Monday, June 29, 2009

Mount Chokai

Yesterday I climbed Mount Chokai! Note enormousness, although there wasn't quite that much snow up there yesterday.

The enormous volcano that I can see from my desk at work everyday has now finally been conquered! I have to say I was rather chuffed with myself, though rather annoyed that despite liberally applying 2 coats of factor 30 suncream and most of the day being spent under cloud, I managed to become entirely strawberrified. Which hurts.

Anyway the best part of the climb was the part of the descent in this video! Enjoy!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Flags, Smurfs, and Worldy Revelations

“Kukku Sensei, Jaaji wa takusu heben desu ne. Gyunyu oishii!”

For readers who ne parlez pas japonnais, the above roughly translates as “so Mr Cooke, Jersey is a tax haven huh? But the milk’s good!”. This is one of the more obscure cultural observations my colleagues have made. Some revelations regarding foreign culture hit home with great aplomb amongst students and teachers alike, as seemingly the most interesting thing they have ever learnt. Others which I have assumed will promote great interest have been met with zero enthusiasm.

It’s difficult to judge what aspects of my worldly knowledge to impart in order to elicit the best response. Last year I had a friend visit who was hugely into Japanese popular culture; she loved anime and manga, had a huge knowledge of all things “nippon a la mode”, had even organised Japanese cultural expositions in London. She had more in common with my students than I ever will, and yet my typically teenage students were totally unmoved by her tales of cosplay and knowledge of manga, anime and Studio Ghibli films. She showed pictures of herself dressed as various cartoon characters that the students knew, and yet bizarrely this failed to get any reaction. This is something of a stereotype, but Japanese fads or culture being exported abroad and being approved of by a global public is normally something of interest to the Japanese. And yet my students were bored rigid. (No offence Jessie, I found it interesting!)

Today I was teaching “names of countries” to students one year younger than those who had remained so indifferent to my friend’s tales of Japaneseness abroad. I was explaining to the students the definition of “United Kingdom” To aid in this tale I drew the flags of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I then explained that if you put all these flags together, a union flag appears! What happened next was, if you’ll pardon my french, un petit peu ****ing weird.

As enlightenment spread across their faces, as they realised that the Union flag was three flags in one, their jaws slowly dropped. There were gasps of astonishment, excited yelps and cries of delight, and then a student at the back rose to his feet and began to clap. Soon his friends followed his example, rising to their feet in spontaneous applause, the sheer wonder of three flags combined as one overwhelming them, as within 20 seconds 38 students were on their feet, hands clasping and unclasping rapidly in rapturous applause, some with jaws locked open in awestruck amazement. Twas almost enough to make a bitter expat feel rather patriotic.


Or were they taking the piss? You decide.

Also if those bitter xenophobes in the SNP get their way and Scotland gains complete independence from Westminster, will the blue part of the union jack remain? Colours are a very significant part of the British flag; “there ain’t no black in the union jack” was a famous slogan of the racist national front. Remove the blue in the union jack and we all know what will happen. WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE SMURFS?! It’s up to you Scotland. I’ll be smurfing angry if it happens.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It begins again...

A New School Year! And once more the strange large foreign man with the orange hair is sentenced to sitting at his desk for a month with (if you'll pardon my french) sweet fuck tous to do. The main points of interest for any budding JET surrounding the month of April are as follows:

1. You will have even less than usual to do. Occupying your time effectively is vital for one's sanity, and as such I would recommend either getting really good at online computer games (I've scored 556 on this!!) or applying your imagination to more relevant world problems. You may have heard that the Japanese navy was recently deployed to the seas neighbouring my prefecture to defend Japan by shooting down any debris/rockets from the North Korean "satellite launch". What actually happened was they realised I wasn't doing anything at work, so they sent me down to the beach with a tennis ball and a good throwing arm, and let's just say that the next day I had a slightly sore arm but you may have noticed World War III did not happen. You're all welcome.

2. Whilst having very little to do, it is very easy to miss the various end of year/start of year ceremonies at which your attendance is most certainly required. Be careful with dress code in this case; I was surprised with the timing of one such ceremony, and in front of 150 uniformed students, with some female teachers in kimonos and male teachers in their smartest suits, I somewhat stood out from the crowd in my eyecatching combo of adidas tracksuit trousers and ketchup stained Manchester City shirt.

3. One of the more unusual aspects of the Japanese education system takes place in April, whereby around a third of the school staff will be sent to different schools in the district, the idea being that teachers (over the length of their careers) will have a fair share of good/bad schools, and that by chopping and changing on an annual basis students will have a fair share of good/bad teachers. On a more personal note, this educational merry go round means you can lose some of your best/friendliest colleagues (as happened to me in my first year here), or equally it can result in the pruning of individuals who you may think less of (as happened this year, RESULT!)

The various ceremonies surrounding the leaving of new teachers (the ceremony I was wearing a man city shirt at) the arrival of new teachers, and finally the arrival of new students, are the very height of tedium. Speeches in a language I don't understand, (and the bits I do understand seem to be 5 minute discussions about the weather) followed by lots of bowing, the singing of various anthems, bowing at local city officials on the way in and out, and trying not to fall asleep because snoring would look bad.

The one ceremony that is entirely worth attending is the Primary School "Entrance Ceremony" at which all the new six year old pupils are welcomed to their new life, with plenty of fuss and much ado. Now I don't want to get excessively girly about this, but this is simply the cutest ceremony in the history of civilisation. They're just so SMALL! And the boys wear suits and the girls wear dresses and they look like big people like OMG it's sooooooooooo cute!!!!

It won't last obviously. Children have a tendency to grow up, and 7 years from now the wonderfully energetic 6 and 7 year olds I have taught this year will be quiet teenagers desperate not to stand out from the group. Equally while the little suits and dresses were undoubtedly adorable, it was very strange as someone who has taught this age group for nearly 18 months, to see pupils this age so well mannered, so perfectly quiet and behaved. No doubt though within a few weeks, this shyness will be overcome, and Cooke Sensei will once again become the human climbing frame we all know and love, and the little boys in suits who were so well behaved in front of parents and other teachers, will be trying to stick their fingers up my bottom. The circle of life continues.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cracked Ribs and Friendly Nurses: Part Two

Before I begin I would like to offer readers the chance to reaquaint yourself with the story so far, scroll down the page for part one! Apologies if any of the below is inaccurate, the pain slightly clouds my memory of events.

And now, the saga continues...

...and starts to get a bit silly.

I arrived at the hospital hunched in the car, my screams echoing around the inside of the vehicle as my ribs seemed to crack with the slightest bump in the road. The car drew to a halt in the ambulance bay outside the hospital's emergency entrance, and a wheelchair was pushed to the side of the car. I exhaled to reduce the risk of another crack, got out of the car and screamed again as my chest crunched. I shuffled into the entrance out of the cold, the door closed behind me, and I was now in the hands of the Japanese public healthcare system.

Waiting in the A&E department I was confronted with two nurses sympathetic to my plight. Now I haven't trained as a Japanese nurse (chances are I never will), but I'm fairly sure they had at least one class a week in which a lecturer stood at the front of the class and said "awwwwwww" in a very sympathetic manner, then encouraged the class to do the same. The first 15 minutes of my treatment consisted of one nurse (Nurse #1) saying "awwwwww" at me every time I winced, groaned, or screamed in agony. The other nurse (Nurse #2) was clearly more qualified, having taken her "awwwww"ing to another level completely. Every time I screamed she would precisely mimic the rhythm and pitch of my screams, so the dialogue would go something like this:

Me: ARRRRGH aaaaa aa aaa fuck
Nurse: awwwwww aww aw aww awww!!!!
Nurse: awwww aww awww awwww!!!!
Nurse: aww aww awwwww aww awwwwww awww!

And so it continued for 15 minutes, me issuing bellows of fundamental agony, the nurse putting one hand on my shoulder and whimpering sympathetic echoes of every scream, my friends stifling giggles in the background.

Finally the doctor arrived, and the issue of pain relief could be addressed in a manner beyond soothing feminine whimpers. The nurse gestured a jabbing motion at her own bottom, which I assumed indicated a painkilling injection. There was nothing I wanted more, had I been physically able I would have bent over and proffered both cheeks for sweet sweet pain relief. After a brief discussion with the doctor a syringe was fetched, and pain relief was adminstered enthusiastically by Nurse #2, who then took a break from whimpering to massage my arse (supposedly with some cloth to stop the bleeding from the injection) for what seemed like an uneccessarily long amount of time. As this was happening the doctor told us we were waiting for the duty radiologist to come in, then while one nurse massaged my arse the other took over chief whimpering duties.

When the radiologist arrived I began a slow painful shuffle towards the x-ray room, escorted by Nurse#2, who by now had become hugely curious about what me and my friends were doing in Japan, gesturing towards me and asking Amelie "Is he your fiancé?". She was clearly impressed by my stoic attitude towards pain and was now after some phil loving. Not appropriate when I'm in crippling pain, but flattering nevertheless. After the x-ray I began one more shuffle back to A&E where despite my continued agony (the painkillers having had little to no effect) the conversation turned onto subjects that were more familiar. Owen's big foreign nose, my big foreign hair, and the shocking revelation that Alex was my little brother.

Nurse#2: But they can't be brothers, they have different hair colour!
Amelie: Yeh they're brothers, it's quite common for family members to have different coloured hair.
Nurse#2: eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee * takes deep breath* eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Cultural exchanges aside, there was still the minor issue of my unbearable agony. I was given tablets that had no effect, the injection had barely dulled the pain, and there was no way I could get to sleep in this level of agony.

Nurse#2 then took me towards the corner of the room, pulled the curtains round to give us some privacy, and started taking my trousers down. Given by this point I was fairly sure she had the hots for me, someone who is familiar with the basic tenets of pornography would have this story ending in only one way "Oh, I'll give you pain relief..." etc. Happily (because I have a girlfriend who I love very much and complains about not being mentioned in blogs, hello Rachel) this was not what the nurse had in mind.

She snapped on some white medical gloves and started opening a small packet with a torpedo shaped object inside. My friends had realised what was happening a long time ago, and at this point had hidden in the corridor and were laughing their sympathetic little heads off, proving once and for all that anal suppositories are the funniest pain relief treatment in the world. Seconds later I was bent over and very much not enjoying the intimate attentions of a nurse who at one point during her exploratory examination actually uttered the words "where is it?". I might be foreign but everything is still in a perfectly normal place thankyou very much! Instructions to "rerax" were not easy to follow as the ridiculousness of the situation took hold, and laughing with broken ribs whilst being violated by a japanese nurse is not an experience I can recommend.

There was however one more horror that awaited that evening, and amazingly it was not directed towards me. I was given a supply of painkillers, naturally in the form of anal suppositories. However with my lack of flexibility I would obviously not be able to take these drugs myself. The doctor turned to my little brother who bravely refused to show in his face the horror of the task which had just been assigned to him, and accepted a handful of disposable gloves with admirable indifference.

We were given a proper send off as the staff expressed amazement that foreigners would drive a Japanese car, the radiologist pointing out that "hey the one with the broken ribs has got a big nose too!" and inspecting the tyres of owen's car with great interest for no apparent reason.

For everyone else, this trip to the hospital was a hilarious diversion from the routine of daily life, but I'm in no hurry to do it again. I missed out on 2 snowboarding holidays and 6 weeks of boarding at my local slopes, and couldn't get out of bed unaided for a fortnight, but I hope readers will be pleased to know I am now nearly fully recovered. My little brother was also very pleased to know that the next morning I managed to take the painkiller myself, and as discussed in the Fire and Ice entry, the holiday was awesome.

Philster Out.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cracked Ribs and Friendly Nurses: Part One

I paused before the jump. I'd done it 20 times before, yet was still a relative novice at flinging myself into the air while strapped to my snowboard. I adjusted my helmet, jumped to my feet, and twisted to point my board down the hill. The floodlights beaming down on my last run of the night, the adrenaline and nerves beginning to coarse through my veins, I set the board flat upon the ice for maximum speed. I hit the base of the jump at pace, the board hurtling upwards with the slope of the jump, before the ground disappeared beneath me, and board and rider were flung into the night air one last time.

The board came back down onto the icy surface at an angle. I compensated, and pressed my heels into the back of the board, my board now perpendicular to the slope, my front facing downhill. I can't be 100% sure about what occurred next. Maybe I hit a lump of ice. Maybe my muscles gave way, and couldn't keep enough pressure on the back of the board. Whatever happened, the result was emphatic. My board flipped from heel-edge to toe-edge, and my body was hurled forward. My speed had not abated from the pace at which I hurled myself off the jump, and there was no time to get my arms out to break my fall. My face and chest bore the entire impact as my body smashed into the ice, the air instantly forced from my lungs as my body rolled, bounced and thudded to a halt.

I screamed, and yet remained completely silent. My lungs were empty, and yet I kept screaming, my face an expression of fundamental agony, but still no sound escaped. After what felt like an age (but was probably mere seconds) my lungs filled with air again, and my screams were audible to anyone within a 5000 mile radius. My face burnt as I looked around for red blood on white snow.

Surprisingly quickly, I stood upright again and boarded carefully to the bottom of the hill. I dismounted the board and took a few minutes to compose myself. I got into the car with surprising ease, and drove home, the pain easing the whole time. I stepped out of the car and there came a sickening crack from within my own chest. This time I had no problems in screaming at the top of my voice, though the scream just seemed to elongate the pain.

Now I am not a man with a high pain threshold. I will readily admit this. Pain is rubbish, and in my opinion best avoided. But seriously, compared to what I went through that night, childbirth is like a nice walk in the park with pretty flowers and a picnic then an ice cream with sprinkles.

Convinced for some reason that the hospital was not open until the following morning, I put my efforts into working up the courage to get into bed. Every step around the apartment was taken gingerly, as seemingly at random intervals my chest would crack, there would be another huge scream, and the pain would take longer to subside each time. I knew the biggest most painful crack would come if I tried to lie down, and using all my courage I whined that "I need f***ing painkillers right f***ing now!" A few phonecalls enquiring after suitable drugs resulted in the discovery that Honjo Hospital did actually have provision for an out of hours service, and as Amelie and Owen arrived I bravely took 20 minutes getting into the passenger seat of Owen's car. A few minutes of slow careful driving later, and the car drew up at Honjo Hospital. And that's when the fun really started!

Tune in next week to find out why you if a pretty nurse guides you behind a curtain and takes your trousers down, the events that follow might not be as fun as mainstream pornography would have you believe...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Getting Naked

Nudity is a weird and wonderful thing. It inspires all sorts of extreme reactions across different times and cultures, and is a prerequisite for some of the most enjoyable activities within the human sphere of experience. These activities include:

1) Skinny Dipping. An ideal summers day naked activity. Find an isolated swimming spot, disrobe and hurl your naked self into the water. Enjoy the liberating nudity, free yourself from the tyranny of the wardrobe, and yet retain the comforting knowledge that the opaque water is still concealing your love vegetables.

Is love vegetables a sufficiently all encompassing euphemism for both genders genitals? A quick google search leads me to believe that there are nowhere near enough funny slang words for the female pudendum. The penis on the other hand is bestowed with many more amusing titles. Another brief google search has yielded some fabulous phallonyms, including mister goodwrench, shvontz, giggle stick and johnny one eye the bald headed champ. But before this entry descends into a list of funny words that mean penis, here is the number two naked activity.

2) Streaking at sporting events. In contrast to skinny dipping, this is a far more public naked activity. Erica Roe is probably the most famous British example, a 40 inch bust exposed to 70,000 presumably appreciative rugby fans back in 1982. The famous traditional British policeman's hat could only conceal one of the offending missiles as she was escorted from the field. For those of you who might want to give this naked activity a try, I recommend streaking at a sporting event where you could claim to be the first to have done it. Streaking during a table tennis game would be a first, and exposing your bishop during a televised chess tournament would certainly get you noticed. Formula one motor racing would be another good one, dodging in and out of the cars as you complete a lap of the track, or maybe even doing some naked skateboarding-whilst-holding-onto-the-back-of-a-car, back to the future style. My first thought was snooker, but amazingly this has been done several times, most notably during the 2004 world championships final, when a disrobing man ran down the steps of the arena and then tried to hide naked under the snooker table. Hero.

Which brings us on to the all time favourite...

3) Sexual intercourse. My mum reads this blog (Hi mum!) so I won't write in too much detail about this most popular of all naked activities. Chances are if you're reading this you are on this earth because two people did some intimate squelching together, so given its propensity to sustain the human race, it is probably the best naked activity there is. It doubles up as good exercise and is all round jolly good fun, so feel free to find a consenting partner and canoodle away! Best done within the confines of a loving longterm relationship, please shag responsibly.

All fabulous activites, but after my weekend adventurings I would like to finish with number four, a naked activity only available in certain parts of Japan during certain parts of the year.

4) Outdoor Onsen in the snow. Onsens, for readers who don't know, are naturally heated hot springs, common in Japan due to volcanic activity. These hot springs are of course not unique to Japan, Thermae Bath Spa in England shows you don't even need a hugely volcanically active area for these phenomena to exist, but the Japanese way of bathing in these springs is very much unique. There are plenty of articles online about body-conscious westerners feeling hugely awkward about stepping naked into the communal baths, about being unsure of onsen etiquette (get naked, shower, get in the baths, really not that complicated). A small towel to cover one's giggle stick is an acceptable nod towards modesty, and one that I prefer to do without. After that it's just a matter of finding the best onsen for you.

In the hot humid japanese summer the charm of these places can be somewhat lacking, just another place to be uncomfortably sweaty. For me it is winter when the onsen comes into its own, particularly in the snowy climate of Northern Japan. On saturday I visited Tsuronoyu Onsen. Situated in the mountains above Lake Tazawa, this is a truly secluded location, the forest floor covered in 6 feet of snow in places. The snow falling gave the world outside the car a perfectly white, Narnia-esque appearance. Arriving at the onsen itself, it was clear this is a world away from a "regular" onsen experience. Thatched buildings line a narrow alley to the entrance to the baths, the water an amazing shade of light blue. A small wooden hut constitutes a changing room, and where normally modern onsen would have rows of plastic chairs and shower heads, there was a bar of soap and a single wooden tap. A brief scrub later and I gingerly stepped out of the changing rooms into the arctic conditions outside, quickly immersing myself in the warm blue water. A frankly obscene level of relaxation was soon forthcoming as I caught snowflakes in my mouth and gazed upon my surroundings, the snow falling softly on the forest floor, huge banks of snow built up at the side of the onsen, the occasional icy breeze making the water seem all that more welcoming, the soft rounded pebbles a comfortable cushion beneath me.

I was just in the middle of seeing how many pebbles I could fit in my belly button (this happens when you go to the onsen by yourself) when from a door nearby three young, attractive and entirely naked women walked out. I want to make it clear I hadn't "accidentally" stumbled into the women's baths, rather I hadn't realised this was actually a mixed onsen. Equally I would like to make it clear that I totally didn't look, because as well as my mum my girlfriend reads this blog. But the point remains: snow, hot springs, naked women, it is an intoxicating combination and definitely my naked activity of the week.

For those of you who were curious I managed to fit THREE pebbles into my bellybutton, and you can find a list of funny words that mean penis here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Oi San Nensei! Cheer the f*** up!

Yesterday was graduation day at my only Junior High School, Yuri JHS. Firstly I would like to apologise for lack of pictures, unfortunately a hyperactive 8 year old at Yashima primary school has broken my camera.

These perfectly choreographed ceremonies are an elegantly poignant climax to three years of hard graft. They also make a lot of people cry. And I mean EVERYONE. Graduating students, their younger peers, parents, teachers, I even considered crying just to fit in better. I do wonder whether given the same level of ceremony a similar event at my secondary school would have elicited that many tears. Back home I remember feeling that the end to my five years at Saint Francis Xavier school was a bit of an anticlimax. I finished my last exam, left school to go home and play mario tennis with my friends, and that was it.

The japanese approach is the very antithesis of that. Yesterday, the san nensei (third year) graduating students filed in slowly to constant applause, walking through the younger students with intricately rehearsed precision. They sat, and one by one were called up to receive their certificate of graduation, again a slow march with each student taking an identical route through the crowd onto the stage. The headteacher gave a speech about dreams and ambitions, which had at least half of the graduating students crying. Then the older students turned around to face the two younger year groups, and sang goodbye songs to the younger students, the younger students responding with goodbye songs of their own. The tears were really flowing now, the girls in particular stuttering through words of their song as they fight back tears. A boy in the back row wept openly, but belted out the school song with unmatched gusto as the tears rolled down his cheeks. The graduates then slowly filed out of the hall, first year girls handing everyone of them a single rose. 15 minutes later staff and students formed a guard of honour outside for the departing students, and with constant applause ringing in their ears, tears running down their cheeks, they left the school building one last time.

I totally had more fun, mario tennis is f***ing awesome.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Akita in the news!!

Essentially, teacher blackmails art club student with "cute smile" into dressing up in a maid uniform for pictures.

As a disciplinary response, the teacher in question has been temporarily suspended from officially managing the art club, but is still free to teach the club. I can't help but think in most developed nations the penalty would have been a tad more severe.

Weird country.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fire and Ice

I know there are many Strange Island readers who may be expecting a blog entry concerning my recent snowboarding accident. Unfortunately I find a holiday being ruined and the rest of my winter spoilt a rather depressing topic, and given my aversion to making myself miserable, that entry will wait until I’m back excercising again. Rest assured though, the tragicomedy of Phil breaking his ribs and the resultant medical “treatment” will not go unrecorded in these pages.

The accident and my resultant inability to snowboard in Hokkaido is of course best described as a bit rubbish. That said, my holiday with my brother through the snowy roads of Hokkaido was not an entirely ruined venture. In most western countries, a snowboarding holiday would be totally spoilt by a debilitating injury. In Japan however, the numerous winter festivals that take place in the northern rural snowscapes of these strange islands are entirely capable of making a holiday in themselves. Indeed I am already formulating rough plans for a short trip next year to take in as many of these fabulous events as possible. These festivals range from 20 local people gathered round a bonfire, to 2 million people coming from all over the world to see ice sculptures 25 feet high. I was fortunate enough to attend six winter festivals this year, with varying levels of audience participation. I shall now paint six glorious word pictures of each festival, painstakingly arranged in fabulously chronological order. I will write. You will read. The winner will be literature. Pictures courtesy of everyone else's facebook albums.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo is the largest City in northern Japan, situated on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. In winter it has a reputation for being nadger-freezingly cold, and indeed as me, my brother, an Irish vagrant we had picked up, and my ever reliable Mazda, drove off the ferry into the dark Hokkaidan night, it was pretty damn chilly. If one chose to, exposing one nipples to the outdoor temperature would have created chesticles you could chop carrots with. We ploughed on through temperatures of minus seventeen towards Sapporo, eventually arriving at our hotel shortly after dawn. The temperature was now a tropical minus eight, as we parked up and took the short walk from our Hotel towards Odori Park, the biggest of three areas that host the Sapporo Snow Festival.

The artistry that goes into creating these monoliths of ice is nothing short of jaw dropping. Around 12 of the sculptures towered over the crowds at 25 feet high or more. A depiction of japanese athletes advertised Tokyo’s 2016 Olympic Bid, opposite an even more impressive and intricately detailed tribute to Tokyo Disneyland’s 25th anniversary. Japanese Castles and Korean temples were present, as well as multiple depictions of Japanese cartoon characters. There were whales and turtles made from transparent ice, and the lack of early morning crowds made it all the more enjoyable. Later we ventured into the Susukino part of the festival, in an area of town famous for it’s nightlife (and bizarelly prominent brothel “menus”). Here were smaller statues that were no less impressive, being close enough to touch meant you could see every tiny detail perfectly.

After checking in to the hotel and taking a much needed nap, myself and my brother stumbled out to see the festival at night, where the lights add an extra dimension to the larger sculptures. After a brief trip to an Oirish pub to enjoy the pure unadulterated ecstasy that is watching Man City win while drinking proper English ale, we went to a brilliant Izakaya recommended by a friendly local. If you’re ever in Sapporo, “Hinode” above the mcdonalds in susukino provides a good value all you can eat and all you can drink; ask for a seat by the window for an excellent view of the bright lights of Sapporo. At 3am we stumbled out of the Izakaya and made a snowman before heading back to the hotel.

The following day (after accidentally ending up attending a medal award ceremony for a long distance cross country skiing race) we went to the “out of town” part of the festival, which boasts the snowmen featured in many iconic photos of the festival. A great place to take children, the sculptures here take a back seat to numerous ice slides and snowmobiles pulling rafts around a circuit. For the second day in a row we lunched on “Jengis Kaan” a lamb dish and a delicious Hokkaido specialty nearly impossible to obtain elsewhere in Japan. After my little brother had ridden a rubber ring down an ice slide (after calling me Billy Shit Ribs several times) we jumped into the philmobile and braved the blizzard towards Niseko, where I spent 5 days in a lodge feeling sorry for myself and eating lots of ham and cheese, until…

Otaru Lights Festival

This is a festival where one can truly feel the love. Coming annually just before Valentines Day, this festival comes complete with candles floating along the canal, small ice sculptures lit gently by hundreds of candles, with kissing snowmen (snowpeople? this is homophobic japan after all) resplendent in heart shaped hollows in the snow. The ultimate romantic date venue.

Unfortunately I was there with a romanian orphan who boasts patchy facial hair and a "turd-esque" appearance amongst his physical characteristics, aka my little brother Alex. But I tried to have a good time anyway.

This festival is a lot lower key than Sapporo, and you can see most of what it has to offer in under an hour. That said, it's just a short train ride away from the larger snow festival, and if you're in Sapporo for a couple of days it is well worth going to. It is less commercialised than it's big city counterpart, and while it cannot claim the grandiose attributes of the larger sculptures in Sapporo, the romance of the expertly crafted sculptures lit by so many candles could melt the stoniest of hearts. It's as painstakingly beautiful as anything in Sapporo, and given its relative lack of international renown often goes unseen by western tourists.

Two days and one choppy ferry crossing later, your hero of this tale and my romanian sidekick found ourselves taking in sunset on a cloudy day at Lake Tazawa.

After that it was just a short drive to the samurai town of Kakunodate, which every february 13th and 14th plays host to...

The Fire Swinging Festival

Yes it is as awesome as it sounds. A simple concept really. Bonfires are lit along the banks of the river, and bales of rice straw are tied to thin 5 foot long ropes. One then picks up aforementioned bale, sets it alight on a bonfire, and then swings the resultant fireball around one's head, while preferably at the same time screaming "GET SOME!!!!" at the top of your voice, or indeed "I AM THE GOD OF HELL AND FIRE!!!!". Both fine choices.

This festival could justifiably be described as somewhat limited. Activities include: A) swinging a fireball around and around your head and B) watching other idiots do exactly the same thing. That said, ask yourself the question "do I want to swing a fireball around my head while lots of excited japanese people take pictures of me?" If the answer isn't "F#!@ YEH I DO!" then frankly you disappoint me and should be ashamed of yourself.

We spent maybe half an hour at this festival, sharing 5 fireballs between us, and I would heartily recommend making the trip to anyone within 3 hours drive of Kakunodate. What this festival lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in fireball-swinging goodness.

Equally prevalent here was the dearth of japanese health and safety regulations, proven by this picture of a man holding something while he swings a fireball on a piece of string around his head. Is he holding a pineapple? Maybe a dog? No. He's holding a f***ing baby. To put it in context, there were other family members cheering the man on, as the youngest of their number screamed it's head off in primal terror with only centrifugal force between it's tiny frame and a enormous naked flame. No wonder these children then grow up to think kancho is an acceptable practical joke.

After a much needed lie in, Sunday brought around another three winter festivals. These winter festivals are the highlight of any Akitan winter, and yet while the number of festivals easily runs into double figures, the Akita Tourist Board has not spotted the oppurtunity to bring in revenue by having them at different times of winter, and thus one is left to pick and choose between the numerous festivals held on 14th and 16th of February every year. And so on the 15th february thee carloads of enthusiastic festival attendees left Honjo in the early afternoon, to enjoy the delights of the Yuzawa Inukko (dog) Festival, The Yokote Kamakura (igloo) Festival, and the Rokugo Takeuchi (bamboo fight) Festival.

The Yuzawa Dog Festival

After the previous night's fire swinging (an activity exceptionally pleasing to avid pyromaniac such as myself and surely enjoyable even for the most hardened pyrosceptic) the more sedate Inukko festival was a welcome contrast. For about half an hour until "oooo look it's a dog made of snow next to a house made of snow how very lovely" became a tad repetitive. Maybe we had been spoilt by the Sapporo snow festival, but this does not strike me as a festival worth travelling for, even though the food poisoning inducing meat on stick was delicious. That said, if you like dogs made of snow next to houses made of snow, and you like nothing more than these objects poorly maintained and covered with tiny japanese children, then frankly this is Mecca.

The philmobile was loaded with Mimi and Jez for this day of the trip, aka the Chimp Murderer and the Puerto Rican (Jez is called the puerto rican because of her ancestral heritage, Mimi is known as the chimp murderer because she drowns chimps for her own sick perverted entertainment, FACT). After admiring the Pachinko gnome in the car park, we departed for Yokote, and after Jez had bought some nice new wellies to keep her tootsies all nice and dry, we arrived at...

The Yokote Kamakura Festival

Essentially, get a load of igloos, few ice sculptures, stick a few candles around town and ボブは あなたの おじさん です。 As well as bob being one's uncle, another side effect of that is a snow festival with an originality and beauty of it's own that is easily the equal of the efforts of Sapporo and Otaru in Hokkaido. For a start, igloos are cool. Pingu (the ultimate role model) lived in one, so they must be. And Yokote Kamakura festival is all about da iglooz.

Otaru lights festival has certainly cornered the market in terms of snow/candle combinations, but the best I've seen this done is actually at the kamakura festival. On the flood plain of the river that runs through the town, the primary school students of Yokote build lots of mini kamakura's, inside each a single candle. It's difficult to capture on camera the wow factor of the resultant display, but I hope some of these shots do it justice.

Kamakura is my favourite non violent Akita winter festival. However the overall winner has to be the festival that followed, as the philmobile ploughed onwards towards...

The Takeuchi Festival

Snow on the ground. Fire blazing. Coloured ribbons soar aflame into the cold night air. And in the middle of this scene 150 men stand either side of the fire, holding 20 foot high poles of bamboo, waiting. A siren wails, a primal roar is heard, and the poles are brought down towards the opposition. Some miss their target and thud into the icy ground. Some narrowly deflect off shoulders. Some crunch and break over helmets. Those with the strength in their arms heave their poles up, their only purpose to bring them once again smashing into the opposing hordes. Some abandon their poles, and throw themselves at the oppositon fists flailing, the burning backdrop illuminating the carnage, as men trapped under poles throw their hands over their heads to defend themselves from every repetitive bone crunching blow. This is the Takeuchi Festival.

Apologies for the overly flowery prose in the preceding paragraph, I got a bit carried away, but if the image you have in your head now is akin to a medieval battle scene, you're on the right track. Firstly a bit of background. Last year I was unable to attend this festival due to illness/being unaware of exactly how awesome it is. Since hearing of the carnage at that year's festival, I was obviously itching to get a pole in my hand and get stuck in.

Basically the event is as described above. Two teams of between 50-100 men line up either side of an enormous bonfire, crucial helmets atop their bonces, and then each man receives a 20 foot bamboo pole and when a siren goes one does one's best to crush the opposition with your mighty stick of justice. This happens three times, the third round being notorious as a bloodbath.

The festival welcomes foreigners who wish to participate, just bring a helmet and get stuck in. Last year a few of those who answered that call got what in common parlance would be referred to as "a right good kicking", involving broken limbs and stitches in faces. Add to this my colleague's warning that "every year, someone dies", and you get a picture of just how fabulously dangerous this event is.

Unfortunately 10 days before this year's festival I had my snowboarding accident, and couldn't participate. The same could not be said for my little brother, who turned up helmet in tow ready to beat up some japanese people with a big stick. With jealousy and a teensy bit of concern (mum would so tell me off like loads if he had died) I watched him walk into the southern side of the battle to receive his weapon.

If I'm honest, after all the build up, the reality was always going to be something of a let down. I am reliably informed by people who attended both that last year's event was a much bloodier affair than this year's relatively tame offering. That said, after two rounds of watching my little brother being totally rubbish at beating people with a stick, in the third round the little man got much more stuck in. He hurled a pole javelin-esque into the opposing "army", and (after retrieving a bamboo pole from the burning bonfire in the middle of the battlefield) cracked a burning bamboo pole over someone's head. I've never been prouder.

For anyone who stumbles across this blog researching a potential winter holiday in Japan, the Hokkaido festivals are longer affairs lasting 5 days or more, usually centred around the 2nd week of february. The Akita winter festivals are often shorter events, and most take place a bit later, between the 11th-17th of february.

Sausage Rolls, Steak Bakes, and a man in a red hat

Right now, I can see a snow capped volcano from my desk. I just spent 15 minutes playing outside in the snow with energetic 8 year olds. I’ve been instructed by my superiors that in future classes at this school I should incorporate more inflatable fruit.

All of these are fabulous reasons why my time in Japan has been one of the happiest periods of my life. I’ve never had a job with such substantial renumeration for doing so very little, which agrees very much with my enjoyment of all things lazy, But…

Sometimes it would be nice if I could understand anything that was said. It would be nice if the beer tasted of something, and if sausages wasn’t just a funny word that Mr Cooke taught us. It would be nice to be able to watch football, or just to talk about it with people who aren’t 11 years old. It would be nice to be able to see my family every now and again. It would be nice to have my girlfriend closer than 8000 miles away.

This is why I chose to go home in August, and then just 4 weeks later, this is why I bought my ticket to go home for Christmas. Christmas in Japan last year was not an altogether pleasant experience. My alarm woke me at 6:30 on Christmas Day. I put on my suit, got in the car, and went to work. The only marked difference in Christmas day compared to any other (despite the impressive amount of decorations adorning shop windows in the month running up to Christmas day), was that instead of “Good Morning Everyone”, I started each class with “Merry Christmas Everyone”. And that was it. My favourite day of the year amounted to two changed words to a class of bored 13 year olds. Admittedly it did improve, although I don’t remember much of the staff party beyond a whisky drinking contest. I was then told the following day (through the medium of mime) that I had in fact repeatedly informed the school secretary (a woman of 55 whose grandchildren I teach) that I loved her very much, and then licked her on the cheek. But I don’t remember it so it didn’t happen. Arguably this is more interesting than a more predictable Christmas of tree/presents/drinking/food, but for me (and Jesus would agree with me here) in some ways Christmas is not about licking old Japanese ladies.

And so homewards! Unknown to my family (who believed me to be in Hong Kong) I boarded a Virgin Atlantic VS900 flight to London Heathrow on December 18th. I took the underground from Heathrow to London Euston, and then (34 hours after leaving my front door in Honjo) I boarded the 2 hour 14 minutes service from London to Liverpool Lime Street. I collapsed shattered into my girlfriends arms and bid weary greetings to the merry band of friends who had gathered to greet me. I have never felt so tired in my life, yet the wonderful familiarity of my surroundings perked me up a bit. I would also like to note at this point that Rachel (aforementioned girlfriend) proved herself to be the best girlfriend in the history of awesome girlfriends by greeting me at the station with a Steak Bake from Greggs the Bakers. If I said I only love her for her pastry bringing abilities I’d be lying, she has a very nice bottom too.
A few glorious alcohol fuelled days followed, during which I reaquainted myself with some of the things I love so much about living in England. I spoke to people in a language I was fluent in, and was able to engage strangers in a conversation beyond “hi I’m from England. I don’t like fish. Bye!”. I drank beers that had a variety of flavour and depth. I ate crisps that weren’t seaweed flavour, and I ate a fish deep fried in batter, as god intended. I went to the cinema with a beautiful lady and watched the new Bond film. Just to complete the weekend I managed to get to a pub to watch Manchester City lose a game they were expected to win, completing the perfect example of a boozy weekend in an English city.

After a sublime weekend that was a feast for all the senses, I boarded a train at Liverpool Lime Street that would take me to York, where I would change for Darlington. I had been pondering for months the best way to make my entrance. My family were entirely convinced that I was in Hong Kong, I’d even researched a potential itinerary to tell them about. I liked the idea of climbing down the chimney santa style, but this solution was not entirely pragmatic. I toyed with the idea of rigging up 100 fireworks around the house and then letting them off to announce my arrival, even considered hiring enormous speakers to play “The Boys are Back in Town” as I burst through the front door. Ultimately though my solution was much more low key.
I donned a santa suit (to give the arrival a christmassy/slightly surreal mood) in the toilets of the train to Darlington. I then sat down at my chair and started going through my wallet to get the change for the bus, before an aggressive voice from behind me said “that’s not yours mate, put it back”. I turned round to face my accuser, saw in his face a flash of recognition, and then he apologised profusely. It was a tad bizarre, but I have to admire the man for standing up to a potentially dangerous thief, and having the cynicism to think that a man would dress up as santa claus to go pickpocketing.

35 minutes at the bus stop. 30 minutes on the bus. 2 minutes walk. An 8000 mile journey had been completed. And being the sentimental prat I am, I had to pause before I opened the front door, just enjoying the moment, the anticipation. I swung open the front door, and bedecked in my father christmas finery, declared loudly “HO HO HO, MERRY CHRISTMAS” and walked into the living room.

My sister and my parents were watching TV. As I walked in I raised my arms aloft in greeting, and as I did my parents jaws hit the floor. My sister smiled a huge smile, as I went over to hug my mum and dad. I pushed the table out of the way, something hitting the floor as I did, and flung my arms around my mum, who barely returned the hug. My dad carried on looking at me with same stunned look on his face. Their facial expressions did not change for at least twenty seconds as they stared amazed. And then my dad spoke. After I’d travelled 8000 miles, spent days on trains planes and buses, the first words my dad said to me were “you spilt my beer!”. Charming.

Over the next few days I fed from the trough of English awesomeness. I went to the pub and drank Richmond Station Ale, I had bacon butties for breakfast. On Boxing Day I watched Man City knock 5 goals past Hull, and finally saw the team I’d been unable to watch for nearly 2 years. I went to the local farm shop (where for some reason they have a camel and lots of llamas) and cooked the best sirloin steak in the world. On Christmas day we went to richmond waterfall in the morning for bucks fizz and hot chocolate, and a Christmas dinner of fine wines, a big roast ham and roast potatoes soon followed. I think I can safely conclude that Christmas Dinner tastes a lot better than Japanese Old Lady.