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!