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 Double glazed windows have been replaced by bubble wrap.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.