.

Those who speak to me on a regular basis will be well aware of my over excitabilty regarding snow, and in particular snowboarding. I don't have a huge amount of experience but I remain confident that bucketfuls of enthusiasm and a healthy disregard for my own wellbeing will see me racing down the slopes in no time. However the ephemeral nature of the snowfall around Honjo thus far has meant that the opening of my local piste has been delayed! Something which I am naturally PHUMING about.

Since my last entry my controversial teaching methods have yielded yet more success. All students at Yashima primary school now know the English for 'big banana'. They also now know the location of a variety of international cities, and whenever they didnt know their ignorance was punished by their peers striking a big inflatable banana on their head. What Cooke Sensei's lessons lack in educational value, they make up for in the quantity of inflatable fruit used.

At Yuri primary school I was an enthusiastic participant in cookery class, and a group of year 5 students taught me to make miso soup. Essentially it was just me being bossed around a kitchen by 8 year olds (well drilled in the instructions in english) telling me to PUT THE WATER IN THE PAN!' BOIL THE WATER!' CHOP THE RADISH!' CHOP THE TOFU!' PUT IT IN THE PAN!' HOW'S THE TASTE?!'.

Derishus actually. And I had to wear a denim bandana for some reason. I think they were just trying to make me look silly while I became the 8 year olds kitchen bitch.

Aphter a good snowphall look phorward to pictures of phil's many snowboarding pitphalls and misadphentures!


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Snow, snowballs, and inflatable bananas

Snow in the quantities I've been enjoying in akita seems to provoke different reactions from different people. Some of my colleagues assume an air of annoyance, emitting groans of disappointment when they see that fluffy white stuff falling from the sky, ruining their drive home. The friendly local North Americans used to this weather approach it in a nonchalant manner indicative of their familiarity with it. Owen the irishman complains about the cold cos he's just a total pansy. British children confronted with this amount of powdery white stuff would be an uncontrollable 4 foot tall blob of excitement. I am a 6 foot tall blob of excitement. Japanese children do not respond with that level of enthusiasm, obviously due to the huge amounts of snowfall every year in akita.

So basically the most childish reaction to akitan snowfall is probably mine. At my primary schools I sit at my desk slowly becoming insanely jealous of the 7 year olds making snowmen in the playground. So much so that one week ago after finishing a stuttering conversation in japanese with the year 2 teacher at Yashima Primary school, I put on my coat, gloves, and a wooly hat (my mum says it'll keep me warm), ran outside and threw a snowball at a 6 year old's head. I have never been chased so fast by so many 6 year olds in my life. By sheer weight of numbers I was defeated, but I swear I took at least some down with me. A noble fight.

The ongoing violence between me and the students then leaked into the classroom, where I had the brilliant idea of bringing an inflatable banana into a classroom setting. These children are excitable enough at the best of times but inflatable fruit tipped them over the edge.

"Janken" is the japanese name for rock scissors paper. After showing them how to play the game with english words I pitted the kids against each other in a deadly janken battle. I say deadly, basically the game consisted of the winner being allowed to hit the loser with an inflatable banana.

Then Cooke sensei got in on the act. I challenged a few students to beat me at rock paper scissors. My tournament started well, 3 consecutive wins, but coming up against the bounciest 8 year old I have ever seen I knew I was in for a battle (seriously he just wouldn't stop jumping, was a bit like teaching a kangaroo who's had a bit too much ice cream). To rapturous applause from his peers Cooke sensei was defeated. The bouncy marsupial then took up the banana with due gusto but I wasnt just going to accept a beating from my own banana. As I ran around the classroom hiding behind desks this haagen dazs fuelled infant pursued me seemingly energised by the immense volume of his own screams.

There are moments teaching as an ALT that you really wonder if you're having an impact. When yet another class of bizarrely world weary 15 year olds greets your every english sentence with confused glances to their friends, when your role in a classroom is reduced to little more than a human tape recorder, it can be difficult. Every now and again though, I see some real progress that I know I was responsible for, and that makes it worthwhile.

And when you hear 40 laughing children as a screaming 8 year old pursues you armed with an inflatable banana, you know your life went seriously right somewhere.

Oh no, my cola!

The brief I am given to teach varies hugely from school to school. At my main primary school I'm given lesson plans and teaching materials, all very easy. At my other primary school I feel my main duty is to entertain, so as to maybe engender an enthusiasm for learning english when they start lessons at Junior High School.

At my Junior High School I am teaching from an arguably unfit for purpose textbook. Take this dialogue for instance, and try to work out what specific target language it's trying to teach.

Let's have lunch.
All right.
Oh no, my cola! I don't have any tissues. Do you have any?
No, but I have a handkerchief. Here, use this.

Believe it or not the students are actually supposed to grasp from this duologue a decent concept of 'let's...' (followed by the verb). Absolute joke.

Having said that if they go to an english speaking country and they have lunch and their cola falls over and they don't have any tissues but they're with a friend and the friend has a handkerchief, they will know EXACTLY what to say.

Basically my main message here would be next time you see a Japanese person having a picnic, run over and push their drink over. Watch in wonder as education becomes relevant. They'll thank you for it.

Stay Phragrant.

Snow #1

2 weeks since the last update! A travesty for which I can only apologise.

Firstly I would like to express my love for a machine that has made my introduction to an akitan winter much more comfortable. My kerosene heater is possibly the sexiest machine on the planet.

Winter in akita arrived very suddenly. From a comfortable 10 degrees two days later I could see my own breath as I lay in bed, trying to guess the exact time of night my nipples would just give up and fall off. However I still have nipples, and after a bit of kerosene magic my bedroom reaches a temperature that could reasonably be described as 'RIGHT TOASTEH'.

There are issues with the whole carbon monoxide poisoning thing. That would be bad. But a life without nipples? Too horrible to contemplate? I'll leave you with that quandry brog readers.

Stay Phabulous.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


This is a japanese custom whereby if you go somewhere, if just for the weekend, it is polite to return bearing gifts of small overwrapped snacks for your colleagues. I have so far chowed down gratefully on seaweed, all types of bizarre biscuits that all seem to taste like bad fish, and an infite amount of cakes filled with a sweet 'red bean paste'. Admittedly the snacks are not usually suited to my western palate, but I do believe this to be a good tradition. To ingratiate myself with the staff upon arrival I presented each with some shortbread from tesco. I have definitely received more than I have given, and this kindness and altruism can only ever be a good thing. Equally it's quite nice to know that despite their being many teachers here who I have not had a conversation with, we have at least exchanged gifts.

But seriously why on earth did the japanese teacher sat across from me just give me a tissue and a sugarlump.

Now I'm going to put you in the moment with what a commentary of the event. Imagine this done with a John Motson voice, or alternatively subsitute your own favourite sports commentators voice into this monologue:

Commentator: Well here comes the omiyage, and oh here's a turn up for the books, it's a tissue and a sugarlump! Now it's early stages but with this surprise offering this surely means the form books been thrown out the window! Obviously the young foreigner is all smiles but could the sugarlump and tissue approach exploit his lack of first team experience? Well he's going for the tentative first bite, now this is where the game is won and lost and oh he looks to be handling the sugar pretty well! No facial expression as yet but as we know it's a game of two halves. Now this is just astonishing from the youngster, he's now eating the entire sugarlump and can he... yes, there's the grateful smile! And the japanese teacher walks away satisfied! That has to be a textbook example of how to deal with strange omiyage, and a fine example to youngsters looking to get involved in English teaching in Japan!

Just marking a students paper, they're learning the word 'who' so have to describe people for others to guess 'who is he/she?'. One girl has just written 'She is my friend. She is short. She is a monkey.' Quite refreshing after all the other ones were about everyones favourite baseball player. She gets an A.

Phollow their example and phurnish your phriends with giphts! Later Phil phans.


There's something about snow that's just good. I could wax lyrical about the beauty of a frozen landscape, the aesthetic magic of turning an ugly town beautiful with a blanket of pristine whiteness. I also acknowledge that it can be a right pain in the arse, as anyone who saw me 'driving' to work this morning would testify. It's just so much fun though! You can't make footprints in sunshine, or throw rainballs, or make fogmen. Snow angels yes. Sand Angels and you'd be finding grit in orifices for weeks. And as a self confessed fan of grit free orifices, that's bad.

This was the sight that greeted me as I looked out my window this morning:

There's something that the 8 year old phil inside me finds irresistably exciting about waking up to a snow covered landscape. And given that my inner 8 year old is responsible for most of my decisions, 22 year old phil got excited too. I can't help grinning like an idiot when I see snow. I need to buy wellies. Even at school I was still happily gazing out the window as the snow blanketed the valley.

Having said that, maybe a winter in akita will dampen my enthusiasm. It's cold. Very cold. And my apartment is somehow colder than outside. Honest.

Basically for all their technological advancements the japanese on the whole have not yet grasped the concept of insulation in their houses. I'm 90% sure my walls are made of a combination of plywood and rice cakes. As such I have been getting into bed with my enormous winter coat on, then waiting til my bodyheat warms the duvet up before disrobing. Tonight I will purchase kerosene for my two kerosene heaters, and if I die of carbon monoxide poisoning, I'm really sorry but it was proper nippy!

This is rephrigerated phil signing ophph! More news as it happens.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


It was a day like any other. I showered, shaved, put on a suit and was looking my usual fabulous self. There could be no way I could anticipate the HORROR that lay before me. As I drove to work, past paddy fields and temples, I should have felt the clammy hand of fate on my shoulder. For this was to be the day I accidentally flushed my sock down a toilet.

I had just finished teaching year 2, and basically this had involved a lot of making funny faces to amuse 7 year olds and persuade them that counting to 10 in english was in fact a really good idea, and that we can't spend every lesson doing a conga behind cooke sensei (although that was one of the funniest 10 minutes of my life). Naturally upon leaving the classroom I had to high five or shake hands with every student, and being hugged by 12 japanese 7 year olds is just one of those things that cooke sensei has to deal with.

But after the controlled anarchy of the classroom, I felt a need. I could attempt some beautiful turn of phrase to sum up this need, some clever metaphor like 'i was totally prarie dogging' but basically I just really needed a poo.

And yet time was short. This would have to be a shit and run operation. I had forgotten my indoor shoes that day, so was scuttling around school wearing slippers that kept falling off due to them being tiny with no back to them. My scuttling led me succesfully from the staffroom and towards the toilets, whereupon I encountered my first obstacle. No lights, just a dark room lit by one solitary small window at the far side of the room. And it got worse, as the door of the toilet cubicle swung open to reveal a Japanese squat toilet. Checking the other cubicles, I knew this was a neccessary evil I must survive.

I shut the cubicle door, immersing myself in a disorientating darkness. To speed the process up I took one leg out of my trousers, swung my trousers round, took aim and fired. For a debut performance my aim was pretty good, and all in all I was feeling justifiably pleased with myself, so I stood up, zipped up and cast a glance at the floor for my now curiously absent right sock. Maybe 5 seconds passed before the horrible realisation hit me. I had flushed my sock down the toilet in a fit of premature pride.

The ensuing walk of shame was like no other. I have struggled to communicate many messages to colleagues with no English. A few examples would be 'what time is school lunch', 'do I have to come to school for the festival' or even just expressing thanks for a cup of green tea. But I never thought I'd have to explain 'the reason I'm only wearing one sock is because I flushed the other one down the toilet, duh!'. Checked the phrasebook, wasnt there, obviously I bought a substandard phrasebook. After my intial attempts at explaining the situation in Japanese fell on deaf ears, I had to communicate the story through the medium of MIME.

The staff gazed quizically upon the strange foreign man who was squatting with a slightly pained look on his face and pointing manically at his foot. And then it dawned. And I think it was possibly the funniest thing they had ever heard in the history of everything.

Hopephully there'll be no more phunny phil and phaeces adphentures but brog readers will be the phirst to know!

School Festivals, Engrish Crub, and 'Phil Cooke and The Pickpockets'

Cuddly trees. 5 foot wide drums. Pikachu. Weird blue cat things that I'm told is called 'Doraemon'. Cross dressing. Me.

Just some of the weird and wonderful things in attendance at both school festivals I was fortunate enough to witness in the last month!

The Junior High School festival was a strange affair. Big Taiko drums I expected, and given the amount of practise that had been going on in the previous weeks, a confident performance by the brass band was always on the cards.

When I came back in the afternoon however and walked in to see a 3rd year student in his baseball kit pretending to pitch into the crowd, I knew it was about to get weird. 15 minutes later, when the whole crowd was shouting at him and he was STILL just pretending to pitch, my suspicions were confirmed. Then came MC Pikachu accompanied by a weird dancing blue cat thing. Then a girl did a dance, and a boy wearing a girl's uniform attempted to copy it REALLY badly. And then at the end there were girls in the crowd crying. I left thoroughly bewildered and in need of a beer.

The primary school festival was slightly less bizarre, and frankly TEEMED with quality given that I was the headline act. It also included a production from my English Club of Hansel and Gretel! As announced at the beginning, written and directed by Mr Cooke. Can't help but think that the Grimm Brothers might deserve a bit more credit but there you go. Anyway their performance was nothing short of MAGNIFICENT, and naturally a video recording has been sent for consideration at next year's academy awards.

This is the bear and the lion, and obviously they are the bear and the lion that were in the original book and not at all just put it in to make sure all the kids had something to say.

Futa and Mayuko aka Hansel and Gretel! Note the empty fridge, nice touch. Although don't know why the Hansel costume involved a baseball cap. Have to say I was really proud of these kids when they were up there performing, I've definitely got more of an idea why people would want to teach in primary schools now. Naturally after that the main event followed, with a stirring rendition of 'norman the lonely bird' and an unncessarily long guitar solo from yours truly.

Never have I performed with a manlier background.

Incidentally pictured is my new Les Paul guitar! And here is my awesome band in full flow!

Working titles include 'Phil Cooke and The Pickpockets', 'The Papples' and 'Foreign Rock Band'.


Phor Phurther musical Ophpherings look out for a Phoreign Rock Band coming to a school phestival near you! Later Phil phans

Phil does culture. Cos I iz sofistikated innit.

During my English Club at my primary school 2 weeks ago I was invited by the 'tea ceremony club', to join a tea ceremony! Hooray. Phil does culture and he doesn't have to go to any effort to find it. This is my kind of travelling. First picture above is the girls (I think they were years 4 and 5 in british equivalent) being taught how to mix the tea by an old lady in a kimono. Next we were given little sweets to munch (picture blow). Naturally I ate the sweets in the wrong order and got laughed at. I mean I wouldn't laugh at someone for eating custard creams without dunking them in tea! I'd hate them on the inside though.

Next a bit of the ol' bowing! I think this was ami serving my tea, friendly year 5 girl. Note my knelt down position. This is called sitting in 'seiza', and it bloody hurts if you do it for 15 minutes non stop! As such I couldn't really bow properly cos I'd fall over and get laughed at even more.

Tea drinking time! After having the tea presented to me I had to pick it up with my right hand, hold it in my left, turn the cup twice anti clockwise then drink all the tea in three swigs, then put the cup down, twisting once with your right in a clockwise direction after you've finished. Then I had to rub my belly and pat my head and balance a spoon on my nose while humming the match of the day theme tune. Well ok I didn't really have to do that last bit. But seriously, how much easier is it just to have a cuppa with a hobnob! Tastier too.

After all that pomp and ceremony (15 minutes to drink three swigs of tea ffs) I was finally allowed to stop kneeling! I tried to stand up, then realised given blood flow issues that this might be a bit ambitious. So I settled for writhing in pain on the floor.

So there you have it people, Phil does culture. Verdict? A painful and inefficient way to drink a small amount of rather odd tasting tea. Still, would recommend it to anyone, I had fun and the kids seemed to like me taking part. Interestingly this episode did somewhat highlight the size difference between me and Japanese women.

Sometimes I really do feel like fkin Gulliver.

More of Phil's Phlummoxing Phorays into Japanese culture to phollow!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Nihon no Tabemono (or in Engrish, Japanese Food)

Now it would be safe to say that Japanese food is enjoying a somewhat fashionable status in the UK. You can buy sushi at tesco, cities as uncivilised as LEEDS boast eateries selling fine sashimi and teppanyaki restaurants are sprouting up all over the place.However, as a fully fledged card holding resident of these strange islands, I believe myself better qualified to comment on japanese food than anyone who has ever chowed down the polonium 210 at a london sushi restaurant.

Ramen is a dish of noodles served in broth, topped with meat and vegetables. Originally a chinese dish, it has been adopted heavily within Japan. The modern dish eaten across these islands however, is quintessentially Japanese, particularly the miso ramen of Hokkaido. Best ramen in Honjo is obtained via the medium of 'eeny meeny miney mo'. This is due to the system of ordering food involves pushing a button on a vending machine to get a ticket. These buttons are covered in squiggles which I'm told is writing. So push a random squiggle, get a bowl of derishus ramen! Sorted.
Phil's Judgement: DERISHUS

Tempura is deep fried anything. Originally a portuguese dish, introduced in the sixteenth century seafood and vegetable tempura are the most common. And dipped in soy sauce and maybe with a little bit of wasabi, it can be safely described as 'oishii'.
Phil's Judgement: DERISHUS

Japanese Curry is usually thicker and sweeter than its Indian counterpart, and is always a safe bet. Introduced to Japan by the British East India Company it is seen as a western dish, although rarely comes with the spice one might anticipate encoutering in the curry houses of Rusholme. My favourite culinary discovery since arrival on this island is in fact Cheeseburger Curry, which is basically curry with a hamburger thrown on the top and then covered liberally in cheese. Awesome.
Phil's Judgement: DERISHUS

Sushi is raw fish.


Raw fish, honestly. And they don't have beans on toast, worcestershire sauce, or bacon butties. Savages.


More of phil's phoodie phortunes later!

Monday, November 5, 2007

My Primary Schools: Yuri and Yashima

In comparison with my Junior High School, these are a totally different kettle of fish. In fact they’re so far apart I’d say they were a different kettle of camels. First the basics:

Yuri Primary is the sole feeder school to Yuri Junior High School, and is in the same part of Yuri, about 10 minutes walk away. The building is only 4 years old, and as such the school is equipped with all the modern conveniences one could possibly desire, including heated toilet seats! delightful.

Yashima Primary is the main primary school in the larger town of Yashima, a 35 minute drive from my apartment into the mountainous countryside of Akita. Yuri Primary, (which is a specialist English school) has students and teachers with a much better grasp of English than at Yashima, however this does mean I feel I am contributing more at this school than I could do at Yuri. Yashima was the location for ‘the sock story’, hereafter known as ‘sockgate’, which I feel deserves a blog entry of its own.

Teaching in primary schools could not be more different from the quiet blank faces that oft gaze up at me from the desks of Yuri Junior High. As I walk into the school I am typically greeted with whispers of ‘cooke sensei *insert Japanese jibberish* cooke sensei’ and then a brave/over confident child will shout a loud ‘GOOD MORNING’ that would probably be audible in Pyongyang. As I leave classrooms it is not uncommon for group hugs of 12 japanese 8 year olds to occur with me at the centre, and it is obviously compulsory for me to high five/shake the hand of every student before I dare return to the staffroom. At Yashima I have grown accustomed to rapturous applause upon entering a room, or at the very least gasps of delight. Damn right. I am Cooke Sensei, thy lord and master. Students will learn to say ‘Come on Man City’, or surely they will perish by my hand.

More ediphying updates will be phorthcoming phil phans!

Yuri Junior High School

This is my base school. I spend most of my week pottering around within these walls making myself look busy. My first lessons with every class were ‘self introduction classes’, where the students guessed from multiple choice on a powerpoint presentation as to whether I'm from Richmond or Birmingham, whether my favourite sport is football or croquet, and if my father is Sean Connery or Sven Goran Eriksson.

The language barrier (between me and the rest of the school, bar the two English teachers) can at times be akin to the Berlin wall, and like the Berlin wall, it is best brought down by slapstick comedy and funny voices. These students, particularly the older ones, are fairly typical of Japanese schools in that they are the quietest teenagers in the history of civilisation. To British teachers reading this, it might sound like heaven, but at times I may as well be teaching the present continuous tense to 30 comatose hedgehogs.

That said, there are enough characters amongst the younger years to make some lessons very entertaining, particularly when I’m given a bit of flexibility to teach British culture. The fact that most students now believe the British National Sport is Cheese Rolling and that every man in Scotland has a legal obligation to wear a kilt on Thursdays can only be for the best.

Still to come: primary schools, ‘the sock story’, and songs about floating faeces!

Phor phil news phlashes pheel phree to email!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

FESTIVAL! gozaimas

Up until now my entries have been a day by day account of my first four days in Japan. If I were to continue this trend there would be some fairly dull days where Phil sat around in his pants for most of the day eating biscuits and then watched a man city game streamed over the internet. Thankfully however after three months I can still count such days on one hand. There’s always something to do, somewhere that needs exploring, a party or a festival that requires an added dose of vitamin Phil.

In my first month I attended 3 utterly amazing festivals. In all three cases I felt that had I been on holiday or even backpacking around Japan would not have rewarded me with the same depth of cultural immersion. The first was Zao Rock, a rock festival near Zao Onsen, a famous hot spring and ski resort in Yamagata, a 3 hour drive from Honjo. I spent the weekend camping and being the king of the Japanese moshpit, at one point I was walking round with a random Japanese man on my shoulders. And they had kebabs! Derishus.

Secondly me and the Honjo MASSIVE ventured east to take in the national fireworks competition at omagari. 750,000 people had come from all over Japan to watch stuff explode. And explode it did. In fact I got so wrapped up in the whole event that I purchased a strange round firework for £40, and a smaller one for £10, and then a bag of them for £15. I love explosions me. Kaboom.

Exhibit 3 is a trip to Kakunodate, a historic samurai town just over an hour from Honjo. This is where I really began to appreciate just how lucky I was to be on the JET programme. I pitched up at about 5pm, and my friend (the local ALT) Maggie gave me a Hanten, a jacket uniform that each member of each different neighbourhood in Kakunodate wore.

Each neighbourhood was towing a wooden float around the streets of the town, using ropes and pulling in unison to move what must have weighed several tons. As I arrived in the jacket of this neighbourhood a man wearing the same came up to me and said ‘HELLO! I am Jari! Have beer!’ whereupon a beer was thrown to me out of the cooler being pushed behind the float.

I was invited to help pull the float round town, and set about doing exactly that. I had drinking contests with the other lads pulling the floats, I nearly got crushed when one of the floats crashed into ours, everyone kept plying me with free beer, chicken and sake, and eventually we parked the float at 4am and stayed up drinking beer with locals until 5. I’ve never been made to feel so welcome as an outsider participating in a native tradition. I love this country.

Stay tuned phor more news phrom the phar east phil phanatics!

First Night: Izikaya, beer, and sushi

The first night me and my fellow ALTS (assistant language teachers; there are six in my town) attended a welcome reception at the izakaya. Izikayas are like Japanese pubs, with some differences. In groups larger than a few people you are generally shown to your own private room, which will typically have low tables and tatami mats on the floor to sit cross legged on, and you either press a buzzer or shout ‘sumimasen’ to gain attention of the staff, who will typically provide you various delicious (in Japanese, derishus) beverages. Which is just fabulous.

On our first night our employers provided us with as much beer and weird Japanese food as we could consume. Which was a lot. Well a lot of beer anyway, I wasn’t so keen on the prawn heads and I’m sorry but plums were never made to be pickled. Still there was something that resembled pizza, and I tried raw fish. It tasted like fish that hadn’t been cooked. True story.

Free food and drink! I like this Japan place. They always said that first night away from global tokyo, where you lie down in your new bed 6000 miles from home, in a country where you don’t speak the language, and when you know you’re stuck there for a year, can be very tough. And yes, I was expecting it to be, you can’t just emigrate with no teething problems or a bit of homesickness.

That first night I got back to my apartment, I lay down on my bed, and smiled. The biggest grin you can imagine. I was 6000 miles away from home, I didn’t speak a word of the language, and I was stuck here for a year. Awesome.

The End of the Road: Tokyo to Honjo

The day after my night in the British Embassy I awoke minus both 3 hours memory and one eminently stylish manbag. I had acquired an enormous jug with “BIG” written on it though, so all’s well that ends well.

I moseyed down to the foyer to get on the coach to narita airport, whereupon I boarded a flight to the prefecture of Japan I would be calling home for at least a year, Akita. As I walked through the arrivals gate I was greeted by the sight of a middle aged Japanese man waving a sign saying ‘Mr Cooke Philip’ and jumping up and down energetically. This was Kinouchi, my supervisor, and he seemed a thoroughly friendly chap.

The drive to Honjo, my new town, took 45 minutes driving through mountains covered in cedar, paddy fields that spread endlessly across the valley floors. Now for all tokyo was amazing, it was still a global city with plenty of English, and no one would think to stare at you. This last leg of the journey, to a small nondescript seaside town where road signs are written in weird squiggles and the mcdonalds serves octopus burgers, this was what I really came here for.

The first sign that we had entered Honjo was a sign that read ‘We love Honjo, Joy and Joy’. Good start.

More Phil Phun to Phollow!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The British Embassy and other peculiar events

The second time I woke up in japan I was feeling rather unintelligent due to the imbibing of vast quantities of low quality beer, but regardless, I ventured down to the 5th floor to enjoy an exquisite breakfast of chips, ham and grapefruit juice, then chose which workshops we wanted to go to. In the end we ended up sat at the back of a fairly tedious lecture on lesson planning giggling whenever one of us said “tittybar”. Yup, classy English gents abroad. We also did a sketch about gay men seducing each other in a bar to teach how to tell the time in English. It was deemed humourous, but ill advised.

After marching around the hotel and the workshops accusing every other countries participants of being ‘damnable colonials’ (which they were, apart from Lyle the american who gets an exemption for knowing what the word 'cunt' was in japanese), it was time for a bit of good old British hospitality at the Embassy. The embassy compound was huge, must be worth millions in central Tokyo. However compared to the hospitality the Japanese Embassy in London gave us (sushi and as much champagne as you can drink) the British Embassy was rubbish! We strolled in, they gave us CANS OF HEINEKEN and served us trays of onion rings and fishfingers with a big bowl of ketchup in the middle. Rest assured your taxes are not being spent frivolously here! Would it have been that hard to at least provide us with some newcastle brown ale? Where were the gravy drinking contests, burberry clad scallies and morris dancers?

Phil was pheelin phairly phurious at this point phil phans!

Next: Honjo

P.S Cunt = Manko (the gospel according to Lyle)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


After the initial mirth created by an overly aggressive toilet, we set out on our first night in Tokyo.

We found a restaurant and I had ‘sea urchin in a wooden box’. My god it was utterly disgusting. We had warm sake, pointed at pictures and said ‘gozaimas’ to get food, and our heroic linguistic efforts were rewarded with karaoke and all you can drink for 3 hours for £8. Maybe these prices aren’t designed for English consumption. But success! We had found food drink and entertainment.

The next day I walked to the main ballroom in a manner which can best be described as 'meandering'. Then came the speeches. And more speeches. Then in Japanese. Then in English. And on and on and on and on.

Then it finished! Right, more high quality boozing to do now. We ventured out into the streets of Tokyo once more, and dazzled by the bright lights we could think of no better way to pick a restaurant than go with the prettiest Japanese woman who asked us to enter her eatery. Not a euphemism.

I didn’t go for the sea urchin in a box this time, but instead went for deep fried chicken gristle. Results were disappointing.

After eating we took the opportunity to look around a bit more, trying to find a bar maybe. At one point I looked at the entrance to a building with no obvious sign as to what it was, and a scary old woman shouted at me ‘NO SEX! ONLY MASSAGE!’ Have to say I didn’t think I looked like a sex tourist, but there you have it.

Next we found a place called ‘BATTLE ARENA’ with lots of flashing lights and noise so logically had to go inside. After playing mariokart in an arcade for half an hour and spending about £50 trying to get a snoopy doll on a grabbing machine, we hit a whisky bar, and the evening descended into a tribute to decadent revelry as the Great British 'cultural ambassadors' continued to offend most americans we came in contact with. Her majesty would have been proud.

In the next instalment, the cultural ambassadors visit the British Embassy! What delights wait in store...

Pharewell phor now phervent phil phans!

19 Aske Avenue to Tokyo, and the greatest invention in the history of everything

First, an apology. I have spent 3 months in Japan at the time of writing, and my endeavourings to create a blog have only now born fruit, due to what you might call laziness. That and I've been having far too much fun. Last night we played with guns!

However I believe this chronicle should cater for the chronologically conscious (nice alliteration there), and as such this entry will concern my initial sojourn into the fine nation of Japan.

I woke up early on the morning of August 4th, ate what I now know would be my last bacon butty in years, and after hugging goodbyes to my brother, my sister, and the guinea pigs, I got in the car and set off on the 6 hour drive to Heathrow with my mum and dad. We listened to BBC Radio 5 on the way down. We stopped for a coffee at leicester services. We ate pizza in the terminal. God it was all so normal. Apart from the fact that when I hugged my mum and dad and said goodbye it would be a bloody long time before I could do that again. I'm not a man afraid of emotion, and will happily admit to the tears that trickled down my cheek that day.

I don't think anything could ever match how I felt as England disappeared beneath the clouds. Exhileration, trepidation, every emotion under the sun coursing through my veins. Up until now this whole adventure had been held in a few lecture theatres in east london, an interview in an embassy near harrods, and giggling at the rude words in a japanese phrasebook. 24 hours after hugging my brother and sister goodbye, as the skyscrapers of tokyo filled every field of vision, everything became a lot more real. Home comforts, friends, family, my every day routine, it all disappeared in one 10 hour flight. And my god it was awesome.

As we entered the 5 star hotel (god bless the japanese taxpayer) we found our room, and upon entering found the coolest thing in the history of the world ever.

There are numerous inventions, theories, that can all lay a reasonable claim to being the most impressive of our species' creations. Fire, the wheel, electricity, have all helped to make the human race a more prosperous society. However the true champion of human ingenuity does not reside within the intellects of Newton, Einstein or Da Vinci. It resides inside the brain of whichever GENIUS thought of making a toilet with a bidet SO powerful it could squirt a jet of water out of a hotel bathroom and into a wardrobe 8 yards away!

Seriously, how have we survived without toilets with buttons at the side that do stuff. First thing we did when we got into the room was start pressing buttons on the toilet and giggling like schoolgirls. Oh yes, truly, we were cultural ambassadors of Her Majesty. Mum and dad would've been proud.

Keep readin phil phollowers! More tokyo adventures to follow!

Philster out.

Herro Cooke Sensai!

Ok first entry. I am finally responding to the CLAMOUR OF THE MASSES and writing a blog. This is the first attempt at a blog that I hope will be remembered in the history of literature as the worthy peer of the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Tom Clancy. 3 months ago I emigrated to Japan, and now live in a small town on the Sea of Japan, in the rural north of these peculiar islands.

This blog (or in japanese, brog) will provide readers with a window into Japanese culture that will serve to illuminate a country and a culture that I can best describe as a bit odd. For instance, they don't have beans on toast. Savages. These are the kinds of insightful and pertinent observations that I hope will help in my wider aim of forging better understanding between nations, and will eventually THRUST the readership of this blog into double figures.

Right lesson time, nearly time for me to do what I can best describe as SOME SUPER AWESOME MEGA HAPPY EDUCATING.

So for now farewell. Coming up next, phil will tell a funny story about me, my sock, and a japanese toilet.

Later Phil Phans.