Friday, 27 November 2015

Sumo's, eating, wake boarding and gettin' married

A bit overdue but I should mention that we have now been away from England for over three years. We left on October 8th 2012 with the intention of travelling the world for a couple of years before picking a place we had visited and loved and settling down. Didn't quite work out that way since we are still in Asia and looking at the big wide world on a map makes one realise that we have a lot to do. How we got stuck in Japan for so long is beyond me. We never even intended to to come here but something about the place just worked. Fear not though. You will not have to read blog after blog of gradually less interesting things as we are set to start moving again around March. The plan at the moment (and this is always subject to change) is to do some volunteer work in Nepal for a couple of months. We have been in touch with a guy who has built a school in a little village that is 2 hours walk from nearest road and we will be living there teaching English in the school and generally helping with rebuilding work in the village which is still largely effected by the earthquake. After that there is a good possibility of a housesit in Spain before heading off to travel around South and Central America... No more brush festivals for us.

So, on with the blog.

Where to start.........OK. A short while ago, Lee and Tohru, some friends of ours here, took us out for a traditional Japanese meal at a very swanky restaurant. Lee - a diminutive Australian fitness freak, teacher, recent mother and resident of Hiroshima for 12 years and Tohru - a Japanese, stocky wakeboarder and Manager of the 2nd best sales in the world Ferrari dealership have been good friends to us and due to a corporate gift were able to treat us to a very special evening.

The meal was served to us by a geishq-esque styled waitress in our rice paper walled, private dining room. In this spacious area with sliding panel doors was our short legged table placed over a sunken footwell - this gives the option of either sitting cross legged (Japanese style) or dropping your legs into the footwell (sort over western style). These footwells sometimes have heating to keep the tootsies warm. Being old, stiff jointed westerners who cannot sit for hours on very uncomfortable hard floors. we voted for the second variant.

This type of meal is termed kaiseki and consisted of various beautifully presented sushi and fish courses laid out in elegant designs on fine china, beds of carved vegetables or platters of ice. We even had crunchy raw jellyfish - ay yay yah! All normally washed down with saki but, based on our thorough initiation in this foul brew we opted for wine.

Now as stated, Tohru (and indeed Lee) are wakeboarders. I've never wakeboarder and had been unable to try the whole of the summer due to my broken wrist (for which,incidentally, I just got a 91,000¥ rebate from the already 70% subsidised medical costs - result!). Anyway, feeling that my wrist was capable of taking the strain (unlike when i learnt to mono-ski years ago with a different broken wrist - thats' another story though) we drove down to Etajima and suited and booted to the water. Each of us taking turns. Lee wakeboards on a board that is not affixed to her feet so can't do complex tricks but is very proficient. Tohru does somersaults, huge jumps and other impressive tricks. Having never wakeboarded, or even snowboarded, myself I still took to it with relative ease. A couple of wipe outs and false starts but on the whole I was pretty good - managing to come out of the wake and turn in the calmer waters, slalom about a bit and twist the board from goofy to regular positions (i know all the lingo, me).

Fantastic experience and one I consequently didn't forget too quickly since I came away with whiplash for two or three weeks. If my mum was looking down she would still be repeating that old mantra of hers - "why do you do these things if you can get hurt Chris?" The answer, of course, is .........

Sumo. The first thing to say is that these enormous blokes in nappies smell really lovely. At the Hiroshima Display Tournament which we recently attended we were able to stroll about amongst these man-mountains. Rachel kept sniffing the air as they walked by - a combination of scent and Johnson's baby powder lingering in their wake. It was a bit surreal buying a coke and a snack in a small shop in the concourse leading to the main hall and standing in a queue between two of these men who were also buying snacks (4 packs to my one).

There is a quiet confidence that is quite palpable within these men - a confidence borne of being treated special over a long period and of being huge and somewhat daunting to Joe Average. They are extra-ordinary people and the concept of them being just big fat blokes soon disappears after watching them for a while. They simply cannot be compared to fat blokes you see in the street. They eat, drink, live, train and fight Sumo every day of their lives. Beneath the mass of flesh (that seems harder and more taught that Roland of Grange Hill ever appeared) is muscle - lots of muscle. And seeing them in their natural habitat (much like a Hippo becomes graceful when in water) was a joy and wonder to behold.

Sumo is a lot about ceremony. Like the salt throwing and posturing. All has significance and other meanings. Initially it was a Shinto ritual to entertain the gods at festivals and those rituals have remained fairly consistent throughout its history. The salt for instance is about purification, the stomping of the feet is to scare away Oni (demons), The raising of the decorative apron called the Kesho-mawashi is to demonstrate they have no weapons. The wrestlers are actually called Rikishi and not Sumo wrestlers. There are various rankings within the sport with the highest being Yokozuna (Those who have won two tournaments consecutively). there have only ever been 70 Yokozuna and we were fortunate enough to see two of them. If interested look up - complete with fantasy sumo. Something Rachel suggested we play in the bedroom the other night but i had trouble with the pampers wrapper.

We went and got married!

At 2am, about 15 months ago, on a deserted beach in Tonga Rachel and I lay on a duvet looking up at an amazing sky of glittering stars in the cool, clear night. As we lay there staring up in in wonder, a shooting star flew overhead and I asked Rachel to be my wife. She drew in breath and answered and we laughed, cried and clung to one another with happiness. Marriage was something we had spoken of and discounted as an irrelevance over the years because we both gloried in our relationship as it was. A relationship during which we daily had that feeling of carrying a heart that is too big and one in which we have never had an argument. Not because we are not passionate about things but because our passion is in accord with one another's.  I love her and she loves me. End of story. But it wasn't the end. Love evolves, we all know that and we had come to realise that for all its archaic symbolism it was still the ultimate expression of feeling one could make. And we both wanted it.

And so here we are in Japan and we're now husband and wife. Its not easy getting married here as a foreigner. Planning is required. In England during the summer we had to apply for Certificates of No Impediment and get it translated into Japanese. We had to send for our birth certificates and again get them translated in the same format (for identification) into Japanese. We had to check regulations and get forms written in Japanese that needed translating to us so we could then complete them in a combination of English and Japanese. Having completed this we had to make a couple of visits to the ward office to get them to check in advance that everything was as it should be. Then comply with slight variants that they could throw into the mix. Eventually though we were ready and we gathered our Inkan (personal seals), passports, residents cards and paperwork on the 20th November and biked down to city hall.

Our planning had gone a bit topsy turvy because of work commitment, health issues and bad weather the previous weekend. So after getting up and having breakfast during which I gave Rachel an origami bouquet that had taken 8 hours to make. I had to go off to teach in the mountains for a parents day and Rachel had to go to the dentist. Weirdly we sort of liked this anomaly in normal wedding day protocol. However, by 2.30pm we had arrived at city hall and after 2 hours of sitting and watching a woman a across a desk from us scour the paperwork, run off for advice on certain issues, return and make us fill out more paper work eventually - only once we had asked - we were told we were married.

Anecdote time
Our flat is registered in Rachel's name so when we had to state who was head of the household during the registration of marriage process (so romantic!) it seemed natural that she be so. Consequently my health card has been replaced with my married man's health card and has my name on it now but beneath states that Rachel Anne Elliott is head of the household......I am officially Rachel's Bitch! She has been milking this ever since).

We left city hall, tied our tin cans onto our bikes, put signs on the front and pedalled off into Hiroshima to our hotel. People clapping and smiling as we passed them by. Our afternoon and evening were lovely with a meal on Peace Boulevard and a walk amongst the seasonal decorations. The following morning we rose early to go to Miyajima to do the romantic version of the previous days officialdom. This was to be a bit of a pilgrimage since we wanted to go to the Lovers Sanctuary - a shrine atop Mount Misen on the island. What with driving, parking (nightmare as many people go to Miyajima for the autumn leaves viewing - "Kouyou"), taking the ferry, walking to the cable car, taking the cablecar, then walking a further 500 metres up a steep path - we got there. All worth it though. The journey was an event in itself and made the getting there even better. We then wrote our wishes on offering candles and lit them from the eternal flame in the shrine (a flame that is said to have burned for 1200 years). We placed them at the Shinto alter looked into one another eyes and ran gasping for air from the smoke filled room. It was supposed to be romantic not dangerous. After, we went to a quiet platform at the rear of the shrine and I placed the ring on Rachel's finger and we said our promises to one another whilst looking out over the fantastic view across the Seto sea. Again more tears of joy but hopefully the beginning of living happily ever after.

The long lost blog

Shock, horror! It’s been 5 months since we last blogged. Thinking back over that time I see a mountain of events and things of interest to report but much of the detail and the quirky minutiae has faded. Sad since it is often these little anecdotes and observations that bring life to our experiences. A further concern is the boredom factor. We hope, by writing this blog, to retain a record for ourselves but also, for those who are interested, to provide some entertainment mingled with factual reporting. Difficult when you are looking at a catalogue of events….. Dallying, however, will only make things worse so here goes….

Small observation number 1.
In England we have traffic cones. Orange and white and sometimes connected to one another with a white pole. Japan also has these but there is also a profusion of other “Cutsie” options to contain or control crowds or traffic. These are character barriers. So far we have seen little men, women, rabbits, squirrels and birds.

Back in the summer, when the temperatures were climbing, there appeared, on certain rooftops in the city, a smattering of rooftop bars. A pleasant open air drinking experience with plastic grass, deck chairs and nice views over the buildings towards the sea or mountains.  We happened upon one such bar whilst getting slightly lost in a huge department store but entered it via a back door. To our surprise and pleasure we found ourselves in a trendy place, with live Jazz funk band, cocktail bars and a DJ. I mention this because apart from crossing the road when we shouldn’t it is the only vaguely naughty thing we have done in Japan. Entrance fee to the place should have been about 10 quid but being masters of disguise and the only white faces we figured we could get away with it and sure enough, no one approached us during the whole two hours we were there.

For those who are on Facebook you will have seen camping photos…More of the same and other places mentioned here are in the gallery. Camping was a very pleasant distraction for us over the past few months and we have been away for a day or two several times in our free tent.

On Miyajima we stayed on a deserted beach on the far side of the island away from day trippers. Made easy by taking our little car on the ferry and driving round past the formal campsite until the road deteriorates and only a handful of cars pass all day. Looking at the pictures I see it was a beautiful weekend and remember we drank too much whilst basking in the sun or reading beneath a sort of castaway canopy I constructed from a tarpaulin and sticks. It is truly one of the most wonderful things to wake on a glorious morning to the sound of the surf and feel the heat of the sun on your back whilst cooking a full English breakfast on a gas stove.

The weekend in Yoshima was once again a combination of sea views and sunsets but this time at a closed campsite. Summer doesn’t officially start here (although the weather is warm and balmy) until 1st August. Hence when we arrived there was no one there. Excellent. We set up the tent and started to drink then started to get hungry and then found I had forgotten the frying pan and saucepan. We resigned ourselves to eating snacks until Rachel went off foraging and found a discarded mouldy saucepan in some bushes at the back of the site. It was a proud moment when after scouring, washing and thoroughly

inspecting our find that we cooked an interesting meal (alternating the various items in and out of the saucepan to keep them warm).  On the way home we stopped off at Iwakuni – The site of the nail-less 5 arched bridge that spans a slow shallow and picturesque river. Here we walked amongst the shrines and up to the top of a large hill where the castle looks down upon the river valley.

We had a great few days at our friend Mitsi's where we drank and ate and laughed a lot. Rachel conquered (urm maybe to strong a term there) her fear of being on the water when we canoed across to a little island just off the coast.

Our last camping trip was to Hamada where, after the official summer season was over, we found ourselves once again virtually alone on the enormous well appointed campsite and one of only a handful of people enjoying the 5 kilometre bay. The weather was a little dubious and as I recall our nights sleep was a bit rubbish partly due to a family of hard working Japanese arriving at 11.30pm in order to get the full weekend in.

Small observation number 2
Flag and baton waving. Your average journey through a Japanese town will provide you with countless opportunities to have a flag or baton waved at you. Roadworks are rarely left with just a traffic light at each end. More common by far is a smartly uniformed attendee sporting a white flag meaning “proceed” or red one meaning “stop”. Both flags are waved with some gusto (as if each wave mattered….job pride is important here) and is usually accompanied by a formal and quite lovely bow. Walking hazards. Such as pavement repairs, pruning of trees, entrances to building sites or car parks are dealt with by the use of an illuminated flashing baton. This again will be toted by a smartly attired person who, when requiring you to wait, holds the baton horizontally across their chest at arms length with one hand whilst adopting the universal stop hand signal with the other. If all is well the baton is waved in gentle ‘smacking of bottom’ style whilst the other hand (open palmed) shows the clear and safe passage ahead. A head nod is standard with this action but a bow is not uncommon. I understand that there is a training centre near to us where those serious about their role go to be taught the finesse of flag and baton waving.

The Hiroshima Carps are the local premiere league baseball team. Earlier in the year we went to watch them on a very hot afternoon and were, quite frankly, a little bored by it – Its essentially Cricket with fancy clothes. 1 chap hits the ball whilst some others try and catch it. In the meantime the hitter and a couple of chaps do a bit of running. When I was in Boston many years ago and saw my first baseball match the most impressive thing was being thrown a hot dog by a vendor from some 15 metres away and it landing in my hand.  Anyway my two experiences had not made me think I needed to see any more but then Eisho (our school) gave us two tickets to come to a corporate day with the other teachers….Fantastic seats, free beer and food and people who were both into the game and we knew. What a difference. We were joining in with the chants, waving clacky things, jumping up (when everyone else did – don’t know why) and had a great time. Probably, as with Boston, the most exciting thing was not the baseball but a separate event. Namely, that

when the 7th innings were started everyone in the stadium (about 40,0000 Carps fans) let off a long red balloon that they had all inflated and waved for the past 30 minutes. In unison they all zoomed into the air, whizzed, spluttered and fell to the ground to create a red carpet (efficiently cleaned in a matter of seconds by an army of volunteers). Apparently its good luck to do this – Certainly looked like good luck for the numerous merchandising outlets in the stadium. The Japanese fans love their merchandise with nearly everyone wearing a scarf, a shirt, a sweatshirt, a hat or gloves and holding flags, rattles, batons and branded paddles whilst eating branded snacks and drinks and taking branded towels, flasks and programs from branded bags. 

Other points of interest over the last few months (depending on your interpretation of the word) were the brush festival and the sake festival. OK Sake festival I get. It’s Japan’s version of a beer festival and works pretty much the same way. Thousands of people gather to drink far too much during the day then walk around bumping into one another good naturedly. We went to the festival on the train since there is a no drink/drive policy here. (A law I strongly applaud as it leaves no ambiguity in how much you can imbibe and makes for a much more adult approach to the whole situation)…..(However, I also agree with the “When in Rome” philosophy of life so freely drank like a fish in Borneo and occasionally drove home pissed along with the rest of the population. An act that made no difference to road safety since traffic lights, lane discipline, direction of traffic and speed limits are only considered vague suggestions there)….. (I am of course joking kids – never drink and drive!!)…..(hic). So, we went on the train which was normal but coming home was far more interesting. Standing on a station of gently swaying people made us feel a little disorientated

 and having secured a seat turned out to be vaguely worrying with those standing in the carriages stumbling onto ones lap or looking queasily down you. I think we got through something  like 15 to 20 sakes and can categorically say we didn’t like any – although the after effect was nice.

The brush festival was a little tamer. Calligraphy brushes gradually degrade and effect the beauty of the stroke when writing Japanese script. This seemed to be a festival to celebrate the lives of these old brushes which were then ceremoniously burned in the temple grounds with some show. Admittedly there were some dancing troupes, a procession, a large scale calligraphy display that you couldn’t see because too many people surrounded the area and stalls selling new brushes. It all seemed a bit much for some old brushes and not quite enough for a whole festival. But you know what. We loved it. We walked, chatted, burned, applauded, watched and mingled. It was a sunny day and we were in Japan celebrating with the locals – Fantastic.

Small observation number 3
Not so much an observation but a plea for clarity.... Signage can be confusing at the best of times with the language issue. Therefore it is always wise to have clear imagery to convey a message - Any ideas what this means?

Plainly we have done other stuff than the few bits mentioned but if I go on much more you will get bored so let me close this blog (before immediately starting the next) by mentioning the trip home.

5 weeks in England was surprisingly hard work. Emotionally, gastronomically, temperamentally and physically challenging. We both put on something like 5 kilos (despite going to the gym twice a week) over the period and have only now managed to shift the weight. We saw many of our friends and were treated royally by many with meals and drink freely provided, beds and in some cases, houses, supplied, transportation provided and very excellent company shared all around. It is strange being away from your friends and family for such an extended period with no plans of return or, indeed, home to return to. We, more than those we have left behind, are more needy. We crave for those intimate moments that have been lost, we crave news of peoples lives and simply being part of a group of like minded people with history between them. We don’t want to stop what we are doing because it has come to define us and the “us” is a thing we jealously treasure. However, for those who know us and dare I say love us. Know we love you - to whatever degree you feel comfortable with. Whilst we are not there in a physical sense we are there (or rather you are with us).  In our conversations, reminiscences and everyday thoughts. Distance makes friendship more difficult but it also hones the mind about what those people mean to you.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Hiroshima mon amour

About 3 months since the last blog. Its crazy how fast time passes here. Working weeks, however compact, certainly eat up the hours. Imagine how fast our lives would be disappearing if we had proper jobs!!

We continue to be bemused, confused, miffed and in love with this land of Japan. Just when you think you have got a handle on something you come across contradictory evidence. They are a proud and stubborn people who would, I feel, happily ignore the rest of the world if they could. They believe, collectively, that they have got it right and want to protect that state. It many ways they have but point of perspective is everything and there is always a trade off.

The mono culture we have mentioned before was recently substantiated by some figures which state that the population is 98.6% Japanese with only a tiny 1.4% being from other countries. Staggering. Even in Hiroshima white faces are rare, black faces rarer still.

The whole society feels a little other worldly. They have television, technology, 7 day a week shopping etc but there is very little crime, no evidence of drugs (although jolly drunks are not uncommon), as a rule no one shouts or does anything to embarrass or put others in difficult positions - unless they are in a car then they are selfish w*****s. But thats just because 'Rules are rules' and they are conditioned to follow rules from the crib. Point of fact people wait at roadsides for a green man for 5 minutes or more because they are supposed to. But, its not illegal to cross the road!!!.

The women are girly girly and there is a national tendency to talk in a high pitched squeaky voice. This is an affectation brought about by the infatuation with manga style sexy school girl imagery seen in comics and on TV. The men must like it or they would tell them to stop but they don't so the girls continue to do it. Quite frankly its grating and annoying. There is a general love of cutesy. Cutesy animal figures adorn nearly every poster, information stand and many logos. Its bizarre.

Working, man do they love working!! 6 days a week, 10 hours a day, 2 weeks holiday (and if you take all the holiday you can kiss promotions goodbye). And it seems that no one is unhappy with that because....That's just the way it is. And, it is the way it is because of this closed society that has so few influences from outside. Again - both good and bad.

Finally on the social side. When these hard working people finally do get to relax at home they rarely go out with their partners and often have separate friends - guess where from? Work!. Plainly this is not everyone but it applies to many we have spoken too so it must be a lot.

However. We do still love the place and continue to try to fit in. Although the ridiculously complex language structure is vexing at the very least. I think I have previously mentioned the three/four alphabets. Hiragana - for traditional Japanese words, Katakana - exactly the same set of sounds but different letter symbols - this is for imported foreign words (although stupid coz they take no account for the sounds that are unachievable in Japanese phonics so words are just bastardised). Next there is Kanji. The highly complex pictorial images you see with each symbol having a variety of sounds or meanings depending on the surrounding Kanji. Finally there is Romanji - Basically their word for our traditional letters that are used to spell out certain words. Consequently you will often see a sentence written up that incorporates all of these. To top this off the buggers like to further complicate things by doing stuff like this: In England we have numbers 1, 2, 3 etc and ordinal numbers 1st, 2nd, 3rd. In Japan you have numbers, numbers that are pronounced (each differently) for time, mechanical things, food and amazingly for ' flat and long things'. WTF!!!

The gym that we regularly attend is peopled by the whole cross section of Japanese keep fitters. During the day, however, the clientele gets decidedly older. Although, to watch these supercharged OAPs, it is hard to believe they are 'old' and what that might imply. There are two fellows in particular that deserve a special mention. One 71 the other 76. They both spend several hours a day at the gym and have remarkable body's. After watching one rolling out to a fully prone position and back to standing 10 times - using a weight bar with wheels, we got to talking (signing) I tried the weight bar feat of strength (and i am far from unfit) and managed only to bang my forehead. I then posed a balancing position that requires strong stomach and bicep muscles. He declined. Ha! (although I suspect possibly because he deigned it beneath him). He then suggested an arm wrestle which was eagerly witnessed by his posse of perhaps 15 other gym goers. I could see their expectant faces where they sat in rapt silence on surrounding machines. Gambate! (Good luck) was heard from more than one. But uttered in a tone that suggested doom. We tensed, we looked into one another eyes and, two seconds later, my hand was smashed into the table top with such unstoppable force i didn't quite know what had happened. He's 71 for goodness sake.. Oh yeah, some consolation, He and his mate are also body building champions with the smaller (weirdly) of the two having been Mr Japan and only recently lost the over 70's title at 76!!!

We have a car! Buying a car in Japan is something of a test of stamina and paperwork endurance. With Japanese it is possibly easy but with limited communication skills its certainly not. Here' s why. First one needs to find a car to buy, then, get a hanco ( a personal stamp) made - these are required to open a bank account and serve as a signature here so most people have one anyway. Next get the stamp authenticated at City Hall also at City Hall get a certificate of residency in Hiroshima. Basically a piece of paper that says the already issued plastic residence card is you. Then you need to find a parking space for the car. You can't just leave it on the street. It has to have a home off the road. These are found through estate agents and range in price according to size and location. Our space which is minuscule is actually a bargain at 10k Yen per month (one third of what we pay for our entire flat). So once space is agreed and contract signed. A map, depicting where the space is, marked with measurements and also showing local landmarks has to be presented to the police to stamp. Then one has to take all the above to City hall along with proof of insurance, Mot (Shaken as its known here) and several thousand Yen and the car is then officially yours.

To drive our car, we both have both got Japanese drivers licenses since our international ones have expired. Being British this was incredibly easy because many of the rules, the side of the road we drive on etc are the same. Once again the paperwork is a bit of a burden. More so for me since i couldn't prove i had ever lived in the UK for more than 90 days - new passport, no house, paperwork etc. Anyway after some pretty crafty footwork I managed to acquire the necessary 'proof' and could join the ranks of legal drivers. The test essentially was to identify whether an arrow was pointing up, down, left or right. specify the colour of three lights -  green, yellow and red. And the best bit do a single squat and rotate your outstretched arms (luckily I didn't get asked to do this which was just as well because of my broken wrist - more in a second on that). So with that comprehensive assessment of one's physical health, vision and ability to cobble together some paperwork one can hit the roads.

Its a pain going through the process but having a car has opened up the whole world to us beyond what our pushbikes ever could have. We have trundled far and wide (to be detailed shortly) in our tiny Daihatsu Mira. This car has a space time continuum fitted so its actually bigger inside than out. Its remarkable. It has four reasonably capacious seats with plenty of leg room, it has head room in abundance, a tiny boot and a 660cc engine that propels us along at sometimes impressive speeds or, if going up hill, rather embarrassing crawls. Still its ours and we love it. It is what's called a K car - A highly compact town car ideal for getting around often tiny streets of cities. The K cars are cheaper to service, run, insure etc so are hugely popular and very japanese in looks - Square is the only word i really need to use.

I fell off my bike recently. Coming back from the station pushing rachels bike (she had just picked up the new car) and I toppled off. I smashed my wrist into the pavement dislocating one bone and snapping the other. I returned home with a ridiculously angled wrist which needed fixing. An ambulance was called and i had to sit in the back going slowly whiter as the pain increased for 45 minutes whilst the Ambulance people tried to find a clinic open and one that would accept me with little Japanese - Appalling!. The long story is on this link. A website Rachel has done some blogs for - .The short version is I saw a doctor/butcher who two hours after the accident (therefore no adrenaline) repositioned my bones without any pain killers , wrapped my arm up and and sent me home with an appointment to see a specialist 2 days later. This i did and thankfully it was in a bonafide hospital. He was a leading Orthopaedic surgeon in Japan and he quickly got me in the operating theatre where I got a my bones re-repositioned and a metal plate put in to hold them all together. Three days in hospital followed with careful monitoring and care under excellent staff. Now 7 weeks later I have a frankenstein scar and am having to do numerous stretching to get my muscles and sinews to work properly again. Sadly this means no gym so am piling on the pounds again.

In the last few months we have done so much that i will not be able to do justice to it all. And, in fact, will make a point of reporting things monthly in future.

We have been to a couple of beer festivals in the city - one with a blues band and one with a Bavarian Umpah band. There is a disused space in the city centre where they are always staging festivals of some kind. Trouble is these festivals, irrespective of what they are celebrating, all seem to be just swamped with food and beer stalls so apart from a dance or two on a stage and few banners to give pointers we could all be celebrating anything.....but who cares - there is beer and expensive food!!!

One festival that was different - although the food and beer element remained the same. Was the Hiroshima Flower Festival- literally hundreds of huge dance troupes parading the city's leave boulevard for three days. Whilst bands and traditional groups entertained the millions who came to watch. The sun shone, magnificent banners were waved b

We have watched Ice hockey matches a couple of times. The rink is open for 6 months a year - the rest of the time it is dismantled and an impressive 50metre indoor pool and diving area is there. Its just across the river from where we live and is really exciting to watch. We both think we could get into watching ice hockey and how I would love to have a go myself - legitimately hacking and slashing opponents.

We have driven to Iwakuni and seen the 5 arched wooden bridge supposedly constructed with no screws or nails (although we could see some). Even so its an impressive and picturesque bridge spanning a wide shallow river and is reached by a lovely drive through the hills. The bridge itself leads to a renovated small palace and temple with extensive gardens that, in turn, lead to walks into the forest beyond.

We have walked up several of the hills that dot the city to look down over the lovely vista of Hiroshima. It truly looks a magnificent place from above with parks and greenery everywhere set amidst the sprawling buildings that use up all flat areas and encroach slightly on the sides of the hills. The buildings themselves are not worth mentioning but the general vista with the green hills everywhere and larger hills climbing to mountains surrounding the place on three sides, the sea on the forth, certainly are. Our particular house location too is amazing. We can be lost in forest in 40 minutes, skiing in 70 minutes, swimming in the sea in 30 minutes, and bike to the city centre along a pleasant river in 15 minutes.

We have walked the heritage trail that mianders about the city taking in 13 temples of varying delights. We even have a personal favourite called Mitake which is absolutely stunning with moss covered statues, tori gates, pagodas and statues dotted around the grounds that are criss crossed with streams and paths that lead up into the bamboo forests behind. This is a joyous place and being just 15 minutes bike from our apartment means it is a place we will often visit.

We have been to Miyajima a temple island just a short ferry ride from the port. Here we braved the wild deer that mob you for food and looked at the charming olde world buildings, huge tori gate in the sea and extensive temples and shrines that can be found on the walks that lead up Mt Misen. The top of which affords an amazing view of the Seton Inland sea and the numerous small islands that are found there.

We have driven along a chain of interconnecting islands that run from a little way out of Hiroshima. The road winds around these small densely forested out crops that are sparsely populated and are linked by bridges that connect them to one another. There are beautiful views to be found on every turn. Foliage against light blue skies, foliage against deep blue seas, foliage against mile after mile of more greenery. Japan is volcanic and the landscape, where not flat, is sharply ridged with jagged arettes and gorges that are covered with numerous varieties of trees and greenery. Bamboo groves sit beside copses of maples and fir trees and for as far as the eye can see and once you are out of the cities there is real joy in driving.

Check out the photo pages on for more images of the above. They are worth the look!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A whole new life in Hiroshima

So... We have left Kumagaya and are now Hiroshimites. En route we took a short holiday to Bali. We have been there three times now so had pretty much exhausted all the obvious tourist haunts so decided this time to just 'chill'. Now to many this will seem a natural state to be in whilst on holiday but for me (and now by extension Rachel) this is far from what we normally do. Rachel did that raised eyebrow thing when I said that sitting around a pool, the beach, eating and drinking was sounded great. She was still checking that everything was ok doing what we were doing 8 days into our 10 day break.

The pool
We did go to Tanah Lot (the temple in the sea) which was only about a 30 minute motor bike ride away and checked out another temple complex that we remembered (but forgot the name of) but that was it. We either sat in dappled shade beside the tranquil little swimming pool with trickling water lulling us off to sleep. Only one or two guests in the hotel meant that dropping off without shrieks and splashing was easy and this made more so by the occasional Long Island Iced Tea. Or, strolled down to Echo Beach (Far away in time) and wandered along the coast or as happened on a two occasions sat in one of the beach bars for 5 or 6 hours chatting with a young couple or some travellers whilst watching the surfers doing their thing.

Bali is still one of the most beautiful places we have been. Its smells, visual delights both natural and man-made gladden your heart whilst and, as long as you are off the roads, the tingling of temple bells and pan pipes seem to drift on the warm breeze everywhere you go.


Wow de wow wow wow wow!

One of the old trams on the city streets
Three weeks in and it has been amazing so far. The kindergarten where Rachel works is very impressive and is patronised by high fee paying customers. Consequently the facilities are first rate. It sits on the River Ota and has mini climbing walls, lovely play equipment and themed castles, planes and climbing frames to play on. Its all a bit of a shock to Rachel at the moment- this teaching little ones. But the children are lovely and once she has got her head around the concept of limiting her expectations all will be wonderful. Her working week is only 15.5 hours at the moment so even if its not great its not too much to bear.

So seeing the place was a great surprise but then our apartment, across the road from the school, was even better. Its a 100,000¥ a month apartment that we pay 40,000¥ for. Actually, thats not true, as after two weeks its just been generously reduced to 30,000¥ because we hoped for a car parking place and they couldn't give us one. Its what is known as 2DK which means two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and lounge. The rooms are a good size, excellent condition and very Japanese with lots of wood. Its un-furnished but when we arrived the teachers had found us a washing machine, huge fridge freezer, iron, rice maker and various utensils and plates to get us going. All for free. Incredible.

We have been out shopping around the second had shops and because the Japanese just like buying stuff they get rid of really good things that have nothing wrong with them. Consequently we have bought table, drawer units, sofa and heaters for only a few hundred quid. It all white and relatively trendy, seems to match and (indication of how new this stuff is) is still on sale in Nitori (their version of IKEA). We spurged out on a really comfy bed, wild curtains and a few other brand new bits and pieces and the whole lot now looks like a real home.
Apartment with sliding wall to bedroom 1 open

We have both bought bikes. Rachel as well!!!! For those who knew her you would not recognise this woman whizzing here, there and everywhere on her new white sit up and beg bike with a basket. I went second hand but bought a really good lightweight bike i can use for road racing which i hope to get into as they do a lot of that stuff here.

Our apartment is just off the river (about 25metres). One of seven that run through the delta that Hiroshima is built on. Bike tracks and running tracks run along all of the rivers and its really easy to get about using these wide tarmac surfaces. We have joined a gym thats 1.5 km away, up the river, over the bridge and down the other side. Its a 7 min bike ride so really convenient and really cheap comparing to what we have paid elsewhere.

I have been offered jobs from just about any interview I have done. Its been incredible. The Eisho nursery (you can see it on google maps) offered me 5 hours a week almost immediately, I work with 5 to 12 year olds at the YMCA and present something they call 'Chris Time' where I basically wind the kids up for 15 minutes in lots of different classes and then hand them back to the teachers. I have also picked up two afternoons at Junior High School and some business lessons. Its ended up with me actually having more hours than Rachel although this is only temporary as she thinks she has got some business classes and definitely some elementary work.  Consequently we earn at least 50% more than before and only work 4 reasonably short days. Fabulous.

Misty morning from just by our apartment
Hiroshima is full of people running, biking, walking and generally keeping fit. I think its a pretty outdoorsy type of place. There are big hills both in and surrounding the city and mountains with skiing about an hour away. The city sits on the Seton Inland sea and there are hundreds of islands of various sizes just off the coast. Many reachable by road links or ferries. The city itself has everything from shopping streets and Mals (both above and below ground depending on weather), cinemas, castles, and monuments and temples, drinking areas, good nightlife, extensive parks, bowling, ice rinks, pools, baseball stadium and lots interesting places. We have fallen in love with the place and hope our year or so here continues in the truly amazing way it has started

Along the river
In closing this blog I will add one thing. One of the little bits of sight seeing we have done in the city so far has been around Peace Park which houses the Atomic Bomb Dome (The remains of one of the few buildings to still be standing after the Bomb). The Atomic Bomb Museum and various shines all set in nice gardens. This was a sad, moving, interesting but ultimately positive experience. The Bomb about 3 metres by 1 metre detonated 600m above the city and instantly killed about 148,000 people and virtually flattened an area about 6km wide with lessening effects radiating out. The surface of the city was subjected to 4,000 degree heat ball, a shock wave of enormous proportions, a radiation blast and black radiative rain that settled an poisoned the earth and people for a wide area. The subsequent death toll is far greater than that of the original blast.

Atomic Dome
However. Whilst this was a horrific action by the Americans the legacy in this city is not one that harps on about the past and fault...Fault nearly always has two sides and in the case of the Japanese aggression this is true and understood. It is about the future. The Peace Park is there to remind future generations not only about the horror of Atomic weapons but war as well. Today the remains of that earlier city have all been swept away. It is no longer a city that can be defined by its past because its now is something unique as well.

To all who know us and read our blogs. Please come to "Our" city and visit. You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Christmas and new year in Japan

Japanesy stuff.

In Japan when you cross a street you use a crossing point. You may have to walk an extra 50 metres up an empty road but a large majority of the populace will do so and wait for anything up to three minutes until the green man says it is ok to cross the empty road.

Sleepless in Japan. Your average Japanesey sleeps about 6 hours max. Ask virtually anyone what time they go to be and it will be after 12am and they will be up by 6. You would think that they would all looked utterly shagged out but no. They look great and full of vigour and are ever ready to put in incredibly long hours working in jobs that fill their lives.

At the airport. As the plane starts to pull away from the loading place. The ground crew who have been loading bags, fuel, waving ping-pong bats and, because of irregularly worn ear protectors, looking like Mickey Mouse all stand in a line and wave good bye to the plane. Initial feelings were "Awww! Thats so Japanesy". Although there was a slight concern over other reasons they could be waving!

Big department stores have pedestrian traffic wardens corralling the shoppers into orderly queues so as to not impede others from getting to bargains. The obligatory white gloves and light batons waving everyone to their correct places.

Other stuff

So another two months have passed and they have been filled with interesting stuff. Lets start with work.

my paragraph (Rachel). teaching in the Junior High School was a new experience for me and i was surprised how sad i was to leave. i spent most of my lunchtimes with the special education class who were always smiling and happy. I'd eat my weird combinations of lunch (curry, cabbage and tofu and a carton of milk!) whilst listening to them all laughing and chattering away in Japanese. After a while I was actually starting to understand what some of these foreign sounds meant! And then there's the elementary grade two class were the sweetest and sang the most spectacular songs for me at christmas and when I left. Gave me leaky eyes both times. Japanese teachers work ridiculous hours but probably because they feel they have to be seen to be there and so don't necessarily work the smartest way. sorry japanese teachers.

(back to Chris) For me things have been quite rewarding. I got fed up of just being a voice box and about 3 months ago i started teaching a self devised phonics (pronunciation) course which i was teaching using powerpoint for a little while in some lessons. This was well received and after talking to the principal this was rolled out to all my lessons and so for the last two months i have taught this in all my lessons most of the time. The Japanese teachers help with translation when necessary but these  lessons are effectively just me teaching. Its been brilliant and the feedback I got from both the students and the teachers was brilliant. All that has now however come to an end and our contracts have come to an end. So am writing this whilst sitting by the pool in a posh hotel in Bali where we are on holiday before we return to Japan in 10 days to resume new jobs with a different company in Hiroshima. The culmination of both our schools was the last week where we had crying children saying goodbyes, both of us being highly praised as the best ALTs the teachers had worked with, bouquets and hundreds (for me 473) notes of goodbye from our students. We were both moved but proud of what we had achieved and that we had done something that made us stand out from the crowd.

Christmas build up in Japan is a time of present buying, glittering displays and amazing Christmas lights. Although the whole birth of baby Jesus is not really celebrated the opportunity to shop is. The shops got ever more crowded with Santa's and such like adorning most window displays and as the cold started to kick in with snow flurries dusting the roofs the locals could be seen with hundreds of bags filled with goodies. Strange really since most of them are working on the actual Christmas day!

Korean Barbecue - Osaka
Over christmas we had two weeks off and rather than stay in Kumagaya took up a very kind offer from Mitsi (the woman whom we did a workaway thing for) to come and spend it with her. Wonderful.  We took an overnight (and overheated) coach on Christmas night and on a overly bright and beautiful Christmas morning were met from the ferry port (Shodoshima is an island a few miles off of the mainland) by Mitsi. We cooked a magnificent traditional dinner in her kitchen and along with Phyllis and Yoshi (two friends of Mitsi's) had a lovely
day playing with the boys, opening presents, drinking wine and talking to whoever would speak to us on Skype. Not quite like spending it at home but this is our third Christmas in other places - Singapore, Borneo and now Japan - so we were grateful and had a great time all the same. Santa even came to everyones surprise.

After a couple of days Mitsi and her boys went off to Osaka to be with her parents and kindly left us her house and car so we could relax and spend sunny winter days exploring the island and neighbouring island. Time passed so quickly and before we knew it we were off

to Osaka where the second part of our Christmas break was spent  at Mitsi's parents home. Amazing hosts, good company and fun to be with. Mitsi's dad whose English is about as good as our Japanese, even taking us out for a wander around various bars in Osaka - Just the three of us!

The Morikawa's
Christmas over we returned to our final month in Kumagaya and have spent most of the month in a combination of going to the gym and job hunting. Its been interesting with offers from various companies. Getting to a shortlist for two amazing jobs but then being offered work in Hiroshima in the biggest kindergarten there. We have decided to limit work to 4 days a week so when Rachel was offered three days earning nearly as much as before and I was offered a few hours too we decided to bite the bullet and accept.

Life in kumagaya has been good but felt a little like a holding pattern since our flat was tiny, we had no car and it was only ever going to be a few months long. We met some lovely people and no doubt our list of friends has been increased and enriched by them.

So from beautiful Bali, where Rachel says "there is an overwhelming smell of loveliness", I will leave you for now.

Next stop Hiroshima!!