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.