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.