The Beach Party…

26 07 2012

After the fun and games last weekend, it was refreshing to stay rather close to sea level for my penultimate weekend in Japan before my trip home for the summer. About 30 of us headed up to Yuza to eat, drink and be merry in honour of the JETs who are leaving for pastures new. It was just about warm enough to have a quick dip in the sea, despite the lurking jellyfish. And needless to say, camping out under the stars was a slightly more pleasant and warmer experience than on Fuji…

It is sad to say goodbye to some great people I’ve met whilst I’ve been here, but I have no doubt that we will all catch up again someday, somehow and somewhere. Hopefully without the jellyfish though…





Ain’t No Mountain High Enough…

26 07 2012

There is a famous Japanese proverb which says, “If you never climb Mount Fuji you are a fool, and if you climb it more than once, you are a fool.” My experiences of the
3776m monolith left me wondering whether the real fool was the one who heeded the wisdom of this proverb…

I was part of a group of seven novice climbers who set off from Yamagata to join a group of fellow JETs from Fukushima to tackle Japan’s highest peak. After a long coach journey, most of which seemed to be taken up with an epic game of ‘Guess The Famous Person’ and a discussion about Mother Teresa’s ethnicity, we arrived at 5th base on Fuji, which stands at 2305m. Considering the highest point in the UK is a mere 1344m, this was no mean height in itself, and we were recommended to spend some time adjusting to the altitude before we set off on our overnight trek, with the aim of reaching the summit before the 4.15am sunrise.

We had been advised that a journey from 5th base to the peak would take around 5-8 hours. The weather was a bit chilly, but reasonably calm and the forecast had promised dry weather and a nice clear view in the morning from which to enjoy the legendary summit sunrise. With our backpacks laden with warm clothes, food and water, and our bellies full of last minute curry and rice, we set off on the first stage of the walk. With just short of a mile to climb vertically and around 6 kilometres on the flat to cover, the task ahead of us seemed quite reasonable at first glance. The first kilometre sailed by as we sauntered on a flattish section, taking in the impressive views out towards the harbour as the sun descended.

The next base saw the real ascent start, as we started our proper climb. A combination of steep re-enforced steps and dirt trails greeted us as the narrowing paths became more congested. We all took turns at setting the pace, and even though we were a mixed ability group, we managed to stay together, regrouping at the various bases on the way up the mountain and staying in good spirits by chatting as we climbed.

As we reached a particularly challenging section of the climb, the temperature began to plummet and a stream of drizzle arrived. With large boulders in our way, we climbed on our hands and knees as the strengthening wind blew volcanic ash into our eyes. As the rain fell with increasing force, this gentle walk had suddenly turned into a real test of mettle as we clambered up slowly. We finally reached the next station, sandwiched in the middle of a line of flashlit lemmings following the same route. The huge distance between us and the peak suddenly became demoralising rather than inspiring, with conversation starting to run dry as concentrated on conserving energy. As the path became single-file, the ensuing bottlenecks slowed us down to a crawl, chilling our increasingly cold bodies in what were increasingly becoming gale force winds. The gaps between bases seemed to grow infinitely as we struggled up the mountain, desperately clinging onto the jangling metal support chains as the gusts of wind threatened to throw us off the mountain.

As we continued onto the early hours, our group seemed to split without warning. I suddenly realised that just myself and Caroline were still together at the front of the pack, and I could no longer see the others. Conscious of the lack of passing places, we struggled on, barely saying a word to each other. We shuffled up the mountain, queuing frozen amongst a sea of miserable pac-a-macced Japanese. This was no longer fun. Just as the end seemed in sight, another higher peak came into view. We started seeing the remnants of snow and sleet started to barricade into us.

Our ambitions of seeing a sunrise from the peak began to fade as we slowly edged past those climbers who had conceded to the tough conditions and were slumped, freezing and helpless, on the edges of the mountain path. As 4am approached, we finally saw the big red torii (shrine gate) come into our view, symbolising the top of the mountain. We walked through hand in hand. Any feelings of euphoria were mitigated by an overwhelming feeling of misadventure. We still had to get down in the same conditions and we weren’t sure if the others were safe. My ‘waterproofs’ were sodden and ripped. The cold and wind had gone from uncomfortable to downright unbearable and the promised payoff of a beautiful sunset was stolen away by the thick clouds that had enveloped us.

My pre-climb vision of the top of the mountain was of a plateau full of delighted people, taking in the stunning views and enjoying the camaraderie of strangers, high on their achievement of making it to the peak. Instead, Caroline and I sipped a can of coffee in rest stop at the top of the mountain, desperately trying to warm up. After such a bleak couple of hours, being in a rest stop where you can buy souvenirs and ramen seemed incongruous and inappropriate rather than comforting. Spirits were lifted when our friend Cailleah came into view about 10 minutes later.

As we were discussing our concern for the others, we were suddenly embroiled in a bizarre conversation with a random European man in shorts(!) who was taking delight in blowing smoke in our faces. The brief ensuing argument and offensive comments that he made to the girls killed off any chance of a buzz stirring up as we defrosted. Megan, with whom I’d completed both the 50km charity walk around Tokyo and the Tokyo Marathon with earlier in the year made it to the top soon after. We agreed that those were a cakewalk compared to this purgatory. As the sun came up somewhere behind the clouds, Amanda also made the summit along with another Fukushima JET. The other two, Peter and Areej, were further down the mountain, and it later transpired, had to turn back due to the awful conditions.

By this time, the top of the mountain had become treacherous, with standing up straight outside was impossible. We all moved back inside the rest stop and it became clear that one of the group was in distress. Trying our best to use whatever dry, warm clothes to avoid the situation becoming an emergency, we were horrified to discover that there was no first aid at the top of the mountain. Whilst it is entirely right to assume that if you decide to climb a mountain you have to look out for yourself under most circumstances, I would have thought that where you have thousands of people climbing a peak in a developed country at the same time in dreadful conditions, having some blankets/medicine/a first aider at the top should be more of a priority than someone selling souvenir knick-knacks… We were advised that we had to move out of the shelter and get our friend down the mountain as soon as possible. We looked outside to the endless queues of people starting to descend the mountain, desperately clinging on to the sides to avoid the gales from blowing them down and decided that we had no choice but to make a break for it.

As we descended, the arrival of daytime and the gradual decline of our altitude level meant that our friend soon warmed up and was over the worst of her troubles. Nevertheless, having all been up for over 24 hours, clad in soaked clothes and still battered by the wind, the 6 hours of meandering down Fuji through its slippery dust trails was not particularly enjoyable. Even when the impressive view came into focus as the clouds receded, it still felt as if there had been a lot more pain than gain on this escapade.

We reached the bottom around 45 minutes after our bus had been scheduled to leave. After some miscommunications, we caused a further delay which unfortunately meant that rather than the hand-slapping, joyous reunion with our fellow travellers that was anticipated, patience was running rather thin on the ground and we were greeted with a rather frosty reception. This was compounded by having to go to a different onsen (hot spring bath) than the one that was planned, understandably something which upset a few of the others, who had been focused on it all morning as their reward for their exertions. Unlike the previous tough physical challenges earlier in the year which had ended in a sense of satisfaction, there was no warm afterglow felt here. The promises of exhilaration, sunrises and photo opportunities that so many others had spoken of had been completely extinguished.

It was only after the 8-hour journey back to Yamagata by bus and train, when my head hit the pillow after 44 hours without sleep, that I started to draw some positives from the experience. We were all safe. All of my group were still talking to each other. I found the souvenir bandanna that I bought at one of the stations and thought had blown away. And most importantly, I knew I wasn’t going to endure the horrors of Mount Fuji again. I’m still not convinced that you’re a fool not to climb Fuji, but I can definitely vouch that I would be most definitely be foolish to do it twice…





I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party…

7 07 2012

Thought it was about time to update the blog as it’s been a little bit of time since the last one!

The end of May saw a large group of us hear to Oguni in the south-west of Yamagata Prefecture for an afternoon hike. Whilst it was a rather sultry 20-something degrees, there were still patches of snow on the group, with white mountain-tops also visible in the distance. After a few hours of scrambling through the trees and rivers, we headed to an onsen (hot spring) with some rather unusual decorations…

The following weekend was equally sociable as a large group congregated in the local park for the birthdays of me and 4 other friends. After miserable weather being forecasted all week, we were lucky that it stayed dry enough to enjoy food, drink and games as planned. Rest of the night proved to be a bit hazy, but a good time seemed to be had by all!

Despite this being my first birthday away from home, I think I probably had more birthday dinners and cakes than ever before. My friend Shinsuke and his family treated me to a gorgeous Japanese banquet, as well as inviting me to another multi-person birthday party at the local community centre too. My friends Ayumi and Issa also treated me to delicious homemade sukiyaki as well as some wonderful company and conversation. I’ve been lucky to meet so many hospitable local people whilst I’ve lived here, all of whom are extremely patient with my faltering Japanese.

I also had a brief trip down to Tokyo, where I was taken to a horror themed restaurant in Shibuya by my friend Eri.  We ate dinner in a mock prison cell before being treated to the theatrics of a jailbreak, where hands would suddenly emerge from unseen holes in the wall and surprise you.  Much fun was had by all.  The trip also gave me a chance to catch up with my good friend Kazu and Emily, who I’d first met when taking part in the Krypton Factor TV show a few years ago.  With the monsoon rains arriving that day, we spent as much of the day as possible inside and took in the Sony Centre, as well as an epic karaoke session.  Was all too brief, but I’ve resolved to spend more time being social in Tokyo next year rather than doing the crazy physical expeditions that I’ve been doing there this year.

Last weekend saw another social weekend as a large group of us descended upon the small town of Sakegawa for a barbecue. We all brought a dish, with my banana cake with peanut butter frosting fortunately tasting a lot better than it looked after a long, warm car journey. After the food, we played a traditional Japanese game where we were divided into two teams and had to capture the flag of our opponents. After much running around of the car park, one of the other team decided to make a break for it. With me in hot pursuit, we ended up running in an overgrown area where an unfortunately placed open drain brought the game to an end and a trip to the hospital for my friend. Just hours later, another emergency call was almost required as a plastic bucket got wedged into an open drain and the water rose menacingly behind it, threatening to spill out into the house. Fortunately, some friendly locals, wire and frantic water-bailing later, the bucket was fished out and disaster was averted.

Outside of social shenanigans, school has proven to be particularly enjoyable of late. The new pupils, staff and syllabus that arrived in April have changed certain dynamics in my working life. The new first years have particularly taken to me with one class serenading me as I leave the classroom with some soccer terrace clapping whilst chanting ‘England Number One’. Another group takes much delight in me impersonating ‘Saint Seiya’, the titular character in an old Japanese cartoon. I’ve also been teaching more at Elementary school as well, which has been great fun. The children are so enthusiastic and I also get the chance to make and control lessons rather than just acting as an assistant as is often the case at Junior High school. Hopefully they’ll stay enthusiastic about the subject long after I’ve gone…

With the last few months having flow by, I can’t believe that it’s nearly been a year since moving out here. With the school on holiday over the summer, I shall be returning back to Europe for a three week trip in August. I’m looking forward to catching up with everyone from back home and taking in some of the Olympics as well. Before I do that though, I have a rather large obstacle standing in my way which I will be tackling next week…





Battle…

14 05 2012

Since coming back from my Spring break, time has flown by. The new school year has brought in major changes; I have two new Japanese English teachers to work with, revised textbooks to use and a new intake of miniscule first years to teach. On top of this, syllabus changes have meant that Junior High School students in Japan now have four English lessons a week rather than three. I’m still trying to gauge how popular this initiative is…

On top of the breath of fresh air blowing through the school, we have also seen the departure of the last remnants of snow and the arrival of spring. My heaters and coats have now packed away and we’ve already enjoyed temperatures well into the 20s. I can sense that humid summer days with their festivals and cicadas will soon be round the corner…

Spring in Japan also means that it’s cherry blossom season. Japan’s obsession with the delicate ‘sakura’ is well documented, with people up and down the land charting the progress of the ‘cherry blossom front’ as it travels north throughout the season. Its fleeting presence in Yamagata for 5 days or so at the end of April was just enough time to be able to enjoy a weekend ‘hanami’, the outdoor social event where people eat, drink and be merry under the cherry trees and reflect on the year. I did less reflecting and more Frisbeeing to be fair, but nonetheless, much fun was had by all by the assembled ALTs in Kajo Park, Yamagata’s biggest green space.

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The following week also saw my first experience of another Japanese institution, ‘Golden Week’. Comprising of three national holidays in one week, it gives two long weekends which give Japanese people an opportunity to travel and enjoy the better weather. After the long Asian jaunt last month and my impending return to Blighty in the summer, I opted to stay locally and take it easy rather than gallivant around the country.

The highlight of the week came from having the opportunity to take part in a samurai battle reconstruction in the neighbouring town of Yonezawa. Whilst waking at 6am to don cumbersome battle gear several sizes too small for my foreigner frame and standing in the rain for most of the morning undertaking rehearsals ocassionally gave rise to the odd pang of regret that I hadn’t opted to stay in bed, such feelings subsided as crowds lined the battlefield and combat approached. Oaths were sworn, horses charged and guns were fired as the first rituals began. As the darkening skies threatened to dampen the bonfires which were smouldering on the battlefield, there was an undeniable whiff of testosterone and menace in the air. And that was just the schoolgirl samurais.

My batallion of foreigners were at the back of the pack on the ‘red’ team (I think I was too busy posing for photos during the morning to take in exactly what we were fighting for…) However, what I did establish was that gaijin (the slightly disparaging Japanese term for foreigner) like myself are always on the losing side of aggressors every year. Read into that what you will… Soon, it was our moment to shine as we charged through the river adjacent to the battleground brandishing flares, adrenalin levels rising as we tried to overcome the handicap of wicker shoes to avoid falling face first into the thigh-deep murky water. As our throng launched ouselves onto the 700-samurai strong battlefield with a primal cry, there seemed to be some kind of strategic confusion as people ran around in circles, trying their best not to engage in friendly fire and wondering how exactly to use a replica wooden sword against a sprightly pensioner wielding a six-foot spear. A few  minutes later, it was all over and, in true Japanese style, we lined up and had a closing ceremony. Such is the Japanese obsession for formalities, I’m pretty sure that the real 16th Century battle would probably have had a closing ceremony with a polite round of applause at the end too…

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Sunshowers…

31 03 2012

The final stop on our grand tour was Sri Lanka. Just as our Kuala Lumpur leg co-incided with the Formula 1 Grand Prix, Sri Lanka was also in the focus of sports fans’ attentions as England were playing a Test Match in the southern city of Galle. We, however, decided to head to the UNESCO heritage city of Kandy in the centre of the island.

A three and a half hour taxi ride over poorly tarmacked roads having not slept for 36 hours may not be everyone’s cup of char, but as the emerald tea plantations near our guest house rolled into view, we had forgotten about our fatigue. Set outside the city on a mountain-top, our sedate lodgings gave us our first taste of serenity on our trip as well as a magnificent vista to enjoy.

After a very long and well earned rest, we set about a day of touring around Kandy courtesy of a private tuk-tuk driver which cost us the princely sum of £7.50 for the whole day. We took in the usual tourist fare of a botanical gardens with bats and monkeys as well as a giant Buddha and temple, both of which were so sacred that they contained gift shops… We rounded off the day by observing some traditional Kandyan dancing, where the drum-banging, snake role-playing and fire-walking was accompanied by some erratic and inappropriate whooping and applause from a party sat next to us who seemed ill-drilled when it came to theatre etiquette… Despite all the tourist traps in Kandy, it was nonetheless good to have a bit of a change of pace from the larger, more frantic cities we had visited up to that point.

Sometimes, the travelling part of travelling can be arduous – merely a method of reaching your destination rather than something to be enjoyed. However, our dawn train journey from Kandy from Colombo was an absolute privilege. Hanging out of the door of a train that meandered slowly around the mountains and through the villages of the Sri Lankan countryside was an unexpected treat and enabled me to take some great pictures.

We headed to the coastal resort of Negombo, where enthusiastic touts will try their best to grab your attention to buy their wares or ride in their vehicle. Even to a relatively experienced traveller, the skewed ratio of tourists to touts in a surprisingly quiet resort town was pretty fatiguing and it was hard to warm to the place. After a long walk into the heart of guesthouse territory, we resigned our sweaty and tired selves to opting for the first reasonably priced place with a pool and wifi. Whilst the crumbling rooms were probably not the best in the region, our hotel of choice was slap bang on the beach and had a large enough pool to keep us satisfied.

With my brother Ollie heading off home just a few days after arrival in Negombo, we decided to take it easy and stay around the resort rather than explore the area. It was nice just to chill for a few days and catch up on some much needed sleep. We also spent a very enjoyable day eating and drinking with Katie, who we got chatting to by the pool and, in a small world ‘what are the chances’ way, turned out to be an English-as-a-foreign-language teacher from Salford…

Ollie’s departure signalled the end of our rather random voyage to places for no particular reason. We once had a trip to Italy and Romania purely because the flights were cheap and had an absolute blast. This trip was also similarly hilarious and enjoyable and our farewell was rather less emotional than our last one thanks to the knowledge that I’ll be back in Blighty for my summer holiday in just a few months’ time.

My last few days solo were uneventful… I visited Colombo with the aim to take amazing photos and snap up some amazing bargains. In reality, the slow and sweaty two hour bus ride through the smoggy, polluted roads had not left me in the mood to explore the sensory overload of Colombo’s markets and I instead opted to take refuge in a smart hotel and attack the buffet and cocktail menu.

As I sit here writing on my last day watching the sun set over the beach, I consider how lucky I am once again to be able to travel. This trip has seen another few countries ticked off the list, and I’m now contemplating where the next adventure will be… I wonder if there are any cheap flights to North Korea…?





Good Stuff…

25 03 2012

Our itinerary gave us a quick stopover in Kuala Lumpur for 12 hours. Whilst most sensible people would have used the night to grab a hotel room and catch up on some sleep, we decided to sample the nightlife that the city had to offer.

A previous trip to KL did not inspire confidence that there would be an abudance of good watering holes in the choked streets of a city whose name translates as ‘muddy river’. A few brief stops in charaterless, deserted bars later, we decided to change our approach and wandered about trying to get up close to the twin towers which dominate the city’s skyline.

As luck would have it, we somehow stumbled into a free concert underneath the towers It turns out that it was a replacement for a bigger event coinciding with the Malaysian Grand Prix that had been cancelled at the last minute as the star performer hadn’t been paid… So, instead of Kylie(!), we got Kelis(!!):

Good stuff…





Thriller…

24 03 2012

The next stop on our Asian journey was Manila in the Philippines. I can’t think of too many positive images of the Philippines in the media; natural disasters, sex tourism and dictators with shoe fetish wives seem to be the first things that spring to mind. However, Manila, the chaotic, bustling capital of the country made a huge impression in the 72 hours we were there.

Minutes after our arrival, our weary selves were press-ganged by fellow hostel-stayers into a trip to Lake Taal on the south of Luzon island. With some rather delightful soft rock anthems on the car stereo of our driver, we were treated to a journey which took in some breathtaking views and insights into local village life.

In the middle of the Lake was a volcano, whose eruptions continually reshape the landscape around it. Crossing the lake on a boat that is most kindly described as ‘traditional’, we clambered up the volcano on a dusty track, avoiding the dozens of defecating horses sharing our route. However, the trek was certainly worth it for the views from the top…

The next day saw us explore the old town of Manila, wwith its fusion of churches, houses and faded colonial buildings. We also had a stop at the National Museum of the Philippines, which contained some surprisingly impressive artwork….

We also had opportunity to ride the famous jeepneys, the minibuses-cum-dodgems which weave in an out of the city’s fume-filled, gridlocked traffic. The process of hopping on the back of the moving vehicle and passing your fare up the line of seated passengers towards the driver may not be executive travel, but at about 10p per journey, it certainly wins in value if not comfort…

Manila also gave us some rather good nights out with Malate and Makati giving us 50p beers to shore up our finances after some expensive times in Japan and Korea. The £1 bottles of cappucino rum enjoyed from the rooftop of our hostel will also live on as the epitome of alcoholic thrift…

Whilst most travellers I know to have visited the country ended up hitting the beaches of Cebu and Boracay, it was nice to get a positive experience of a city which seems to be unfairly maligned. The great time we had was also in no small part due to our fellow hostel-stayers Kristina, Rajvi, Dol and Dalia who provided excellent company throughout our adventures in Manila.

Whether it was the cheap haircut which turned into an upper body massage for less than the price of a bottle of shampoo back home or the hackneyed but oddly endearing attempts by a gang of 6 year olds to pickpocket us en masse at a set of traffic lights, Manila gave us many memories. I shall be back…








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