Tuesday 13 March 2012

Winter Reflection

As I sit a my desk on another Tuesday morning at my main school, the sun streams through my window causing me to squint to lessen the glare. I don't move to close the curtain, as the sun reflects off the snowy roof causing it to glitter. Instead I breathe a sigh of relief, winter in Japan is almost at an end. 

Flashback to November; the weather turns cool, the autumn colours are everywhere, you get excited to try out your new beanie (toque), scarf and winter coat. December arrives and you gingerly make that appointment at the Mechanic to change over to your snow tyres, and then BAM its January. It's a whole different ball game. 

Winter in a small 'city' in the heart of Hyogo can be rough. My city counterparts complain of the cold, I just laugh at them. Even Takarazuka, only a 40 minute train ride away, is typically 5 degrees warmer partially due to the phenomenon known as 'urban heat island'. Now, I know I do not have the worst of it. Northern Hyogo-ers have to combat a great deal more snow, storms and cold brought by the cold fronts from north.  Sasayama has a rather unique climate caused by the mountains it is surrounded by. The heat of summer lingers in our mountain basin, as does the cold. Countless times I've looked to the local weather report and again, laughed. I know better. Inevitably the days weather turns out to be something similar to what our friends in Toyooka receive, rather than the weather of the south.

As a sufferer of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) I also have the unfortunate luck to be overly susceptible to chilblains, so things can get pretty tough. Winter has some of the sunniest days Japan sees in a year, but other weeks can pass without seeing a ray of sunshine (typical, I can see the stars at night), so friends gather together and vent over a nice nabe (hot pot) dinner. 

Now ways to combat the cold that would be seen as bizarre anywhere else are normal practice here. Older Japanese homes do not use double glazed windows, or insulation in the walls. Staying warm is a uphill battle. 

The Japanese LOVE kerosene heaters, but I personally can't stand them, so I make do with my reverse cycle air conditioner and the power bill. Double glazed windows have been replaced by bubble wrap. Most days upon my return home I have to crank the aircon to heat up my room, while seeking refuge in a hot shower. I don't have hot water in my kitchen, so I must carry a bucket from the bathroom, and place a small radiant heater in the kitchen to take the chill off the air as I do the dishes. I regularly seek respite from the cold at the gym, or the local heated pool (complete with sauna). Days on the ski slopes make me truly think I could love winter, but it's a expensive past time if you're not on the doorstep of a resort.

At school I wear 2 pairs of socks, thermal leggings under my dress pants, and usually 4 layers and top. On REALLY cold days I'll use a 'kairo', a small hand warmer, sometimes with a sticky backing so it can be placed on one of those layers to keep you warm. Some days I refuse to take off my outdoors jacket, and most days I sit at my desk wrapped in a small blanket like a piece of sushi.  

So where was I? Oh yeah, winter is drawing to a close (though sometimes there is snow as late as April) and the sun is shining through my window. At the end of the day, if Japan didn't do this: 

we wouldn't get this:

So I guess in it's own way, Japan makes up for it. 

Friday 17 February 2012

Snow Bound; Nozawa Onsen.

Think of skiing in Honshu and most of us would think of Hakuba or Shiga Kogen. Located further north in Nagano lies Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort, one of the oldest ski resorts in the country. The slopes run from the very top, to the base of Mt Kenashi, which at it peak is 1650 metres tall. The abundance of fresh snow in the region makes for perfect conditions for both skiers and boarders alike well into early May.

According to the other travelers in the area Nozawa is a boarder’s mountain. There are heaps of places to drop off-piste and enjoy the fresh powder. If you do drop off-piste, you may just come across the Japanese Serow (a goat-antelope), or a Japanese Macaque. The Snow Park is located to the right of the Uenotaira run provides jumps and a half pipes for the more adventurous. 

However skiers need not be worried, most of the green runs are better suited to two planks  than one; you’ll occasionally see a skier giving their boarding companion a tow.  During my stay we had a fair dumping of snow and a white out on the first day, but this just meant an endless supply of fresh powder! When the sun shines through you can see as far as the Japan Sea over the Japan Alps from up on the hill.

While the last Nagasaka gondola is 4:00pm, and the last Hikage gondola is 4:20pm, most nights you can continue on the night run for an extra 1500 yen which is accessed by the Nagasaka four lift. Slope side, there are many restaurants to choose from for coffee, cake, and the obligatory lunch/beer session.

A 7 minute walk from the ski lifts and in the centre of Nozawa town, Lodge Matsuya is little mid-range lodge run by a lovely family, who often also help out the local ALT. The rooms are nice and big (go for a Japanese style room) and charge per person, so you can spread out between rooms if you have a larger group. Should you have any questions or requests, nothing seems to be too much trouble for the Matsuya family. During peak times, you can get a room for 6000 yen per person (5000 yen for Sundays and weeknights), and if you take your own car you can marvel at the lodge manager’s car tessellation prowess in their rather narrow parking lot.

Tomii Rentals located opposite the Nagasaka Gondola, will set you up with all your gear needs and even give you a small discount if you stay at Lodge Matsuya. Although their rental policy says to have rentals back by 5pm on the last day of hire, they aren't so strict and will let you take them on to the night run, just let them know ahead of time.

One of the other marvels of Nozawa Onsen is the many free natural sulfurous hot springs throughout the town. There are 13 in total, so just take your own toiletries, clean off, and jump in if you can. The local Obachans’ make it look like a walk in the park, but the scalding natural waters will leave your skin very pink. Try O-yu, there are 2 baths and in the ぬる湯bath you can turn on the cold water tap to get a little relief.

If you just can’t get enough of those Hot Spring Monkeys, tours run from Nozawa Onsen Resort to the Monkey Park (Located close to Shiga Kogen Ski Resort). Just inquire at your accommodation for tours and pricing. The monkey park itself is only 500 yen for admission, so if you can make it out there yourself, it won’t cost you the earth and is well worth a look.

So now that you’re pumped for the fresh powder snow and onsens of Nozawa Onsen, how to get there? The cheapest and easiest way to get to the ski hills is the old night bus. Buses range from normal to sleeper and can be booked online at http://www.ski-e-bus.com/kansai-nozawa/index.html. Prices start from 5700 yen one way and from 11000 return. By train, Nozawa Onsen is a little difficult to access, from Shin Osaka station to Nagoya station takes 3 hrs and 2 transfers (11,670 yen one way) , then you’ll need to switch to a limited express bus to take you into Nozawa (1400 yen one way), which will take another 75 minutes. By car, Nozawa Onsen is a 20 minute drive from the Toyota Iiyama IC, but it takes around 7 hours to get there from Kansai, so be sure to bring alternate drivers.

Tips: Monkeys cause quite a lot of mischief in the area, so should you decide to use your balcony as a ‘fridge’, make sure you use a proper zip up bag to avoid its contents being stolen by these tricksters.

The 'Fridge'
To avoid the long line for the Nagasaka Gondola of a weekend morning, take the Nagasaka triple and drop down into Hikage station instead.

If you plan to drive, make sure you have good snow tyres. The access roads in winter can be very very slippery so good tyres are not an option. If you have can 4WD is best, though you can get by with front wheel drive.

Friday 3 February 2012

A dedication to my baby: My 99 Honda Civic Sedan

Upon my arrival to Japan, my new colleague in the English Department asked me "So did Krin (my predessessor) leave you his car?". My visit school being a good 14k away, it was clear that life was going to be hard without a car. So, with the help of my colleague I got myself a lease. It was a little more on the expensive end at 29,000 yen per month, and I was asked to pay the 7000 yen for shaken (Japanese car registration and servicing). The Wagon R was just what I needed, or so I thought.

Mum and the Wagon!
Like most K-car's the Wagon was super convenient; you can carry a lot of things, move the seats around to store even more, have a nap.. However, when it came to moving a group of foreigners through the coastal mountain roads, the little Wagon R just would not cut it. It would struggle, moan and over-rev through the passes. It was then that I decided  "I need a real car if I'm going to stay". 

Just under 400,000 yen including shaken, a years insurance, new tyres and the car itself, the Civic and I were a match made in heaven. The new ALT's had just gone through the lot and made their choices... but here was a little car, with manual transmission and little over 80,000 k's on the clock for a 99 model, complete with hipsterific cassette deck. 

So far, she's taken me as far north as Himi, Toyama prefecture, as far west as Onomichi, Hiroshima and as far south as Arida, Wakayama Prefecture. Next trip will be to Shirakawa-go, Gifu and Nozawa Onsen in Nagano prefecture with my dear friends Dimi, Ben and Veronica. I can't wait! 

She fits a whole bike too! Mukashima, Hiroshima
So here we are many road trips later and my baby is only just about to tick over to 100,000k's. When this magical number happens, I hope I'm in a place along the road where I can easily pull over and celebrate. My baby has brought me a lot of driving joy. 

Isn't she lovely!

Sasayama Industrial High School; A school year in summary.

The Japanese school year begins in April. The people of Sasayama can come out of hibernation and enjoy the cherry blossoms, sunshine and the beginnings of warm weather, casting all memories of the winter's bitter cold aside. 

Opening Ceremony usually coincides with the rows of cherry blossoms leading up to the school showing their true beauty. All too soon wind or rain (or both) will end the display, creating a pink carpet across the roads and paths. 

Early June, when most schools enjoy their cultural festival, Sasayama Industrial High School has its sports festival. It is the beginning of the humid Japanese Summer, students skin shines with sweat as they compete for their faculty's victory in a variety of events, some of which have no equivalent in the western world. 

Summer holidays begin around July 20th, and so school becomes quite inside, but outside students are training hard for upcoming tournaments. Teachers often take longer lunch breaks during this time, and may get a chance to use some of their time-in-lieu that have accumulated throughout the busy first Semester. 

September brings the start to the longest of the semesters. With the upcoming regional English competition, students compete against each other for one of the 2 spots in the recitation and speech sections. This is the time when the ALT is his/her busiest, and also accumulates a fair amount of time-in-lieu. 

Come late October (usually around Halloween) it's time to get ready for the 文化祭 or school festival. Some classes arrange displays, food booths, or prepare for the Choir competition; while some individuals or small groups arrange dance, band, or even comedy performances. With the ESS (English Speaking Society) members I've sung the English theme songs of some famous Japanese Cartoons, and told the famous Australian story 'Possum Magic'. 

At the beginning of December, the teachers have their special bounenkai or 'year end party', the kanji for this, literally means 'forget the year party' and while it may be difficult to forget the entire year, some teachers do a pretty good job of ensuring they forget the night. We have a special meal, speeches, a raffle and usually some kind of performance, usually with strange costumes involved. However, there is no need to worry about your behaviour on the night, what happens at the enkai, stays at the enkai. 

Come late January, 3rd Year classes draw to a close, and hence the majority of my work load.  
So during most of February I plan and join extra classes on request. Last year I was asked by the Home Economics department to plan a class for the 'Food Design' class. I arranged an 'Australian BBQ' themed class, and the students and myself made potato salad, pumkin scones, banana damper and rissoles. I really relish the chance to have more interactive classes with my students. 

February is also the time for the school marathon; students despite the cold, run a course set by the school. Graduation Ceremony is held at the end of the month at all three of my schools, and being in a unique situation, I am usually free to attend all three. Proud parents and apprehensive students brave the cold school gym for their final school ceremony. 

The new students are welcomed to the school in mid March at the entrance ceremony. The school year is officially over around the 23rd of March in yet another ceremony, the closing ceremony (Schools in Japan sure do love ceremonies!).  It is also around this time when the teaches have another big party. The soubetsukai or farewell party. Old Teachers are farewell-ed, new teachers are welcomed, and we all eat and drink a lot of beer together. 

When the cherry bloom again, so begins another school year at Sasayama Industrial High School. 

Thursday 23 June 2011

Tips for ALT's travelling in Japan with Family and friends

Travel with family and friends: Making it work.

              Showing your family and friends around Japan is always going to be exciting during the lead up to the trip. However there are a few things you should keep in mind. Creature comforts at home your family take for granted, such as being to travel by car anywhere being absent can cause tension. If your family is anything like mine, these small things can cause big problems, and no one wants their holiday to be ruined by grumpiness and misunderstandings. Here are my 10 tips for a smooth trip with ‘The Fam’!

1.      Let your peeps know what they’re in for. If you forewarn your guest, they are less likely to get culture shock. It’ll make the whole trip smoother.  

2.      Let them know this is your home; You may be surprised that you get offended by small comments that are made, that to you seem insulting to your current home and way of life. Try and take things with a pinch of salt and remember how Japan was for you when you first arrived; your guest will most likely be experiencing similar feelings.

3.      Oh my god…. SHOES! Shoes are a crucial element of any Japan trip. Make sure your family brings shoes that are appropriate for your plans (not brand new! Oh no blisters!)

4.      Lead by example. Things like lining up for the train correctly and how to eat with chopsticks won’t be second nature for them.

5.      Give yourself a breather. I’m always too tempted to cram my schedule stupid with all kinds of cultural and crazy fun. Don’t forget, travelling is tiring, and being tired makes people grumpy. Make sure you schedule a sleep-in or two!

6.      Space. If you have visitors for a long period you may want to consider sending them off for a short interlude (eg. Ryokan in Kyoto, day trip to Kobe). Giving yourselves some space will help you both recoup and refresh, ready for the next lot of adventures together!

7.      Try and visit somewhere new. It’s always nice to go somewhere new with those you love, so you can share the experience and excitement; too many ‘been there’s and ‘done that’s may leave you feeling like an underpaid tour guide. 

8.      Don’t leave out your town! Bright lights of Tokyo, shines and Maiko of Kyoto and the beaches are all very beautiful and exciting, but most families (and some friends too) want to see what you are doing and where you live also. For those of us longer staying JET, it helps our peeps understand just why we are still here…

9.      Check-in online and take an early train to the airport. My sister may have wound herself in some trouble if she had not. The typhoon delayed trains by an hour and traffic created further delays; it could have been an interesting end to her trip!

10.  Don’t get drunk with the Yakuza. Enough said.

Friday 13 May 2011

Cycling Paradise: The Shimanami Kaido

It is only in recent years that I've discovered this thing called 'fitness'. Simply put, I was an 'indoors' kind of girl, unless whatever I was doing involved the beach or a pool. You see, living in Western Australia, one does not need to actively seek sunshine, it's a part of everyday life. Most days you get enough vitamin D just driving your car.

Living in Japan however is a different story. Some weeks pass without the sun peeking through the clouds, and it can rain for days on end. So when the sun does show itself, you feel an uncontrollable urge to run and skip outside in the sunshine. So after yet another Japanese winter I decided it was time to do just that.

I'd been hearing stories of this epic bike ride called the 'Shimanami Kaido', 7 bridges that span between the islands from Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. After further research I found out that the first bridge (if you start in Onomichi) is usually bypassed as it is very out of the way, and not suitable for pedestrians or bikers, so 6 bridges, no worries right? 71 kilometres of sunshine and cycling, here we come!

Before heading off, you can book the type of bicycle you'd like to rock (or ride, as it were). Electric engine-assisted (800yen per day), bikes with gears, and fixed mamacharis (both 500yen per day) are all available. The main bike terminal at Onomichi Port has the longest opening hours, is very accessible (Onomichi JR station) and has a large selection of bikes to choose from. If you leave from one of the minor hire stations, it's important to book ahead so they have the bike you need ready for you. Unfortunately, it's impossible to pre-book for 'Golden Week', you'll just have to get there well ahead of opening time if you hope to get anything decent, as I did.

My journey started from the second bicycle hire terminal on Mukaishima (free parking here guys!). Rocking up 7:50am, I managed to snag one of the last remaining decent and geared bikes complete with a lil' basket for my luggage.

Some of the ramps are fairly steep and short, while others span over a steady incline of nearly 2 kilometres. Whizzing down the other side of the bridge is pretty damn fun, just be sure to watch out for other bicycle folk, the occasional wild boar and unexpected brontosaurus statues! Most of the course runs along the coast line, providing beautiful scenery along well marked paths.

One of the highlights along the route is the Kosanji, and Kosanji Temple Museum on Ikuchijima Island. The gardens are a lush green and in May are filled with blooming wisteria vines. The large koi pond is home to the goldest fish I've ever seen. The completion of the temple took 30 years, and each building is modeled after some of the most famous temples in Japan, including Nikko Temple's Yomeimon Gate and Byodoin's Phoenix Hall. Follow the temple path around, and underground and you'll find a cavern lighted delicately by the ornate lanterns and filled with many images of Buddha, but first you must descend down along halls displaying artwork that depicts the tortures of Buddhist hell...

At the rear of the temple is the winning piece of the 2005 international "Marble Architectural Awards". Created by artist Kazuto Kuetani, "Miraishin no Oka" (Heights of Eternal Hope for the future) this series of Italian Marble sculptures are described by the artist himself as his 'life's work". Although this instalment has no part of the temples religious functions, it's really something quite special.

Beware the hill on Oshima, you may need need to walk your bicycle. It's the second highest point along the route, second only to the impressive Kurushimakaiyo Bridge. Kurushimakaiyo Bridge is actually 3 connected bridges that span the gap between Oshima and mainland Shikoku. On a clear day the view from the bridge is spectacular, and I spent a while in the middle of the bridge watching ferries and cargo ships come and go.

For those that don't want to cram the 71k into one day, you can drop off your bike at a rental terminal along the way, for a small fee. From these points you can either take a ferry to your next destination, or jump on the highway bus. There are also spots along the route where you can hire camping gear and chill out for the night, including the Onomichi Marine Youth Centre on Mukaishima. A list of accommodation can be found in Japanese (unfortunately the English website is far from complete) on the Kaido's official homepage http://www.go-shimanami.jp/index.html. The islands also have some beautiful beaches along the way, so if you can make time for a dip!

Imabari town was the end of the cycle for me. Here, you can find a lovely little castle, with an impressive display of samurai armour. But one of the true gems worth visiting in Ehime is Matsuyama. Matsuyama is home to the very famous Dogo Onsen. This is the bath house that inspired Yubaba's hot spring in spirited away. The hot spring can be very, very crowded (especially in Golden Week), so be prepared to fight the crowds. The line to enter the hotspring for one of the bathing packages (including access to other baths and a snack) can stretch around the building, spilling out into the street.

This is another of my trips in Japan that left me feeling a little proud. 71k is a lot to tackle at any fitness level. And just to prove to myself that I could do it again, I rode back the whole way after just one days rest; blissful exhaustion. 

Surviving the Shimanami:

Clothing: Although terribly unfashionable, I highly recommend investing in a pair of padded biking shorts. Even with these shorts you'll be left a little saddle-sore. I'd also recommend grabbing a pair of riding gloves.

Sustenense: It's handy to take some snacks for the ride. There are a few places to stop and eat along the way, but you never know when you'll need to rest and refuel so come prepared. Arm yourself with some 'Sweat' or Aquarius too.

Protection: Sunscreen! The sun can get pretty intense, especially on the tops
of those pumpin' legs. Sunnies and a hat wont go astray either.

Money: Make sure to take small change to pay the bridge fees along the way. If you plan to cross all six bridges, you can purchase discount coupons at the cycle stations. ATMs are also few and far between, so come prepared.

To book your bike you'll need to fill in the form and fax it in at least 1 week before your intended departure date. There are other block out periods in 'Silver Week' in September and in the summer holidays in August. The form can be found here:  http://www.city.onomichi.hiroshima.jp/english/kanko/shimanami/reservation.doc

Tuesday 10 May 2011

The Japanese Tourism Industry needs you!

A great credit to all Assistant Language Teachers I know, we ‘man’ed up. Many of us found avenues to donate toiletries, stationary, second-hand clothes and the like. Now, there is another way we can all help, and it’s all in the name of fun.

Self restraint is underway in a big way. That pesky old law that requires dancing establishments to have licensing for events after 1am (a costly and difficult process) that was largely ignored by officials in the past, has now become strictly enforced.  Highways that were notoriously congested during Golden Weeks of the past were comparatively easy to pass. Sunday afternoon at Osaka Aquarium has become a stroll in the park, rather than the normal chaotic fight for a good vantage point.

This is what has prompted me to write this article. As a tourism advocate, I feel that it is my duty to spread the word. If you were needing an incentive to travel, well, here it is. GET TRAVELLING, THE JAPANESE TOURISM INDUSTRY NEEDS YOU!!

Akasaka district has become eerily deserted. The visitors information centre normally sees 3000 people per day, but numbers have dropped dramatically to 500-600 people daily. An employee at the visitors centre said that in all her 20 years of working there, they had never before had so few visitors.

Just so you can get idea of what kind of numbers we are looking at, between March 11 and the end of March, accommodation in the Beppu Hot Springs area alone received 33,000 cancellations. Touhoku and Kanto regions suffered 390,000 cancellations, while another 170,000 were reported in other areas of Japan.

Misinformation in the media has damaged people’s confidence in tourism in greater Japan, when it is only a small percentage of the country that has been shut down to tourism. All major power outages in the Kantou region stopped well back at the end of March, and the beginning of Golden Week also saw the restoration of the Tohoku Shinkansen Line. On the international front, JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organisation) branches around the globe are scrambling to repair the damage done to Japan’s reputation as a tourism destination.

For those working in Japan, summer holidays are just around the corner, and exam week is even closer. It is not only our duty, but our job to enjoy all our paid leave and inject some money into the tourism industry, and thus Japan. People back home, get on board. International visitors spend more money and stay longer, injecting further funds into the now flailing industry.

So when you travel around Japan in the coming months, spoil yourself, you’ll only be helping Japan too. 

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