Posts tagged Kofu

I hurt all over.

I had to play soccer the other day. The school had a ball sports day, which meant that the first- and second-years students spent all morning playing in a soccer tournament and the winning team played a teachers team in the afternoon. I was on the teachers team.

I was asked to be on the teachers team in the morning, when I arrived at school, the morning after my wife and I had decided to have an impromptu drinking session, even though it was a Monday. I wasn’t especially hungover, but I had drunk pretty much a full bottle of wine the night before, so I decided I better shelve my plans to check out the new McDonald’s California Burger as a nutritional precaution.

It was the least I could do. I haven’t played football for several years now, and the last time I did it was as the captain of a very makeshift five-a-side team which played for charity. I don’t remember ever winning a game except against a team of mentally handicapped players who could only run in straight lines. I don’t think I am besmirching the mentally handicapped players too much when I say that we were rubbish.

So anyway, I turned out for the teachers team in my running shorts. The girls all took photos on their phones while the boys all sniggered as I took to the pitch to play the winning team of first-years – who had (thankfully) already played about five games that morning. I think there were about nine players on each side, but I really don’t know because once the action started, I just concentrated on standing in the right-back position and standing in the way of the ball or the opposing players.

There were a couple of ringers on both sides. One of the teachers used to play professionally for the local team, although he didn’t play for the whole match because of injury. And one of the first-years plays for the same local team’s youth team – in fact he demonstrated his skill by scoring two glorious goals: one, a low drive from distance that snuck into the corner of the goal; the other rising to meet a sweet cross with a great header. (I was blameless for both, obviously.)

In the end, the game went to extra-time and penalties. When it came to the penalties, I skulked around trying to look inconspicuous, which worked until it went to sudden death and the spectating students started chanting my name. The next day one of the other English teachers displayed a charming naivety about the rules of football. “You played very well yesterday,” he said. “All of the students thought so – they were calling your name! Amazing!”

Except, of course, the reason the students were calling my name is because it was sudden death penalties and they were hoping I’d fuck up. I didn’t disappoint, belting the ball straight at the keeper. Fortunately for me, and the rest of the teachers, I hit it so hard the keeper spilt it over the line, and we won, a glorious victory of wisdom over youth – 30-year-olds over 16-year-olds. Take that students!

The next day, that English teacher wasn’t the only one to comment on my performance. The principal also came over to tell me that everyone thought I had played like David Beckham. By which he presumably meant, as my sister pointed out, that it looked like I’d just suffered a career-threatening injury.

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Football

In the same week that it all kicked off after West Ham and Millwall kicked off, I went to see a football match in my new home. I went to see my local team: Kofu Vanforet (named after the war banner of Kofu’s most famous historical figure, Takeda Shingen).

Vanforet

Football is a bit different in Japan.

For a start, we got there about an hour before the game, and so did everybody else – after paying about a fiver to get in. I mean we actually got to our seats about an hour before the game – not a nearby pub – and instead of drinking aggressively until the last possible minute before kick-off, we chatted over a leisurely beer and soaked up the atmosphere. And what an atmosphere: as the evening faded gradually into night, the floodlights came on and a cool breeze blew in off the mountains, visible in the distance silhouetted over the opposite stand. It felt like an occasion.

It wasn’t really; it was just a second-division kickabout. Nobody seemed to tell that to the players, however, who came out before the game and bowed to the fans before resuming their warm-ups, and as each player’s name was read out and their photo and stats shown on the big screen, the fans sang a different song for each one. Nobody had told the ballboys, either, who took up position around the centre circle and bowed while the medical teams did a lap of honour shortly before kick-off. And the pre-match activities were only complete when the teams lined up on the halfway line, like it was an international match or something.

As far as the crowd was concerned, it might as well have been an international: one entire section of the crowed sang for the entire game, pogoing in unison for 90 minutes without pause, while some of their number waved enormous pennants to an unceasing drumbeat. Over where I was sat, things were a bit more sedate, but I was struck by the real range of people who were watching. I was watching the game with another teacher from my school, who has been a lifelong supporter of the team. He was there with his wife, and we bumped into his cousin, but the real surprise was that we also met his mother, who must be in her eighties. And she wasn’t alone: there were both women and old people in abundance. Though English soccer is often proclaimed to be a family sport, I’ve never seen such a wide representation of different ages as at this match, and the results were a much more inclusive, welcoming atmosphere.

I understand the historical reasons for the different demographic. And I’m sure there’s something to be said for paying 30 or 40 quid to watch some lower league hackers hoof the ball around while their fans take their tops off and make slitting-throat gestures; or sitting in silence in case the home fans realise that you’re sitting in the wrong section of the ground; or paying more and watching a bald-headed Chelsea fan encourage his daughter to swear at the ref. It’s just that at the moment – basking in the afterglow of the festival atmosphere at Vannforet – I can’t think what it could be.

As for the football: at the highest levels all football tends to blend together in a sublime mixture of skill, organisation and fitness. At the lower levels, though, the differences become increasingly apparent. Compared to the directness of British football, Japanese football feels more South American (indeed my local team, Vannforet, actually has three or four Brazilians on its books). There is a lot of quick, short passing, and plenty of individual technique. In front of goal, though, they lacked finish and seemed reluctant to actually shoot. In the end, the game was decided by the ref, who awarded two dodgy penalties and then failed to award one for the only real claim. In fact, in a match that was played in a good spirit, with few fouls and few bookings, that was the only point of controversy: when a Vannforet player was kicked in the chest in the penalty area in the dying minutes of the game, the ref blew for full time, instead of for a penalty.

So, dodgy refs. Along with the dodgy toilets (the only sign of football squalor in an otherwise immaculate stadium), some things are the same the world over.

Vanforet 2

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Small differences

I’ve been living in Japan for about two months now. I’ve already written about some of the differences, but there are many, many more. Here are some of them.

I now wear my shoes loosely – permanently laced up with about an inch to spare, so that I can slip them on or off when entering or leaving a building (or using a changing room when buying clothes!). Most of the time, that building is my school, where I have a pair of my own slippers stored in a locker that I wear throughout the day; in restaurants that require you to take your shoes off there are normally slippers provided (and a different set of slippers is kept in the toilet – which is the same as at home). Everybody else in Japan seems quite happy to tread down the backs of their shoes, but somehow I find myself unable to do so. I just have too much respect for the shape and form and integrity of the shoe. Which, when I think about it, is pretty weird.

I also carry a small towel around with me everywhere. When it’s hot, I use this to mop the sweat from my brow, or I wrap a cold drink in it and then press it against my neck. But mostly I just use it to dry my hands, because many public toilets in Japan don’t have any hand dryers or towels. I have yet to work out if it is considered rude to walk out of the toilet while drying your hands, though.

Japan is full of jingles. And muzak. Every single store seems to play the most insane muzakal versions of all sorts of popular hits, from a weirdly leisurely version of Britney’s Toxic to a fairly authentic rendition of some Carpenters song. 7-11 even has its own theme tune. And almost every advert on telly has an irritatingly infectious little musical accompaniment that feel like they will be burned, indelibly, on my brain: ‘amakute shoppai’ (Chip Chop salty chocolate crisps); ‘kare nabe nara hou-su!’ (curry stew); ‘if you’re sat around at home, make new friends on the telephone! 0898 55 0055 chatback! (Actually I haven’t heard that last one in Japan. Yet.) Just to make sure, my local supermarket has a television at the end of one of the aisles that plays a two-minute jingle on a loop, advertising kewpie-chan, which I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to recite with complete accuracy for the rest of my life.

Japan is also full, apparently, of announcements. During the recent elections there were plenty of politicians driving around with loudhailers on the roof of their cars, but this is far from exceptional: whenever an old person goes missing, or whenever the local fire service want to remind people not to burn down their houses, they drive around blaring it out through the streets. At the end of the summer, we’d even be treated to notices of forthcoming festivals, accompanied by fireworks. At 7 o’clock in the morning.

And on the subject of fireworks, Japan is full of them too, mostly at night, during festivals, but also, like I say, at 7am, or during the day, when all you can see are dim clouds of smoke.

One thing that Japan is certainly not full of, is pavements. There are pavements, sure, but most of the time, there aren’t, and so you have to walk along the side of the road, dodging the cars and, just as frightening, the bikes (which seem to be exempt from any laws regulating their behaviour – there was one day that I had waited patiently at the crossing outside my school, only to be prevented from crossing at the green man by a succession of cyclists). Both cyclists and car drivers seem to treat their vehicles as an extension of themselves, behaving as if they were on foot – accelerating through red lights, ignoring zebra crossings, and swerving around obstacles while emailing or chatting on their phones. My walk to work is currently only five minutes long, but those five minutes are terrifying – especially the bit where I have to walk through an archway that is just about wide enough for one car and a pedestrian to fit through, side by side.

The shops are different too, and not just because of the jingles and continuously looping adverts. They also have an amazing multitude of familiar-but-different things, from the sweet white bread (with the crusts already cut off for making sandwiches) to the tiny little wieners that pass for sausages over here (they even try to pass off some of the spicier ones as chorizo sausages, which I guess would be accurate if chorizo was a spicy frankfurter). They also sell vast quantities of dried fish, an amazing amount of instant, pre-prepared everything, and even horse meat (which makes more sense than horse shampoo anyway). Venture into a combini (ie. convenience store) and you can buy most of these things but you can also buy cigarette starter packs: a lighter, pack of cigarettes, and some glamorous and cool-looking packaging. Even when you finish your shopping you’ll find things a bit different: when buying some shelves from the hardware store that’s 50 metres from our apartment, we were given a loan of a van to drive them back; and if you buy something cold from the supermarket and have to walk home with it, they’ll give you some dry ice to keep it cold (and so that you can mess around with it after, by putting it in a bowl of water to produce magical smoke).

Other different things include: Japanese barbers, where they have one man to cut the back and sides; another to cut the top; another to finish off the trimming and do your eyebrows; and yet another to dust you down with talc. Japanese beetles are also different: they’re huge, and they’re everywhere in summer, because all the kids collect them and store them in big glass tanks along with special jelly to feed them. And I never knew tatami had a smell – just like I never knew that rice had a taste – but now that I’m living in an apartment that’s full of tatami I can tell you that it has a very strong, strange smell, and that rice in Japan tastes much better than in England (where most Japanese-style rice comes from California). I can also tell you that sitting cross-legged and upright on tatami is much more tiring than sliding back into a sofa.

They also have a very different sense of decorum over here – a very different sense of what constitutes polite behaviour. During our local orientation we were given lessons in how to sit and stand properly, how to hold cups and bowls of soup or tea, and how to bow. More enlightening was the drinks reception in the evening, where our governmental host joked to one (slightly large) JET that he should take up sumo wrestling; and to another that he was disappointed she was married.

And, finally, the television is very different. We can receive three, very snowy, channels that are all full of people eating – although there was one weekend where they had a special 24-hour telly marathon that was mostly just people dying, except for one blind girl who swam to Hokkaido and a young comedian who used the time to run about three or four full marathons, which, actually, is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen on telly. Until they showed the dog who ran 100 metres using just its hind legs.

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Arrival

So I arrived in Tokyo at the end of July. My real arrival, however, was a few days later, when I reached what will be my new home for the first time: Yamanashi. There were maybe ten or fifteen of us on the bus from Tokyo, and we were dropped off in Kofu, the prefectural capital, where we were to meet our new supervisors before departing for our ultimate destinations. In my case, that was five minutes down the road, at a commercial high school.

I knew very little about Kofu before I arrived, and very little about what to expect from the school at which I would be teaching. I was met by two English teachers, who drove me to a fairly imposing grey building, with what appeared to be a building site in front of it: lots of men in hardhats digging up rubble with all sorts of bulldozers, diggers and assorted other articulated machinery.

“Great,” I thought to myself. “I’ll be walking past a noisy building site every day.”

“Some of the students are taking tests,” explained one of the teachers, pointing out that what I thought was a ‘building site’ is actually just a piece of land that’s used for the students to study various disciplines relating to building and construction work. That’s because my new school is a ‘commercial’ high school. Although it isn’t compulsory to attend high school in Japan, about 97% of kids do so from the age of fifteen or sixteen – by which point, as I understand it from my wife, the eventual course of their lives is largely decided. If they get into an academic high school, they’ll go on to attend university, and then to professional office jobs. In a commercial school, such as mine, the students will study a wide range of commercial disciplines, such as IT, or construction work, or nursing. When they leave, the chances are that they’ll go on either to some sort of vocational course at university, or straight to work. (There are also even more specialised schools, such as agricultural schools, or even, near me, an aviation school).

When I arrived at school, however, it was the middle of the school holidays so there were hardly any students around. (Although I found it interesting that some students do come in to school for extra lessons, or club activities.) So next, it was off to my new apartment. Or, rather, old apartment. Forty years old. From the outside it looks like a deserted concrete bunker, surrounded by detritus and junk – like something you might find at ground level in Bladerunner. Inside, it just got worse. It smelled bad. It was dirty. I think my two hosts were slightly embarrassed.

Maybe I’ll start with the kitchen: the height of the sink is somewhere about the middle of my thighs, but it was made more difficult to reach by half-hanging-off shelf at head height above it. Behind it, there was an old cupboard full of crockery that I didn’t want. The gas range, as I mentioned earlier, was old and encrusted with grease and food, and it uses an expensive type of gas that has to be refilled every month by a man who comes round (so even if we haven’t used up all of the gas in the tank, we still have to pay for it).

In fact, when the man came round to install the gas, he pointed out that the water heater next to the bath in our tiny bathroom should not be used under any circumstances, in case it blows up. He also pointed out the pipes that run across the ceiling, next to a bunch of electrical cables, as another potential hazard, since if they burst we will be showered with scalding hot water and possibly electrocuted. Next to the bathroom is a changing area that’s separated from the kitchen by just a yellowing, stained curtain. It contains a sink that is below knee-height, with a shelf-above it (below waist height) that makes it very difficult to brush your teeth. And in the bedroom, the tatami floor was filthy; the sliding doors had stains dripping down them (blood? puke? your guess is as good as mine…), and foam insulating material hanging off the door frame. When I stepped outside on to the balcony the sliding net door fell off completely, rather undermining its effectiveness as a barrier against insect intruders.

It was not the most welcoming of abodes. But by far the worst thing about it was, and still is, the toilet. Since our arrival, Shino has scrubbed and cleaned and beautified the place. We now have an attractive name plate on the front door, a new kotatsu table in the tatami room, and our landlady was kind enough to replace all of the tatami and fix the broken shelf above the kitchen sink. But the toilet was, and still is, what is known in Japan as a washiki. Which means that it is basically a hole in the ground.

To elaborate, it is a bit like a trough, in the ground. The idea is that you squat over it, release your burden, and then, when you flush, a burst of water sweeps away the waste into the sewage system via a hole in the floor at the end. Now, washiki aren’t totally uncivilized: in some very important ways they are profoundly better than western-style toilets – mainly because the squatting position reduces ‘fecal transit time’ and seems to encourage a cleaner break than sitting down with a book and straining until you’ve induced a haemorrhoid. But whenever I’ve seen them before in Japan, I’ve always refused to use them out of principle (that principle being that I shouldn’t have to shit into a hole in the ground in the country that’s responsible for the most advanced toilet technology in the world).

This particular one happens to have a plastic seat over it, which is intended to convert it into a western-style toilet, although really it only manages to resemble a laughable parody of one. For a start, the maximum weight it can take is 100kg. That’s not such a problem – I’m only around 82kg, so I reckon I’ve got a few years of curry donuts until I’ll be forced to squat. But having been used for years by my predecessors, the underside of the plastic seat was stained and smelly with years of accrued effluent. Moreover, it continues to be the victim of such splashback, requiring constant cleaning with loo brush, dedicated detergent wipes, and a spray bottle full of bleach that we leave in the smallest room especially for this purpose. But perhaps the worst thing about our washiki-converter loo seat is that even without the advantage of the reduced ‘fecal transit time’, a leisurely, relaxing, pensive poo, is become the remotest of dreams; since any waste deposited in the washiki remains exposed to the atmosphere (unlike the true western toilet, wherein it is submerged beneath the water in the basin), the smell is simply unbearable.

And so that was my first impressions of Yamanashi: a bit shit.
Things did (eventually) get better. But more on that later.

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In Medias Res

I’ve been in Japan for about three weeks. In that time I have had to deal with a filthy, internetless apartment, dead cockroaches, the unbearable heat, the humidity, some earthquakes, a near-tsunami, a bathroom full of (someone else’s) noodles, and at least one significant hangover. But yesterday (as I write this) I had one of those special, life-affirming days that remind me why I’m here.

In theory, my new home is in the shadow of Mount Fuji. In practice, it is so close to Mount Fuji that we can’t actually see it when the weather is cloudy. Since my arrival, the weather has been mostly cloudy. It was at least a full week before we saw that Fuji-san’s characteristic flat top, peeking out from behind a row of smaller mountains (which, according to my mother-in-law, serve to protect the modesty of Mount Fuji).

Near my house, there is a river. I like to run along the river. In theory, I should be able to see Mount Fuji the whole time I’m running. In practice, the first time that happened was yesterday, and it felt great. It felt like one of those moments in a movie, where they play Brian Eno’s An Ending and everyone sits around having their life affirmed by a sunrise or something. One of those fleeting moments that makes your life feel wholly original but still like you’re part of some cosmic skein that connects the whole of history and life.

While I was running, and having my own life-affirming moment in the shadow of Mount Fuji, I noticed several locations along the river where they were busy preparing for Obon – a Japanese holiday during which the spirits of the dead are supposed to return to visit their living descendants. It takes place at different times in different places, and Obon celebrations encompass various customs and traditions – including the famous Bonodori dance. But these people were setting up for Toro Nagashi; the climax of the celebrations, where they send paper lanterns down the river to symbolise the return of the spirits to the world of the dead.

So after returning home (and dousing myself in cold water in an attempt to bring my body temperature back to some semblance of normality), my wife and I set out to see the Obon celebrations.

We reached the first, smaller, festival as they were releasing the lanterns. Taking up position slightly down river, we could make out several men standing in the water below us, helping the lanterns on their way. With incense smoke drifting through the air and a sombre, understated drumbeat throbbing in the background, the impression was, indeed, a ghostly one: the line of people passing the lanterns along a jetty towards the water were only dimly visible in the dark in the distance, so the lanterns seemed to bob through the air in a sorcerer’s dance until they flitted down to the water, where they flickered and bobbed along the river’s current towards a small set of rapids where most of them toppled over and fizzled out.

Lanterns at Toro Nagashi

Lanterns at Toro Nagashi

Behind us we could see in the far distance occasional fireworks, from a bigger festival that I had run past earlier, further down the river. So we set off to find their source. When we found it, the air was even more thick with the smell of incense and the droning sound of priests reading out the okyou; the ground was thick with people; families queuing up to send their lanterns off down the river, men hanging back drinking beer, and children running around eating crushed ice or hot dogs on sticks or takoyaki or enjoying one of the various other snacks and entertainments on offer at the stalls that lined the side of the river. When the priests had finished their prayers the whole thing reached its conclusion with more fireworks – specifically a flaming waterfall that sparked into life across the other side of the river to release coruscating torrents into the water, changing colour for several minutes until they gradually died out; this being the signal for the assembled masses – including us – to head home.

Fireworks mark the end of Toro Nagashi

Fireworks mark the end of Toro Nagashi

Soaking up the atmosphere, watching these families crowding to the riverside to enjoy the simple pleasures of watching lanterns float down a river and then walking home with bats flitting overhead and screeching cicadas drowning out the sounds made by busy traffic… I found it impossible not to come away with the impression that Japanese culture remains far more rooted in the natural (and supernatural) world than in the west, in spite of the urban sprawl that reaches all the way out to my relatively remote new home. Of course, that may just be the misty-eyed view of a new arrival. I guess I’ll find out over the next few years…

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