Thursday, November 20, 2008


Winter arrived today. As usual this was announced with the whole of Akita turning white overnight. And in an equally predictable fashion, my reaction was akin to that of a particularly excitable puppy being thrown the squeakiest of all the colourful toys in the pet shop. My Junior High School kids, retaining a consistently cynical teenage attitude, seemed somewhat bemused by the huge grin on my face as I crunched fresh footsteps through the first snowfall of the winter. The next day however, my Primary School students seemed simply delighted that Mr Cooke had had the good sense to get into the playground 5 minutes before they did to start making a snowman. They were equally delighted when Mr Cooke threw the first snowball, which seemed to justify a snowball fight of me vs 50 seven year olds. There was only ever going to be one winner there.

I did have some help though. An utterly adorable 6 year old girl chose to fight on the side of the underdog, helping me by supplying me with snowball ammunition to hurl at her aggressing classmates. Unfortunately she took an average of 5 minutes sculpting each snowball into a perfect sphere, before reaching up to hand it to me with an adorably high pitched “here you are Mr Cooke”. I almost felt guilty throwing such an immaculate snowball, but her happy chuckle indicated she approved when the snowball found its target, as she then patiently set about sourcing the perfect snow for her next flawless snow missile. However given the sodden state of my clothing whilst teaching in third period, I think it is safe to say that the seven year olds were victorious.

As I write this I have just finished my school lunch, and can see the hordes massing outside the staffroom, dressing themselves in their battle uniforms of wooly hats and gloves, with coats thick enough to absorb any snowball impact. I shall face them on the playground battlefield, armed with nought but snowballs and a cute little girl (who I may use as a human shield this time).

Let Battle Commence.


I really need something a bit more waterproof. That was a whitewash of epic proportions, during which both my dignity and my hat was taken from me. Admittedly the hat was a loaned contribution to a snowman, so I did get that back, but my dignity is now officially the property of Class 1A at Yashima Primary School.

After the Yukigassen (snowball fight) we made a snowman the size of a small house, and I lifted small children up to decorate the head. Then a little girl decided the best place to launch a snowball fight from was the top of Mr Cooke’s head, so she promptly climbed on and ordered me to supply her with snowballs to hurl at her friends.

I honestly don’t remember if I ever had this much fun at breaktime when I was little. Maybe at that age you can’t fully appreciate it, but playing for half an hour in the snow, chucking snowballs and making snowmen, is still my overly childish idea of perfection.

Life is so much fun.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


If the reaction of the world media to recent events is an accurate measure of public opinion, then right now we are the happiest species to roam this planet since the dinosaurs discovered recreational roaring and/or ping pong. The reason behind this happiness? A very nice man from America who now has the fabulously quinsyllabic title of President Elect.

I would love to share with you tales of my unbridled joy at this result, but the internet is already awash with millions of these happy anecdotes, so I thought I'd use the medium of this hard hitting blog to voice some pessimism and cynicism that most columnists in major newspapers have found so hard to come by in the last week. Maybe it's that I just enjoy complaining. Maybe I've been made too cynical in my short years to recognise immense positive change when it happens. Maybe I'm just a contrary bastard who enjoys disagreeing with everyone else. Regardless, here are some of the reasons why this change may not be all it's cracked up to be.

I'm not denying that Obama was the best candidate; the spectre of another republican administration was an utterly terrifying one, and he has the potential to be a great president. However there are many factors that lead me to believe this result is nothing more than a small step in the right direction. Obama believes in the death penalty, and showed himself willing on certain issues to opt for a more electable centrist viewpoint (offshore drilling, anti terror surveillance legislation). He could be a breath of fresh air if he chooses to use the power that the democrat majority could now wield to implement genuine change, but if he panders to the right (as he showed at least signs of doing in the above examples) then could be just as big a let down as New Labour in 1997.

The election of Obama is potentially a fantastic thing, and will inevitably be an improvement on the Bush years. That said, I can't help but think that a lot of the jubilation surrounding this is as a result of the election of the first black president of the USA, which (while obviously a hugely important milestone), won't have any bearing on policy in the next four years. There is also the "anyone but Bush" factor; getting rid of that unpopular fellow was always going to be a moment of unbridled joy, and after the neoliberal economic model failed quite spectacularly during the last months of the election campaign, a republican victory was always very unlikely. The oncoming recession essentially equates to the failure of republican economic policy, more than it demonstrates the merits of the democrats economic policy. This is a good example of how it may not be merely the election of Obama that is creating this relentless tide of optimism, more the election of the candidate that was furthest from the Bush regime. Cynical, maybe, but it's sensible to be wary that this euphoria and hope may be based on less substance than the headlines suggest.

He's going to have the longest honeymoon period of any president in recent times, I just hope he uses it to implement radical change rather than petering out with a series of centrist compromises. I'd love to be proved wrong, but I suspect the latter may be the case.

And they say it's a tough time to be a pessimist! Take THAT optimism!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

World Championships in Yurihonjo

During the week of October 5th to October 11th, Yurihonjo played host to a sporting world championships. For those of you with some comprehension of the size and utter irrelevance of this inconsequential municipality, hearing this news for the first time must be fairly mindblowing. Treat yourself to a bit of a sit down if you need one. Make a cup of tea, and maybe try to guess the sport which will be awarding its ultimate honour in the Yurihonjo Gym this Saturday. Guessed?


It’s the 9th Women’s Roller Hockey World Championships! That’s right, if you like athletic women wearing shoes with wheels, wielding big sticks and sometimes shouting a bit, then right now, Yurihonjo is Mecca.

If I’m honest, (which I am), I was not overly excited by the prospect of the world championships of women’s roller hockey coming to a town near me. A sport I’d never heard of, played by a gender that had never truly accepted me as one of them, did not do much to kindle my interest. That said, the entertainment options in Honjo consist of A) drinking, B) getting naked at the onsen, and C) getting drunk and licking the school secretary on the cheek; so having explored all those avenues, a trip to see some world class women’s roller hockey was in order!

This was a somewhat surreal experience. Diverging slightly, in previous entries I may have touched on the fact that being a foreigner in Japan does get you noticed somewhat, particularly in the rural backwaters that constitute my prefecture. Children may scream and run away terrified, or stroll confidently up to you and shout “HELLO” as loud as they can. Adults will often stare entirely brazenly with a confused look on their face while I pick up fruit and veg at the supermarket, as if I was a well trained monkey doing an impressively accurate impression of a real person. There is however a very strange moment when, as a foreigner living in Japan, you realise that you are just as guilty of “gaijin spotting” as the locals. “Another foreigner, a foreigner I don’t know, in MY town?? えええええええええ???? What travesty of nature is this??”

The roller hockey world championships were therefore a very strange taste of a multicultural world that had never before been visited upon Yurihonjo. 12 different countries from 5 different continents were represented, and we joined fans (unless Japan were playing this was mostly the friends and families) in the stands on most days of the competition. Japanese sporting crowds are very different from British ones, electing for repetitively chanting “Nihon! Nihon!” as opposed to baiting the Portuguese team with shouts of “who the fucking hell are you?!” I assume most of the crowd mirrored the attitude of my former headteacher towards me singing God Save The Queen at the top of my voice, as he asked in a concerned voice “are you drunk?”

My expectations were low but I have to say roller hockey is actually an excellent sport! Fast paced, violent enough to give even the odd dull game a touch of spice, and a good game is always gripping. It helped of course that during the course of the week I alleviated Owen’s wallet of 2500 yen due to the famous Irish trait of being rubbish at predicting women’s roller hockey results. During the course of the tournament the main points of interest were as follows. The sexiest ladies were the Portugal Number 8 and the Spanish number 7, The best legs on display were the fine efforts of the South African and Macau team, while the award for most needlessly tight uniforms (an award crucial at any women’s sporting event) goes to Chile!! Chauvinism aside, an inexperienced English team finished a respectable 8th, with Spain coming back from a goal down against Portugal in the final to claim a deserved victory, and crucially lift yet another 1000 yen note from Owen’s pocket. Victory is so sweet.

Get in my belleh!

Before I begin I’d like to apologise for what is a slightly self indulgent blog entry, one definitely written more for my benefit than to entertain and inform an audience.

Rotund individual. Stout gentleman. Corpulent fellow. I prefer the last one, but whichever way you look at it, these words basically mean ‘fat fuck’. And unfortunately, all of these descriptions apply in some regard to my current physique.

Japan is not a great country to suffer from ‘metabo’ (as obesity has been cheerfully termed in recent years on this strange island). Aside from cultural differences between Japan and Britain, there are genetic differences that mean those of Caucasian persuasion will be predisposed to putting on weight with greater ease than our Japanese brethren. This may be proffered as an excuse by fat gaijin, but in multicultural areas of Britain doctors surgeries will often feature charts depicting what waist sizes can be indicative of a health risk for different ethnic groups, so these differences are there. The amount of prodding my increasingly substantial belly receives from cheeky students is frankly irritating, and while it should be water off a duck’s back in reality it is exceptionally annoying, and if I‘m honest rather humiliating.

I may be wrong in asserting this (please feel free to correct me), but as an indicator of how important staying thin is in Japan, this semantic nuance seems appropriate. The Japanese language uses the same word for “slim” and “smart”, thereby implying that if one is not slim that would automatically disqualify you from being smart. I’m possibly reading a bit too much into semantics here, but the fetishising of slenderness in Japan is I would contest more prevalent than in western (certainly Anglophone) culture. This is purely anecdotal evidence, but during one primary school class, while I was asking a fairly big lad to repeat the word hungry, the rest of the class started laughing, and then unbelievably, the teacher stepped in, rubbed the student’s belly and said ‘yes! he is very hungry!’. The fact that this would appear to be acceptable says a lot about the attitude towards obesity in Japan.

In Britain (and I would suggest many other western countries) Japanese cuisine is held in extraordinarily high esteem as supremely healthy fare. This is often the case, sushi being wonderfully healthy food, and an onigiri or two for lunch certainly beats a greasy Cornish pasty from Greggs. Equally though, a chicken sandwich on granary bread is much healthier than tonkatsu curry, and a bowl of ramen noodles is as laden with carbohydrates as it is with pure unadulterated deliciousness. So while Japanese food CAN be extremely healthy, it can equally be exceptionally bad for you, just like British cuisine. The problem arises in that the healthy foods I enjoy in Britain are not as freely (or as economically) available in Japan. Fruit and Veg add yen I can ill afford to the cost of creating a meal, and meats available in supermarkets are rarely the lean relatively fatless cuts I buy in England. This and my typical fat man’s lack of self discipline has led me to pile on the pounds in Japan. I’ve gone from a very physically active job back home to 14 months of sitting behind a desk for most of the day, with most of the local healthy food being beyond the comprehension of my uncivilised Yorkshire palette.

This situation needs remedying, and it shall be done. I have given myself the deadline of the Christmas holidays to get myself healthy again and have given up alcohol until then. I am also taking up running again, with the ultimate goal of running in next year’s Great North Run (a half marathon race in Newcastle for non British readers). Additionally, for all I may complain, there are enough healthy meal options in my local supermarket to keep up a healthy diet (albeit not one strewn with variety). A rice ball and some vegetable juice for breakfast is the value breakfast of champions, I can live on that! School lunch normally consists of seaweed with rice and a side of extra seaweed with seaweed milkshake and some chocolate coated seaweed for dessert; while rarely threatening the realms of deliciousness, it cannot be said to be unhealthy. And then pasta/stir fry/egg on toast for dinner! Sorted.

And so into the breach of vegetables and exercise I go! Wish me luck world!

I thought I’d let readers know, the above was written a week ago, whereupon I have been resolutely keeping to the diet described above. And results have been instantaneous! Before I reveal the facts and figures, I should tell you that the results are more likely the result of the change from just how completely obscene my diet was beforehand, rather than me consuming anorexic amounts of sustenance. From eating a reasonably healthy 2000 calories a day diet, I have in a week lost nine pounds! 4kg for metric readers! This has to be placed in the context of my initial weigh in being straight after a hefty meal and the comparison being made with me on an empty stomach, but its definitely working!

More news as phil unfats himself to come!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Battle of Yotei

The title of this blog entry caused me some concern. The Scaling of Mount Yotei is probably a more technically accurate description of events, but it lacks oomph. And oomph is required. The Conquering of Mount Yotei has a nice ring to it, and is not entirely devoid of oomph, but it leaves room in one’s mind to imagine a walkover. While we did actually walk all over the mountain, these words do not lend the appropriate tone of gravitas to this Herculean feat. This was a Battle.

We had been in Hokkaido for 2 days, just into the third week of the holiday. The weather forecast dictated that if we wanted a sunny day’s climbing, we would have to sacrifice the watching of some high quality Olympic Badminton, and get out of bed at a fiendishly early 5:30am. The ascent began at 7am, through dense forest at the foot of the volcano. Within an hour we had realised just how different this was to anything we had climbed before. Climbing in the glaciated scenery of the British Isles often involves long flat sections, scenic stops by corrie lakes for a picnic, and generally a reasonably well maintained path beneath your feet. Climbing a composite cone volcano involves PAIN. The gradient is relentless, and due to the dense vegetation covering the volcano to within a hundred yards of the crater the views which can often give one a motivating indicator of progress are frustratingly absent.

Hour after hour this continued. Every step onward, upward, and pushing every muscle out of its comfort zone. The pain started to run up the backs of my legs, and as the summit came closer the shoulder straps on my rucksack seemed to dig deeper. Three quarters of the way up my lungs decided that I was clearly mocking them by putting them through this, and took their revenge by lazily switching to half capacity. We had to take more breaks as the thinner air struggled to fuel our muscles, but every time we sat down it became that much harder to rise to our feet and continue the ascent.

The hiking map in Niseko had indicated it would be sensible to allow 4 hours to reach the summit. 7 hours later three shattered foreigners stumbled around the volcano’s crater rim, desperately asking passers by in distinctly garbled Japanese ‘most high is where?’ The pain numbed by the closeness of our goal, we saw a post just one hundred metres away, marking the summit of this colossal feat of nature. The final ascent up a few jagged rocks was blissfully pain free, and on reaching the top, for a few sweet moments the sense of achievement washed away every bit of pain.

On most mountains I have climbed, the sense of achievement is primarily in reaching the top. There is the view, the sense of being on top of everything, and the sense that the difficult bit is over. In the case of Mount Yotei, it was just the beginning.

The descent of Yotei burned the energy from every muscle that had retained the temerity to keep functioning. The path was rocky, at times dangerously steep, and with drops that occasionally necessitated swinging off tree branches to fling oneself to the lower part of the path. Time was catching up with us, and as we left the summit we knew that if we took more than a few minutes break on the way down we’d be risking finishing the walk in pitch blackness. We just kept walking, glancing at our watches as muscles gave way with loose rocks beneath our feet, stumbling occasionally, conversation limited to what was aerobically feasible.

The path became clearer as we came within two hours of the finish line, with even the occasional flat section, greeted by sarcastic cheering from three very weary walkers. At the approach to the summit the proximity of our goal had numbed the pain, but there was to be no such respite now. We began to recognise parts of the walk where (during the ascent) pain had been completely absent, but now markers that had seemed separated by mere minutes on the ascent felt like hours apart.

Everything was hurting. Lunch and regular water stops meant our bags now weighed less, but as the pain increased it felt like body parts (that were once part of the effort) had given up, and were now heavy passengers carried along by legs that just wanted it to stop. My dad slipped on a loose rock, injuring his leg, just before the forest floor flattened out. This last leg was the most interminable. With every bend in the path we expected the gate marking the finish line to hove into view. The gate resolutely refused to appear, and as my legs buckled I stumbled, not from some loose rock, but from the impossible task I was asking of my leg muscles. It took a genuine effort of concentration to keep them working, as force of will, rather than mere chemical energy, kept me putting one foot in front of another.

Minutes after sunset, the gate appeared, fifty yards ahead, and wanting to finish with style, I sprinted those last few painful metres. A time zone away, 100m runners were preparing for the Olympics 100m final. My final flourish probably looked more like a very slow pained jog, but in my head I was bursting through the tape like Linford Christie.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

My Summer Holiday, by Philip Cooke (23), Part Two: Kyoto

Japan is not filled with beautiful cities. In fact, the identikit nature of the larger towns and smaller cities can be downright depressing. Obviously the same charge could easily be levelled at the other strange island I call home, and maybe it is just my familiarity with Britain that stops this sameness becoming grinding, but there is something indescribably dismal about the homogenous parts of Japanese towns.

Obviously, just like England, charms unique to each area can usually be found with sufficient endeavour. However, the heritage and character of comparable areas of Britain always seems to be more immediately obvious. Maybe it’s the longer lasting building materials used in Britain, or the amount of bombing raids suffered in Japan during WWII. Maybe my thinking this says more about the shallowness of my immersion in Japanese culture than I would like. But the fact remains I struggle to discern the unique traits of small cities like Akita, Aomori or Yamagata. These places are worth visiting, but often only for the festivals that define these areas, rather than any uniqueness inherent in their ambience.

Kyoto, a surprisingly small city, stands out a mile in this regard. It is easy to descend into clichés when describing the way a bicycle tour round Kyoto can reveal new delights round every corner, or to invent new and silly words to depict just how amazingly shrinetastic this place is. But trust me, just round the corner those delights are there, and the shrineyness of the shrines is certainly shrinetastic. I would also proffer Shrinemazing in this description, or possibly Templiffic. In the immortal words of Bill and Ted, it was most tranquil.

The best way to see this beautiful city is definitely by bike. Even in late July, when the weather is thigh chaffingly hot, a pootle around the enjoyably flat roads of Kyoto on a two wheeled steed is certainly the best way to go. I won’t go into the tedious specifics of me and my brother pedalling through kyoto, but there really is a WOW moment around every corner, and more shrines and temples than you could shake a stick at unless you shook that stick with a dangerous amount of vigour and pointed it at a lot of shrines and temples. We saw geishas in Gion and turtles at Kiyomizu Dera. I also had a fairly (i.e. very) stupid moment when near an enormous Buddha statue I wanted to get a closer sniff of the incense stick I was holding. One very burnt nostril and two watering eyes later I told my brother of my mistake (which anyone could have made). Naturally he was an unsympathetic little bastard.

Fushimi Inari Shrine is probably my favourite piece of traditional Japan. A tunnel of orange torii gates stretching through the mountainside forest for a 2 hour walk, and while we there, a temporary water slide induced by a thunderstorm louder than Armageddon (assuming the apocalypse will be really rather noisy). The torii gate tunnel is I believe the only one of it’s kind, and while kyoto’s pagodas and temples are fantastic, Fushimi Inari is the one thing that makes it a must see.

There’s also a must eat place in Kyoto, but this has more to do with the insistence of the owner that you MUST eat as opposed to the merits of the food. After having a ramen restaurant recommended to us by the hostel staff we strode confidently in and were instantly told the word PORK in a loud insistent voice by the good lady who was so evidently running this establishment. The words ‘menu’ and ‘miso ramen’ were met simply with a slightly louder shouting of the word PORK, until eventually we decided that having the pork was probably the best option. We assumed that this was standard treatment for tourists, that to prevent any linguistic barrier foreigners would just be shouted at until they agreed to eat whatever was put in front of them. Then we realised that to her credit this woman was actually just shouting the word PORK at customers indiscriminately, and some admittedly less startled locals were perfectly happy to acquiesce.

There are also MONKEYS. Monkeys make a fine addition to any holiday. Actually monkeys make a fine addition to almost anything, but especially holidays. The monkeys of Kyoto can be found in the hills of Arashiyama, and are best described as ape like. Incidentally these monkeys can easily become aggressive, so customers are warned not to look them in the eye. Having made that mistake once, the resultant tense face off showed that this is in fact very good advice. Monkeys do tend to augment the awesomeness of Holidays, but I bet en masse they could do someone a fair injury. That said, ‘I went to Kyoto and fought a monkey’ would be a good story to tell the grandchildren… maybe next time. And for the record, I could totally beat that monkey in a fight. I just didn’t wanna.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Summer Holiday, by Philip Cooke (23), Part One: Sumo

Sporting arenas are strange places.

I watched the final day of The Ashes test match at Old Trafford, Manchester, and saw some of the most amazing cricket that ground had ever witnessed. The wall of noise created to intimidate the Australian batsmen was something I have never seen replicated, as the alcohol fuelled crowd sought to contribute everything they could towards an England victory. 20,000 people, mere spectators, but entirely convinced that if they shouted loud enough, Aussie wickets would tumble. Call it mass delusion, but it creates a sense of togetherness that not much else can acheive.

While on holiday in Croatia I watched Hajduk Split play a Champions League fixture against Debrecen of Hungary. The match was nothing to write home about, Split were awful, but once again the aura of the place made it something to behold. That aura was largely created by the home fans willingness to set fire to their own stadium midway through the first half. Arson does tend to add a bit of spice to an atmosphere. The reaction of the fans who realised the stadium was on fire behind them was almost as incredible as the initial wilful act of destruction. They just picked up their stuff, moved 5 rows away from the fire and carried on watching the game. They then warmed their hands on the fire at half time. Oh those wacky Croatians.

These two would probably be the highlights of the sporting events at which I have been an enthralled spectator. However the "tingle factor" of walking into Maine Road (the old Manchester City stadium for global readers) was something else. The sense of unity, of pride in your heritage, the colour, the noise, the pies, all of it comes together in a spine tingling moment even before you reach your seat. And then the game: that single moment of unadulterated ecstasy as the ball hits the back of the net. Every weekend this is felt by millions around the globe, no matter if it's Chelsea or Chesterfield, no matter how many people are watching, when the ball hits the back of the net, you go absolutely bonkers.

All of this creates what I thought, for me at least, would be the only sporting arena that could give me goosebumps as I enter.

July 26th, 2008: I'd spent the day visiting the various charms of Nagoya with my family. These were two in number, no more, no less: the fabulously grand Nagoya castle, and a fertility shrine, WHICH HAD LOTS OF WOODEN PENISES EVERYWHERE AND IT WAS DEAD FUNNY COS WILLY'S ARE FUNNY HAHAHAHA.

My reaction at the time was certainly around that level of maturity. But hey, it was a big wooden dick. And there were lots of them, even one with enormous stone testicles. I challenge anyone not to at least raise the tiniest of smirks, possibly with a "huh huh, penis. huh huh" under their breath. For 400 yen you could buy a tiny wooden penis to write a prayer on, and in inspecting those that had already been hung up around the shrine we found a wooden penis that said in big, confident writing: "HELLO TO ALL MY FRIENDS ON MYSPACE.COM!!!!" Quite.

After the hilarity of the penis shrine we visited the rebuilt Nagoya castle, which, (although perhaps losing something in charm due to its status as essentially a purpose built museum) was still a mightily impressive feature of the Nagoyan skyline.

After lunch we made our way to the Aichi Prefectural Gym, the venue for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. The crowds were thronging in the way that only crowds do (if you can think of anything else that throngs, and does it well, please tell me), and after a spot of deliberation we made our way round to the entrance. I was excited, of course I was. I had watched these enormous tributes to what man can acheive (if man eats a dangerous quantity of noodles and beer) wrestling each other on television for the best part of a year.

We picked up the fight schedule list for the day and moseyed round the concourse trying to find the right entrance to the arena. We climbed the stairs, and it hit me. The colour, the noise. The ornate roof above a clay mound in the centre, and in the middle of that mound, the wrestlers. All eyes focused on these two men mountains. I've watched a crowd applaud Tiger Woods at St Andrews, I've seen Ronaldinho enrapt a stadium with a stepover, but I've never seen two people dominate a place like the two men in the centre of the arena.

The ceremony of sumo had always bored me rigid while watching it on television, but seeing it in context it makes a lot more sense. There is an innate elegance to the performance that at times is more like watching a bizarre ballet. Infact the flexibility levels demonstrated by some of these 26 stone men were truly astounding. One lower division wrestler lifted his leg above his head to such a degree that he was essentially doing the splits whilst stood up. Salt flew, slaps echoed around the arena and the audience gazed in rapt wonder at the gladitorial contests within the ring.

Ultimately, it was the simplicity of the sport that made it such an amazing spectacle. Two men, despite an arguably comical appearance often mocked in western culture, with their bodies perfectly honed for the job ahead. Fighting machines to entertain a crowd, a theme arising continually through sport since the days of Rome's colloseum. So wonderfully primitive, and yet with a level of sophistication in the ceremony to make the air tingle before each fight.

At the end Hakuho saw off the challenge of Kotooshu, and despite a yokozuna victory, purple cushions were hurled into the air by people who had paid good money to hurl those cushions. The good news for those reading this in Britain is that in October 2009 professional sumo is coming to london! I'll be there! Fighto!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

You're going to get full marks on your WHAT?!

Japanese people say the darndest things. This we know to be true, because somewhere on the internet it says so. However, the darndiosity of their comments does seem in direct positive correlation to how much English is used.

I have recently given all my students projects, whereby they must give me some form of creative writing every week. These are just some of the sentences my students have created this week:

Year 8 boy: 'I like MANCHESTER CITY, but I don't like MANCHESTER UNITED. I like ELANO, but I don't like Cristiano RONALDO. See you Mr Philip.'

Best student, total genius that boy. I'm teaching them well!

Year 8 boy: 'I am Taku. Not ken. Now I am ken. Hello everyone.'

Hello Ken. It continues.

'I play guitar. I want new Taku. Specimen!'

Ken, Taku, whoever you are, sort yourself out.

Year 8 girl: 'This is my friend Yui. PRETTY PRETTY. Shi is BEAUTIFUL. Shi is best best best! friend!'

awwwwwwww. Although she has previously claimed 'my best friend is angry lion', so don't know if she can be trusted.

All stirling entries.


Year 9 boy (English Diary): Wednesday: teste! I'm going to get full marks on my testes.

I shouldn't really laugh though. I once (by accident) told a pretty japanese girl she had a big penis, and have on more than one occasion gone up to the counter of the supermarket and said 'I don't need an owl'. oops

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Tohoku Cricket Cup Final

Victories in amateur team sports are a beautiful thing. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re playing, or even if you’ve got any talent for it. The only thing that matters is that you care, ideally too much, and have a ruthless competitive streak in you that means if you lose you will genuinely break down in tears and cry like a little girl.

At the start of the day our team celebrated getting one wicket like we had just won the World Cup, the Champions League, the Superbowl, and become President of the United States, all in one sweet second. We didn’t expect anything from the tournament, in fact we thoroughly expected to be the team everyone beat and we’d have a bloody good laugh doing it. But now we were in the final, one win away from being champions of Tohoku, and my god it mattered.

Once again Akita lost the toss but this time Morioka decided to bat first. As the field were set Akita we were a confident team, a 100% record as a team giving them a confident assuredness that victory was within their grasp. After a tight first over from Thomson the Morioka star batsman started cutting loose, with runs coming thick and fast in the second over. Thankfully this cameo was shortened by the pace of Mandal, as the batsman mistimed a shot and Eiji caught a high ball near the boundary. The next over from Cooke saw just 2 runs from the over and a run out thanks to superb fielding from Tatsuya.

With both dangerous opening batsmen gone Cunningham and Eiji both claimed scalps in the middle order, and while scoring remained steady for Morioka, the consistently fast and accurate bowling from the Akitan men saw the rate of scoring restricted. Yoko's slower paced unconvential technique was impossible for the Moriokan batsmen to live with, and as the wickets tumbled so their desperation increased.

The efforts of Jeff Nadeau, fielding close to the batsmen, in distracting the Moriokans with constant taunting, were superb, and he can indeed claim credit for at least one wicket, by timing to perfection the sentence ‘do you know what sport I love? Monster Trucks!’ He also said something rather distasteful regarding a female deer and his genitals, the cad.

3 overs from the end Cooke put behind him some erratic bowling earlier in the day to post a double wicket maiden over. With Morioka reduced to their last wicket only 5 runs were scored of the last two overs, and the Akita bowlers had given their batsmen a fighting chance with a target of 54 to reach.

The Akita assault on this total did not start well. A lightning quick bowler took the wickets of both Cunningham and Thomson in quick succession, with Cooke following in the next over. With one run scored of a target of 54, Akita had lost nearly half their batsmen. Morioka were now definite favourites, as the whole of Akita Cricket Club gathered by the boundary to watch proceedings.

Some superb attacking strokes from Hui meant he quickly reached 20 runs (at which point a batsmen is forced to retire). After Hui had forced retirement Akita were still well short of the required total, as Ebdon, Eiji and Tatsuya all tried to steady the ship with limited success, and ultimately it was down to Hui to return to the pitch to partner Mandal with one wicket remaining. No chances for error. One slip up, one slightly mishit shot and it was all over. It needed two clear heads in the middle, and with the free hitting Hui and the assured Mandal, Akita had the batsmen who could hit the required runs. With sixes and fours flying off Hui’s bat, and Mandal’s composure serving him well as he clipped balls away to similar effect. Akita had one wicket remaining with 23 runs to score. Slowly this was wittled down, until a wide ball from the Morioka bowling attack ran behind the wicketkeeper for four runs, and Akita needed three runs to win the tournament and claim the Tohoku trophy. As a ball slipped down Mandal’s leg side, the slightest clip with the bat saw it sail towards the boundary for four runs.

The team flooded the pitch, the tension replaced by sheer ecstasy as Mandal ran off celebrating. A huge inflatable banana was brought out to join in the celebrations as the beer flowed, and the trophy was presented to a jubilant captain Cooke.

Akita Cricket Club, the team who had practised with rubbish bins and tennis balls, watched only by confused eight year olds and their even more confused tiny rabbits, were champions of Tohoku. And my god it felt good.

For those interested in playing for Akita Cricket Club we're trying to arrange a friendly in July, and will defend the Tohoku Cup in the second tournament of the year in September.

An apology, pastries and Cricket

This blog needs kickstarting. I am going to do this by not being so damn fussy about what I put in. There’ll be short entries, longer ones, toilet humour and recycled jokes about raw fish, all peppered with the fevered diatribes of a man who has to live in a culture without sausage rolls. Throughout history the most entertaining rants have all been produced by people suffering from a pastry deficiency, you only have to ask me and I will confirm this to you by saying yes. I’ll email Greggs tonight to enquire about the possibility of opening a new branch in rural Japan.

My life has generally been a respectably successful combination of happy accidents. These words can also now apply to Akita Cricket Club. Allow me to tell you in an unnecessarily long winded and overtly self aggrandising fashion, the story of Akita Cricket Club.

It began, as all tales of sporting rags to riches do, with a bin. A rubbish bin with a blue lid. Armed with this bin, 3 tennis balls, and a pair of irish hurling sticks, Akita Cricket Club took to their Honjo training camp amid much confusion from locals. Our members were an international mix of misfits, and given the amount of tennis balls that either went sailing over the batsman’s head or failed to reach the batsman at all, our chances did not look good for the tournament.

We did however reach out to the local community, with a very enthusiastic gaggle of 8 year old girls joining in at one of our practises. It is testament to our incompetence that having watched us for 45 minutes, they didn’t realise we were aiming for the wicket.

And so to Sendai! After 6 weeks of a gruelling training schedule of little girls bringing their inexplicably tiny rabbits to watch us hurling tennis balls at each others heads, 4 cars left Akita on Saturday 24th of May. These cars took with them the hopes and dreams of an entire prefecture, all resting on the shoulders of 11 daring sportsmen (and women). In the run up to the tournament Akita had suffered a blow to the strength of the team, as opening batsman Jon Hui suffered an ankle injury, and we realised his partner Owen Cunningham was Irish and therefore shit. But we ploughed on regardless, past the endless rice fields of Akita, to the bright lights of Sendai.

The day before the game was marked with most of the team being shown a cricket bat for the first time. An important milestone in the history of any cricket club. A booze filled practise session in central Sendai was hastily arranged, with a plethora of dropped catches due to fielders having one hand occupied with beer.

A chance to know thine enemy followed, an all you can drink party with the other teams. The teams from Sendai and Morioka, along with a mix of cricket enthusiasts from around the region making up the Tohoku team, all seemed very friendly and blissfully unaware of the TONKING they were about to receive. The night was punctuated with a visit to Lawson and McDonalds, and for some reason I thought it a good idea to tell some Japanese girls that Jeff has a big penis. Shitsureshimashita.

I awoke on match day with a craving for hash browns, and after I had stepped over the vomit of our opening Bowler, breakfast was consumed with much talk of what the winning formula for today might be. Having spent six weeks practising with the wrong equipment and doing it badly, the odds were not good, but spirit in the camp remained high.

Leaving the hotel to find a ground in the tree covered hills around Sendai was done with relative ease, and as we inspected a rain sodden pitch we prepared mentally for Akita Cricket Club’s first ever game, against a Tohoku Select VIII.

Losing the toss Akita were put into bat, and after respectable knocks from Jon Hui (19) Owen Cunningham (11) and captain Philip Cooke (10), Akita posted a score of 58/5 on an unpredictable pitch. Whether this would prove enough against a Tohoku side that were very much an unknown quantity was in doubt, but as early as the second over Akita Cricket Club took their first wicket thanks to a direct at a run out, a sharp piece of fielding from Cooke. The wickets continued to tumble as the Akita bowlers used their pace and accuracy to torment the Tohoku team, and when their best batsmen was bowled by a mean piece of medium pace accuracy from David Ebdon, the game was up. Akita saw the ten overs out with some tight bowling from Yoko Ihara and Scotsman David Thomson, who appeared to have recovered from the earlier vomiting incideint. Tohoku eventually finished on 28/6, and at no point looked like threatening Akitan supremacy. The team who had practised by throwing tennis balls at a rubbish bin for six weeks had their first win under their belt.

Confidence growing, their next opponents were the more than able Sendai, who boasted players who had represented University teams around the world. Now I can’t actually claim to have been present at this game, my cricket knowledge being required to umpire the Morioka vs Tohoku clash happening on the other pitch. However I can say that on a much better pitch consistently tight bowling from vice captain Tapo Mandal as well as Cunningham and Thomson kept a talented Sendai side restricted to 53 runs. The batting exhibition that followed was a masterclass in aggressive cricket shots, with Cunningham and Hui running riot with some of the tournament’s best batting. Both rattled off a lightning fast 20 runs before tournament rules forced them to retire. Thomson and the surprisingly old Tatsuya then saw the game home with calm collected batting performances. The game was won by 7 wickets with 4 overs remaining, and amazingly with Morioka triumphing against Tohoku, a place in the final was now assured.

The next match against Morioka was very much a friendly, a precursor for the fireworks to follow in the final itself. Nevertheless after once more being put into bat, the Akita team set about the Morioka bowlers with sadistic intent. Yoko Ihara and Amelie Girard opened the batting for Akita on this occasion, and were unlucky to be dismissed as they were getting into a rhythm. With the cavalry called for, Thomson and Hui set about dispatching the ball to all corners of the ground with an obvious contempt for the bowlers’ efforts. Morioka opened with weaker batsmen playing defensive strokes, and did not score quickly enough to be competitive with Akita’s total of 78/6. However there were warning signs when Morioka’s better batsmen came out towards the end of the game and started hitting huge shots over the boundary ropes. Ultimately an easy 30 run victory for Akita, but we knew the final would be a whole new, if slightly similar, ball game.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Niseko, Part 2

Now because Trish and numerous others been whining at me I have decided to furnish loyal brog readers with further readings in reference to my sojourn to the wintry wastes of Hokkaido. We left Sapporo in the gaijinmobile, and ploughed on through the slush of the Sapporovian suburbs into the mountains on the way to Niseko. As light snow began to fall and we headed further into the mountains, the trees that covered the volcanic scenery became a pristine white. Beautiful, but not really that different from Akita.

However, the road to Niseko had a definite moment where the curtains are pulled back and Hokkaido says ‘daa daa!’ After driving through a long tunnel for quite some time, the exit came into view, and we were immersed in a total and absolute white landscape. Given that the dominant feature of stunning landscapes is often colour, it is difficult to lend apt words to describe exactly why this whiteness was such a ‘wow’ moment. Imagine driving a car through Japan, entering a tunnel and emerging again in Narnia. Awesome.

Anyway after a bit of help from JPS (the Jeff Positioning System) and none from the GPS on my phone (which thought we were driving through the middle of a rice field) we successfully arrived in Niseko, which amazingly has a higher percentage of Australia born inhabitants than Sydney! Obviously that fact is entirely made up, but there could accurately described to be a metric fuckton of Aussies in this remarkably western town. Niseko is even spelt ニセコ in Japanese on road signs, using the Katakana alphabet principally reserved for foreign words.

The experience of being genuinely immersed in western culture in the middle of rural Japan was rather bizarre. In some ways this was fabulously liberating. I could get advice on buying a new snowboard in English, I could chat to strangers in bars in conversations not limited to ‘I am English Teacher. I like Japan. I do not like Natto’, and I could have beans on toast for breakfast. The latter was probably the greatest culinary sensation I’ve had since arriving in Japan. Another bonus of this Australian colony in Hokkaido was the preferential treatment we received from local Japanese people, purely through our ability to communicate in Japanese beyond please and thank you. Naturally I still went around butchering the language as I am wont, but the efforts were definitely more appreciated than they are in Akita.

No more so was this the case than on my third night, where, after struggling for a few days on sub standard equipment, I got on a chair lift with Yuka, a Japanese girl from Sapporo. On the way up we struck up conversation in Japanese, and after 5 minutes of exhausting every single phrase I knew in Japanese she started talking perfect English to me in a slight Australian accent. She had the ‘alroit moit’ down to a tee!

The following is one of the many reasons I love Japanese people. After seeing me struggle to get off the lift she asked if it was my first time, and told me that she was a snowboard instructor if I needed a lesson. She then spent 40 (FORTY!!) minutes helping me become what I can best describe as ‘slightly less shit’. Awesome.

So after this little victory snatched from the jaws of sporting incompetence it was time for New Years Eve! Usually the worst night out of most years, and while this was fun, it was nothing to write home about. Rob woke up lying naked in a pool of his own vomit in the toilets though, which as ways to welcome in 2008 is definitely up there.

Once I had become a bit more familiar with my board I came to realise that powdery days on the slopes at Niseko are the winter sports equivalent of rolling down Mount Everest in one of those big inflatable hamster ball thingies. Most fun ever. The feeling of snowboarding on powder snow is like surfing on a cloud, and when you’re doing this through thick trees, ducking branches and falling waist deep in the big fluffy stuff, it is one of the greatest sensations on earth. Although I really do want to roll down Everest in that hamster ball.

But Australia, like possessions, is fleeting, and since Japan is where my house is I decided to go back there. I snapped up £10 worth of tins of baked beans and the philmobile ventured forward into a much sunnier Hokkaido. The view of Yotei San, the friendly niseko volcano was fairly fantastic, but I’m typing this now with a view of my local friendly volcano out the window, and mine is totally better.

Next year I would definitely like to try to get to another big Japanese ski resort. The western nature of Niseko had its plus and minus points as regards the general experience, and for tourists looking for a Japanese experience there are resorts out there (Furano for example) which I am assured (by a friendly Belgian café owner) retain a much more Japanese ambience. However, when you’re waist deep in powder, feeling like you’re floating on clouds through trees, the fact that the onsen is full of drunken Australians doesn’t seem so bad.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

New Year in Australia: Part One

For those of you who may be labouring under the delusion that Australia is in fact solely in the southern hemisphere, allow me to introduce you to Australia’s one and only colony. That’s right, the colonies have started colionalising. Something very wrong about that. But for the sake of informing phil phans, your favourite blogista ventured into enemy territory armed only with his English accent and oodles of gentlemanly charm.

Our story starts one wintry morn in the industrial port of Akita City. I left Honjo at 3.30am, boarded the ferry and anxiously tapped away at my mobile for news of Manchester City’s fortunes against Blackburn Rovers. Blackburn scored a last minute equaliser to rob city of a crucial three points. Even from my vantage point aboard a Japanese ferry 6000 miles away I could tell the Blackburn goal was totally offside. Feeling justifiably hard done by I did my best to catch up on some sleep, failed and ventured outside to brave the sea air. 30 seconds later I returned inside with substantially bluer nipples, and spent the rest of the voyage watching 24 on my laptop in the warmth of a café serving karray raisu. Curreh to those wot know.

A largely uneventful crossing brought me to the port of Tomakomai, where a relatively stress free drive brought me to northern Japan’s biggest city, Sapporo. I needed directions to my hotel, so thought I’d try asking a friendly native. My first attempt at interaction with the locals was not altogether successful. Obviously the following dialogue was actually conducted in Japanese.

Me: Excuse me?

I don’t know exactly why she saw the need to run across the street to get away from me. I even dothed my cap to appear less threatening.

Thankfully the next person I asked was more helpful, and I found friends, food, and drink! Lots of drink. All you can drink for £7 in fact. My god that was dangerous. Drinking contests with barmaids ensued. Naturally I emerged victorious. These are very short sentences.

A friendly Kiwi who had lived in Sapporo for 4 years was our guide, taking us to a number of small friendly establishments that would have no doubt remained unseen by our gaijin tourist eyes. Naturally the red light district was part of the tour, and I have to say the brothels were remarkably well advertised. Zero subtlety in this, just a big poster of a girl with a price list. Also for a foreign customer it was 5000 yen more expensive! Naturally my outrage made me hungry, so I went to get some grilled chicken on a stick. Right tasty it was too.

My memory of the evening is patchy, and I woke up with a hangover that felt a bit like I had slept with a small elephant on my head. A morning stroll through Sapporo took us to an intriguing charming little local coffee shop called "Starbucks", where a ‘ratte’ and a muffin were consumed. Feeling suitably refreshed, me and my three travelling companions piled into my mazda with much excitement and indeed, plenty of ado.

Captain Cooke and the good ship mazda sailed on in search of this mysterious australian colony...

More news when I can be bothered!


Lawson is a Japanese institution. This is a doubly impressive achievement given it is actually unpronounceable to Japanese people. Essentially these are small identikit shops found on national roads selling most things a reasonable size newsagent would back home. They sell a variety of “food” and a vast selection of equally edible cartoon pornography. And today I made a discovery in my local Lawson that will both shock and amaze. Lawson has started selling…

Wait for it…

Strawberries and whipped cream SANDWICHES.

Tokyo may have the most Michelin starred restaurants of any city in the world, but this single discovery entirely negates all that good work, proving once and for all that the Japanese should not be allowed kitchens. I now intend to apply for the job of school chef, and provide these children with a hearty diet of Lancashire hotpot, bangers and mash, toad in the hole, with fish and chips on Fridays.

And if I mess things up I can just rustle up a tuna and jelly sundae which I fully expect them to chow down gratefully.

Edit: also who the fuck is buying those cherry blossom flavoured kitkats???