And That’s a Year in Japan

It has been too long since I have made an entry to this blog. The best reason I can give is that Japan has consumed me to a point that doesn’t offer me proper opportunity to sit down and write. It is now with the setting sun of summer that I feel I am finally able to reflect on recent events. It has been a year now since I first touched Japanese soil, a statement that fairs no resemblance to truth in my mind. How I have come so far in a mere 12 months is mind-boggling. A year’s wealth of knowledge, of experience, of entertainment; Value far beyond a price tag. I have explored all the way north and all the way south of Japan, I have wined and dined with remarkable individuals, visited inconceivable, holy places, and developed my perspective of the world in such a manner that befits my ambitions prior to coming here. I am ever-grateful for this wondrous opportunity and what it has brought me.

So for as long as I have been here, there has been this hype around Universal Studios Japan, from my colleagues, my friends and my students. Finally the opportunity arose to visit the darn place and I must say that the hype is justified. A lovely couple from back home, Pietah and Peter (not kidding) came to visit, so we seized the moment and went to this wacky theme park. Although largely Americanised due to the Universal influences, USJ still certainly feels wholly Japanese. It boasts some hectic rides both from Universal pictures as well as Japanese film and television, especially anime. Our first and my favourite was The Harry Potter ride which is allegedly the best ride in its category worldwide, that category being “dark rides,” a rather esoteric yet surely valued category. Complete with fog, smoke, strobe lights, water spray and all the ups and downs of a roller coaster, I agree, it was fantastic and deserves that gold medal. There was also a Hogsmead township with the likes of Harry Potter butterbeer, Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, wands, robes and what have you from the film; such a trip down nostalgia road. I also want it to be said that the Jaws ride remains to date as one of the best rides in existence. They just retired Jaws in America so this was like getting a golden ticket for me. Listening and watching a high-pitch voiced Japanese girl narrate the whole boat ride and shoot grenades off the vessel made it only ten times better too. The shark still looks fake though…

Anyhow, here’s something interesting. If you take a train out in to the countryside of Kyoto, and then bus out further until there are no signs of house nor rice paddy, you will find an incredibly secluded space reserved for two things, ultimate Frisbee tournaments and weekend music festivals, the latter of which I was fortunate enough to attend. In preparation we bleached Tom’s head hair, my beard hair, and Chris’ bollock hair. Can’t imagine how the tingle I felt under my beard felt for Chris in his situation. Then, in the torturous heat of Kyoto summer, I saw a unique face of Japan, messy… yet still incredibly organized (you can’t really take the Japan out of the Japanese). We saw a number of Japanese DJs which was incredible, but more importantly, we got an opportunity to be degenerates beyond the Sauronesque eyes of our contracting organizations – yay. We met a cable acrobatic yoga instructing pirate, interviewed some B class celebrities, and found ourselves moving very slowly that Sunday morning. It was such a relief to find myself in a pit of sweaty raving lunatics after the ever so peaceful day-to-day of teaching life.

Dear Kentarou was a true gem on that trip, having organized a barbeque breakfast for us all amongst other things. He has been an angel to the lot of us kiwis here in the area and there will be numerous examples in this blog alone but have also been in past entries and will appear in future entries without a doubt. He took Chris and I to a Hanshin Tigers baseball game recently, a pretty big deal as an Osaka resident. The local team and heroes to many of my associates, the Tigers put on a good show, and we got to experience the tradition of fertilizing the sky as you can see in the video below. His lovely mother even gave us a t-shirt so that we could spread the fandom, so cute.

Kentarou also organized a beautiful birthday party for our dear Tess with a big feast of home-made Japanese cooking complete with lovingly hand-made tamagoyaki and an ensemble of mouth-watering condiments to assemble our bochi-bochi sushi. He gifted Tess a gorgeous kimono, put on a fireworks display, and then took us the next day to an art museum and pottery making class. What a stud muffin. Seeing the backroads of Shiga and meeting countryside Japanese folk is a totally unique experience coming from the city. What with the frantic pace I’m used to, arriving in the countryside was akin to lying down beneath a great willow tree to shelter from the beating sun… Serene.

But now for something closer to home. Atop the great hill that divides Minoh from greater Kyoto, deep in to monkey territory, sits the most divine of temples I have ever visited, known as Katsuo-Ji, Katsu, which means to win. This temple is adorned with small figures known as daruma, talisman-like dolls that bring luck to their owner, owners looking to win over their hopes and dreams with a little faith and imbedded luck from these symbols. They line every pathway, every wall, and every crevice, deposited by visitors from years and years past in the hope of a wish come true. Not only do they represent the wishes of the many, but they also modify in to a guiding force through the heavenly landscape and temple grounds. Moreover, this temple emits radiant beauty from its meticulously crafted structures to the asymmetrical layout of the ponds and rivers, the misty rise of water vapour and the soft hum of the surrounding mountains, all converging to create a holistic energy that emanates over its visitors.

Minoh sure is a special place. And albeit from the peaceful temples, people and nature, Minoh really knows how to put on a good time. This year I was fortunate to attend the Minoh Beer Festival with live performances from local DJs and a capoeira group. There I was also able to revel in the never-forgotten flavours of craft beer that Wellington has come to be famous for, and that I miss so. There was also the Minoh Street Matsuri, a local festival held on a cute cobblestone road where of course one can eat amazing food and gamble your money away for knick knacks, oddities and ornamentals. You can fish for water-dwelling creatures, or if you’re not that way inclined, bouncy balls and key chains. And when the yelling and screaming from local children and your own students draws a headache you can slip away to your favourite bar and develop a new one. Then of course there is the official Minoh Matsuri which fills a large park and creates more of the same mess that the previous weekend’s event offered. To up the ante, a stage was established so that obscure hyper-metaphorical dance performances could be held.

Which leads me to my next event, a beauty of a production known as Aircon. This event mixed live music with spray paint, good food, good drink, and bloody good vibes. This was also my first time seeing live hip hop in Japan which was ****ing cool man! Japanese hip hop artists kill it on the stage. It’s a genre that’s totally overlooked by foreign audiences and deserves more opportunity to flourish overseas. Artists like Kohh and Kid Fresino have become a huge staple in my listening diet and I hope to see more Japanese artist pick up traction in the future.

With all the new locations and events that I have experienced in the last year, it was nice to go back to Nara for the first time since I arrived in Japan. This time I would be going with a pair of Japanese girls who knew the city well and as such had prepared a far better means of getting around the city. We picked up some electric bikes at the station when we arrived and quickly made great time of our adventure, blitzing past the plebeian tourists on foot. Our first stop was a visit to a friend who is currently running a backpackers. There we had lunch and a few yarns, met an impressive surfer and a Swedish teenager tackling Japan on his lonesome. And then before long we found ourselves at a sake brewery where we sampled many a sake from many a barrel which left us a little worse for wear on the bikes. Colton was still able to scream down a hill with no hands though so it can’t have been all that bad. So Nara is a beautiful city, famous to tourists as the home of many wild deer who will bow for a biscuit. You can’t walk five steps without being approached by one in the parks. They are incredibly cute. We even saw a bambi, couldn’t see his mother though… Na jokes I’m sure she was around there somewhere. Had a lovely deer steak for dinner actually. Na na na, she was around, probably. We went for a big boost around the city doing a little perusing of the local goods (ice cream incl.) and then headed home for a feast at a good friend’s bar on his well-worn, much loved leather couch. Great day.

Anyway, to summarise, it’s been a wonderful year. I have a plethora of experience under my belt from all that I have seen and done. I am happy with the people around me, the chances that are available to me. Best yet, I am still hungry for more of what Japan has to offer, and as such, intend to stay here a while longer. I have signed on for two years and perhaps I’ll even make it three. It’s too soon to know for sure but in light of recent changes, I feel like the runway is being lit up to me for Japan. To think that it has been a year since I left New Zealand is strange. Tying the pieces together in my mind as to what has occurred in the time since I have left is difficult. In one sense of the matter, it feels like just yesterday that I was saying my farewells to friends and family at the airport in Wellington. On the other hand, because of the sheer amount of what I have done since arriving here, it also feels like a lifetime ago that I was in Okinawa, or in Hiroshima, or in Hokkaido. All of these separate trips were so eventful that time is beginning to have this vague definition to it. It’s kind of beautiful. I feel that my experiences this year are more valuable because of that fact. There is so much to look back on with a big smile, so much to be thankful for. I feel very blessed. So, with that all said, I think I will end my blog here with some last unmentioned moments. Thanks for reading.

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I didn’t meet Hatori Hanzo

Last month I took a much unneeded yet long-awaited holiday to the far south of Japan. Stretching down from the mainland toward the neigbouring waters of Taiwan sits a plethora of beautiful Japanese islands in the Okinawan prefecture. There I spent a total of twelve days having the pooch of a lifetime under a hot sun, swimming at unrivalled beaches and momentarily having a lapse of identity as an English teacher. For this period of time I felt like a wood pigeon disorientedly sky-floundering from tree limb to tree limb. And whilst I return with a hamper of fond memories and a brazened exterior, I should say that there were in fact a number of pot-holes along the road. Sometimes they were only small bumps at a regular interval and then on a few separate occasions they were enough to rip a tire from its axle. Indulge in my tale and perhaps you will earn a chuckle at my expense.

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Foolish mistake #1 – Booking a 7am flight. My friend Tom and I had booked a couples deal flight to Okinawa with Peach airlines, the new Jetstar of Japan. Please push all romantic notions aside. For the best deal, we had to leave Osaka at 07:00 from Kansai airport, not a big deal right? Unfortunately as we later learnt, that would mean having to stay the night at the airport as there would be no public transport available to us in the middle of the night, still no big deal, whatever. But… Now I don’t often get frustrated by other people’s nuisances in public spaces, despite my many OCDs that conflict with regular human rhetoric. However, when it’s pushing 3 or 4 in the morning and the woman next to your airport cot has somehow been eating out of a noisy plastic bag for the past three hours like a stray animal sucking at the last drops of rotting fruit excrement, one can truly be driven to a new state of insanity. I rue the cliché tourist, perhaps out of frustration of sometimes being one myself, but this tourist fit the bill to a tee and beyond, what with her cheap plastic neon coloured suitcase, her toe-engorging sandals, and her endless consumption, like a realized Monty Python sketch. I accepted those ear-grinding noises as a pre-trip negative karmic energy, paving the way for a non-interrupted holiday of pleasure. But…

I want to deviate back and forth from the good, the bad and the ugly so as to scale down the cynicism with the joyful. Naha, Okinawa’s largest city. Stepping out on to the tarmac of Naha airport, a breeze of hot air found a smile upon my face. I was so ready to remove myself from the still cold weather of Osaka and enjoy a climate that sees tropical flora all year round. We checked in to a backpackers by the beach and soon fell asleep to the tender tickle of freedom. We woke for dinner and found our way to a busy street of touristy paraphernalia, complete with fat Americans in Hawaiian t-shirts… the dream. We hastily made our way further in to the suburbs to find a meal removed from ostentatiousness. What we found was a bustling Chinese restaurant full of locals. This restaurant went by the name of “China Quicka.” Don’t think too hard on that name, nothing good will come of it. With a heat rating that you can’t find in most Japanese cities, this food was too much for my marshmallow sensibilities and I was soon sweating golf balls. The vibe was exactly what we were after though, and post several beers, I was sleeping like a hawk-outran hare safe in its burrow.

The next day we headed northward to the world recognized Chauri Aquarium, home to many a great ocean dwellers and stomping ground for many a stinky tourists, including us – yes I realize the irony of my discontent. Like a cinematic event of shock induced flashbacks, I was reminded of the Blackfish documentary and soon felt deeply upset that I had supported the treatment of some of these animals. For the most part it wasn’t Blackfish level treatment, but to see beautiful sea turtles cramped in small areas where their footing was often on other family members was deeply upsetting. I appreciate the function of marine research and of public education but within respectful boundaries. For the most part though, it was a nice place with good facilities. I was made content by the amount I saw and learnt on that outing.

Anyway, foolish mistake #2 – That night we made our way to a nearby campground, or rather, what we thought was a campground. What we found instead was a large construction site for a soon to be sky rise hotel. Baffled and confused, I made a phone call to the campground staff only to be assured that they were indeed still in business and expecting us, however, their whereabouts I could not for the life of me discern from our phone conversation. It was not until a local convenience store worker assisted us that we learnt we were an hour’s drive from the relocated site. Face to palm, we chose to go have dinner at a nearby restaurant and work out some kind of contingency. Little did we know our contingency would be handing us our dinner in only a few moments. A serious bro by the name of Naoki greeted us in a Tommy Chong accent. Turns out he’d spent some years couch surfing around Australia and as such wanted to offer us a bed at his place for the night to repay the kindness that strangers showed him in the past. So instead of spending 100 bucks each on a cab and accommodation, we found ourselves enjoying habushu (snake sake), amazing local food and some other delicacies kindly bestowed upon us by our new friend and his mates. We stayed at the company’s palace of a share house where we got merry and learnt about the rich history of Okinawa, with regards to its previous rulers, feudal warfare, WWII, sovereignty, racial biases, shamanism, spirits of the dead and much more. All in the company of perhaps the greatest dog of all time, Hachiko. I learnt much from Naoki that I wouldn’t have learnt from history books, as his perspective was untouched by any objective manipulation. I felt my third eye open during that sweet and informative conversation. So to break it down, that was how a poor situation got flipped face side up. The following morning we took a dip in the ocean then made our way back to Naha for our next flight.

 

Foolish mistake #3 – Booking a 7am flight. Déjà vu? Yeah we did it again. This time there were greater consequences. Before the night’s end I would be thinking back on that gluttonous woman with longing. The doors to the airport were locked, leaving us to languish on cold benches for the night and the plastic bag handler was now replaced with a loud generator used by nearby construction workers who, fortunately for us, were working the graveyard shift. I barely escaped the night with my sanity. In any case, we found our way forward to the weird and wonderful Ishigaki, an island rubbing shoulders with Taiwan.

Ishigaki has a reputation for being subcultured beyond Japanese recognition due to its distance from the mainland. It also boasts some of the best diving in the world, an opportunity that I of course could not let slip through my fingers. Our first couple nights there were spent in the small city by the port. We stayed in a hostel that exuded Japanese tradition at a modest fee. It was the perfect place to rest our burnt sweaty bodies after long excursions to the nearby areas.

Not 15 minutes shy of Ishigaki is another small island called Taketomijima. Known for its remarkable beaches and ox driven carts, Taketomi truly was a different world still. In such a frantic country, Taketomi proves that island time still exists even in Japan. That kind of comfort being so rare made the experience all the more tranquil. We took a dip in the ocean only to find that the reef from this island extended far beyond my swimming capacity. After half an hour of wading and paddling I was still seeing reef far beyond my gaze. Like something from Kendrick’s latest, I was expecting an epic drop, but in this case, no luck. Damn. It was still breathtakingly gorgeous in any case.

Our next stop would be the campgrounds of Inoda for our first night in the tent which proved to be a great success albeit the monsoon level storm and lack of food in the area. Perhaps I should mark this point as foolish mistake #4. We arrived to gleaming sun and smiling faces at this place only to soon find that all shops had closed in the area aside from a small convenience store that offered only sweets, beer and toilet paper. So dinner was just that. The toilet paper didn’t go down too well but the Japanese biscuits held true to their boast of flavour. So in a cold downpour in a child’s sleeping bag with a stomach of sugar and beer, I bowed my back on the root-ridden Earth beneath me. They had a sweet playground though.

From there we finally made it to the beach of anticipation. One that would put all beaches in my life to shame – Yonehara. Isolated far from the city, Yonehara proves that postcard images truly exist in nature. An immaculate beach with crystal waters and stunning ocean life, here we spent three days in fully liberated peace. It was the last leg of the Okinawa tour and a beautiful way to end a great holiday. Another bucket list item was checked, and I was able to return home with brown skin and a fond boggle of memories.

So that was my spring break: 12 days in paradise. And now that it’s been written, I can forget about the speed bumps along the way: The infuriating tourists, the lack of preparation and foreshadowing. Okinawa is an amazing place with so much to offer. I fall short in my ability to describe some of the beauty, perhaps my photographs will help in some way. I gave film a go down there so please enjoy my amateur attempts at photography.

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Okinawa wasn’t the only highlight in recent times though. I went to a cosplay parade here in Osaka, perhaps one of the most Japanesey things I’ve done recently. It truly was a weeaboo playground complete with skin tight leather spacesuits and wide-eyed die-hard fans. I also just sent off my third year students at their graduation. That was rough. Some of those kids really changed my life. They were my first students and the first I saw to the end of their Juniour High school years. It was a pleasure teaching them and I take pride in saying they were once my students. I’ve also been doing more rock climbing in my spare time which has been a blast. Furthermore, I took up a modelling job for an apparel brand. I spent a day with a film-crew, complete with a stylist and makeup artist. What an experience. You can see the video here: http://master-piece.co.jp/movie/.

So to summarize, we went further and further down the great rabbit hole that is Japan, hoping to see things rarely seen by tourists. In this we were successful. Okinawa is already a leap from Japan’s other prefectures, but then we continued on to Ishigaki, and then even further down by exploring Taketomijima and Yonehara. I felt truly blessed on that trip to be given the means to make such a trip happen. Okinawa has been perhaps the most holiday holiday of holidays in my life. It was a gorgeous setting, from the crystal clear reef waters to the unique fauna and flora, the people and the architecture, the tradition and the serenity. What a way to spend a holiday.

 

007: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Snow has breached the expectations of the anticipated winter here in Minoh. Considered by most as a rarity especially in this area of Japan, this was no brief singularity. We have been endowed with blankets of snow transforming this beautiful city in to a paradisiac haven for us English teachers.  The lot of us have revelled in the splendours of slippery street strolls to the local convenience store. Particularly for myself and the other Lower Hutt offspring, snow is a rare sight, and to be around such amounts is uplifting. Needless to say, I skipped over the winter blues this season as there was no calling for it. Snow is to me what a windless day is to a Wellingtonian, so as such, I made it imperative that I seek out as much as possible in the fleeting months that winter would stick around.

To really make last month top notch, I was visited by two Kiwi friends, Liam and Judy, with whom I ventured to Sapporo for the snow festival (because you can never have too much of a good thing) and Tokyo for a second look at the biggest city in the world. I checked off a bucket list item by visiting the Ghibli museum. I also made a blast trip to Hakuba with another group for a weekend of skiing, amazing musical performances and downright hooliganism. Skiing in Japan, yet another bucket list item, checked. We found a sweet pinball arcade here in Osaka, which I’ve already revisited. I also had a peek at some after-hours events around the country, no let downs there. I got to hold my dream pet. I also became certified in CPR, huh. It has been a great couple of months. Balls to the wall, Japan is ものすごく awesome. It’s been eight months and things aren’t slowing down. There’s so much in the rear-view and yet still so much on the horizon. I’m a puppy going to the park for his first ever run-around.

So shortly after my dearly beloved little sister left for home, Liam and Judy arrived, saving me from my sorrows of missing her. It was perfect timing. Comfort in numbers. With Liam all I need is his company to have a good time so three weeks with him and Judy around was settling. We function on the same frequencies. It was a warm return to the banter we shared before I left. It’s always top shelf “would you rathers” and social commentary with old Gillies. I really want to give some examples but I don’t know who’s reading this right now.

Anyhow, the three of us headed up to Sapporo for a little touch of the winter fun. World renowned, the Sapporo snow festival brings thousands of people every year from all around the world. YouTube vloggers flood this place unfortunately. They’re worse than insurance salesmen sometimes. We also saw K-Pop idols walking around, on fleek! I was there… ;D The whole city had to redirect everything for this event. Three areas in the city were repurposed for the occasion. One for the kids, one for the ice sculptures and one for the monsterpieces. One of the best erections was an enormous sculpture, a couple stories high, depicting my boys 3PO and R2 in an ode to the Star Wars franchise. But there was so much more. Snow temples, igloos, Pikachus. What more could one want? Competitors were tasked to make their own sculptures on a more reasonable scale, all of which were on display of course. Pico Taro and Trump erections were all over the place, making a scene. We also ran in to our old Welli pal, Chloe, currently living not far away in Akita. She’s chipper as a beaver. So perhaps my photographs don’t do it justice but I think beyond the beautiful sculptures, divine seafood and frolicking families, Sapporo city in itself is a remarkable place. From the cool bars, the quirky buildings, and the plenitude of newfangled male street solicitation, there was much to keep our ravenous curiosity sated.

 

After Sapporo we headed down to Tokyo for a browse of the weird character models and tourist enchanting electronics, video games and fashion shops around Akihabara, Shinjuku and Harajuku, all of which arouse the visitors a great deal, Liam and Judy being no exception. We picked up a cup of jo at a Mojo coffee shop which was a total sip of splendour and I must tip the hat to my distant relatives across oceans making fantastic coffee for the world to enjoy. I also met up with another kiwi JET friend who showed me the underbelly of Tokyo which has been somewhat appropriately named “piss alley” in spite of its great charm.

Tokyo is truly the Japan that most people think of when they hear the word Japan despite it being a non-reflective example of the rest of the country. It is the place to go for the bizarre, the exceptional, the egregious. I believe Tokyo deserves its own title beyond the capital of Japan. It may as well be another country what for its unique personality traits and wild sub cultures. I really need more time to get completely acquainted with that untamed second face of Tokyo. It would take a lifetime to see it all sadly.

But of course the highlight of highlights to Tokyo was the grossly understated Ghilbi museum which exceeded my sky-high expectations and took me beyond the moon. Photography inside is naturally prohibited but you will have to take my word for it when I say it was an experience of a lifetime. From the set designs, to the replicas, the work spaces, the pre-production artwork, expanded stories that never saw the flicker of a cinema projector, everything. Amazing. I can’t. The contents of that building expand the Ghibli universe by a number of galaxies and as a diehard fan myself, I can whole-heartedly recommend visitation.

Tokyo was also the leaving point for Liam and Judy. Of course saying goodbye is always the hardest part to having visitors. It makes you miss home a little more seeing a friendly face in a foreign land. It’s easy to forget about the home you once had if you’re busy with other things but visual cues crack the memories back with a nostalgic whip. Without those cues I might one day abandon my notions of home. A possibility that I don’t wish realized. In any case, it was a fantastic time. Thanks for visiting guys. I miss you already.

It took a few days to recover from the Tokyo trip but after a day on the couch with some video games and a mojo French press I was back on form. I had to work up the energy for the next trip which was to Hakuba, Nagano, a famous skiing city which held the Winter Olympics in 98. Here they have an annual event called Powder Love. Their philosophy is to ski hard for a day then go hard in the evening with two stages for performers to vibe out the building. There were a couple of amazing acts. A trio from Kyoto called Xandra Corpora killed it with some sweet jazz fusion, then a group of Japanese performers/musicians put on a trifecta of costumes, lights, and comedy. There were pantless samurais, ganguro dancers, and a man dress in city lights. Then there was a sweet drum and bass scene in the basement which became a breeding ground for many a foreign visitor. Please excuse the mental image – photos will not be inserted.

Skiing Japanese snow was peak-level satisfaction in its highest form. Powder Love could not be a more appropriately named event due to the immensely satisfying powder that had settled on the mountain. I’ve never had better conditions in my life. It was the heroin of skiing. I may forever be chasing that high. Furthermore, once all tuckered out, you could take a break at the top of the mountain at an open bar overlooking the Japanese Alps. It was a beautiful experience.

If you’ve made it this far, well done. I won’t drab on any further. Just some closing remarks; Japan in the summertime, Japan in the wintertime, Japan all year round, it’s impossible to be disappointed here. I’m still not sure if it’s my foreign impression or rather a truly authentic understanding of the country. I think it’s more likely the former yet that’s no reason to be unenthused. Japan Japan Japan. That’s what I’m here to talk about and I know I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, Japan is amazing. Japan is the Alpha Centauri, the magnum opus, Valhalla and Nirvana combined… Okay I’m overdoing a little but I mean it’s pretty sweet nonetheless. Nothing in life is perfect, except maybe Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Anyway thanks for reading ❤

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The Road to El Dorado

December began with a trip to Kaze no Mori, a hotel situated atop the mountain that shelters Minoh and overlooks all of Osaka. A fine meal was held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Minoh Lower Hutt relationship. Way to go platinum team. My gift is in the mail don’t panic. Needless to say there was a fair amount of sake, speeches and festive sing song… ‘Pokarekare Ana.’ Thanks for taking the reins Tom. Lord knows singing isn’t my strong suit. Witnessing a plethora of suited men loosen their ties for an afternoon is never a dull event. The crass wit of these guys really set the atmosphere. There were enough funny bones to construct a monument in their honour.

 

Drinking certainly is the preferred mode of transit to relaxation station here, so as such, every group occasion is spent drinking it up. Bonenkai is the end-of-year party held by almost all Japanese companies, schools being no exception. It is honoured as a night to forget the woes of the year passed but vilified as a night of tremendous mental detox through the process of tremendous mental intoxication. My fellow associates and confidants made it a night to remember by drinking themselves under the table in under an hour. Before we could even start our entrees there were flush red faces all around. Everyone went through a beautiful metamorphosis. It is truly a sight to behold when a full staff of teachers get in to their party pants. Velvet gossip and laughter lifted the roof. Secrets unravelled. Truths unfolded. Photos burned.

I really can’t stop enjoying myself here in Japan. Everything is still fresh and exciting. And perhaps this will change, but while it lasts I want to revel in it. Simple outings such as dinner with friends, trips to the cinema and local art exhibitions really drive me in to a state of bliss. Anything outside of the house is entertainment enough to wet my appetite. A recent experience that I got to share with my little sister was eating the infamous fugu, a particularly deadly fish due to its high levels of poison. But if prepared by a trained professional, this fish can be consumed, and so as a test to our will of life, my sister and I both set out to eat and drink the splendours of this fish. Aside from a curious tingle on the lips, I was not overwhelmed by the fugu sushi. The taste and texture was of little consequence but the build up to the event and surviving through it was enough to sate my appetite. The fugu sake on the other hand was divine. Charred fins of the fugu are sat in sake and infuse the cup with a wonderfully smoky flavour. I would recommend this to anyone. Even tastier than all the sushi though was the wit of the chef. I believe joke-telling is step three in sushi chef training and this man would have received an A. Comedy in old age seems to be a theme here.

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So as I mentioned, my little sister Anneliese visited me over the Christmas/New Year period. I hadn’t seen her in two years so it made for a wicked catch-up. To celebrate her visit, we made plans to road-trip Japan with friends. But before I get to that, I should mention the wonderful Christmas we had. So, Japanese people scarcely celebrate Christmas. To be fair, Christian influence in Japan is few and far between so there was never really any reason to celebrate it until commercialism swept over from America and encouraged the purchase of Malibu Stacy dolls. Many of my students for example spent the day in Juku (private tutoring) or their school clubs. Fortunately I managed to rope in a couple of my Japanese friends to celebrate Christmas with us avid followers of the tradition (because we’re so religious of course). A feast was prepared and we soon lost ourselves to the perils of time and alcohol. We ended the day at a local bar where every male present asked for my sisters’ hand in marriage, or at least they may as well have. A big brother’s job is perpetually challenged.

 

Two days later we left Minoh; Anneliese, Tom, Chris, Tess and I, making for an eccentric and eclectic soundtrack. Our first stop was Himeji Castle, widely regarded as the finest remaining castle in Japan. It certainly looked more impressive in person than the 3D puzzle I made a year prior. Japan’s history is so layered and omnipresent. Pockets of history sit on every second street. It’s a beautiful feeling to be constantly surrounded by this dense history. Walking in to Himeji Castle, one can envision the expansive backlog of events that would have taken place in those walls over the 700 years it has existed. It is a fortress like no other. It is the jewel of Himeji and the pinnacle of castle engineering I have seen to date.

The next day we were in Naoshima also known as Art Island. This beautiful island sits amongst many others in the sea above Shikoku. It boasts a number of instalments that will blow your contemplation station out your ears and decorate it to become the next exhibit. Everything was so inventive and original; I was perplexed as to how so much talent could exist on one small island. For example, at one point we were seated in a pitch black hall for 10 minutes until our eyes adjusted. As they did, a soft light roughly 10 metres in front of us slowly became visible. It seemed to be a screen, as if we were seated in a cinema, but on inspection there was in fact a large recess in the wall lit up by dim lights and a slightly opaque mist. Reaching out to touch the screen, my arm just kept going. It was an optical illusion which will linger in my memory for some time.  In another instalment there was a derelict house repurposed in to what I can only describe as the best venue for a rave in existence. Every room had its own theme, be it a two story statue of liberty or a decoration of walls that invite the mental image of ocean and madness in one evocative space. Then there was a tunnel to a glass staircase, time trapped in a pond and an indoor waterfall. Words fail to describe how amazing Naoshima was.

Our next destination was Dogo Onsen, recognized as the inspiration for the film ‘Spirited Away.’ As an obsessive Studio Ghibli fan myself, this stop was a big deal for me. Being a tattooed person, I was nervous that I would not be admitted entrance, so you would understand the flood of euphoria when I gained access. It was my very first onsen experience at one of the most renowned places in Japan. It was like bathing in the dreams of my younger self. It was pure magic and did much to relieve me of any stresses. Our next stop was Hiroshima.

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We arrived in the evening to our capsule hotel. After a bowl of Japanese curry (amazing), we set off on an adventure and found ourselves right outside the A-bomb dome in the Peace Memorial Park. The entire park really sets a mood. It stands as a beautiful memory to the tragic events that took place there at the end of the war. Nowadays Hiroshima is thriving. A very positive vibe fuels the many smiles of the city and of the people we met there. It also has a ripe music scene. We found a vinyl bar where a DJ had remixed Salmonella Dub in to his work – ひさしぶり. Then after a good night in Hiroshima we made the best decision of our trip, to travel down to Miyajima for New Years.

Miyajima was everything that one could want from a New Year’s destination and more. Not only was the area beautiful, consistently sunny and cheerful, but the backpackers where we stayed was buzzing with energy. After a day on the island petting deer, indulging in local foods and working our legs bloody, we returned to the backpackers for an intoxicating experience, both of the body and mind. Meeting new Japanese people has become a hobby for me. You’ll never meet a dull person and this night was no exception. A variety of personalities, local and foreign, made for a night to remember, despite my current difficulty doing so. The next day was a very belated and slow drive to Chris’ home in Kyoto to conclude our travels.

For the next two days we feasted on New Year themed food and drink, nabe and sake. We kicked our feet up, detoxed at onsen number two, and just plain pooched until we had regenerated our life-force. We were eight days on the road and it felt like only a handful of minutes. Nonetheless I slept 12 hours on my first night home.

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Driving in Japan is very straight forward especially if you’re from New Zealand where we too drive on the left-hand side of the road. At first I was extremely nervous. I was the only one driving and we had a fair distance to travel. Looking back now though, it really couldn’t have gone smoother. The front seat view of Japan on the road is truly unforgettable. It’s another life experience I can be proud of. This whole trip was a flurry of events that I am extremely pleased and proud to have experienced. I hope the pictures will aid in my attempt to convey its greatness.

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This holiday period has been amazing. I got to spend it with my little sister who I hadn’t seen in far too long. I got to travel Japan with great friends, see beautiful places, taste amazing food. Japan continues to entertain me and I’m constantly finding more and more reason to love this great country. So it is not without great thought that I have decided to stay for a second year. I love my job, I love my colleagues, my students. I love Minoh city and greater Osaka. I love the language, the food, the music, the fashion, the films. I miss New Zealand a great deal but this is such an opportunity to broaden my horizons and grow in all directions. I will return for Christmas this year for a holiday and reassess my situation then. But for the time being, I am a Japanatic and I want to be here for a second year. There is still so much I want to see and do in this beautiful place. At this point, I expect to return to New Zealand permanently in August 2018. It seems far away now but it has already been half a year since I left. Time doesn’t seem to exist in the same realm here in Japan. Or perhaps my age is catching up with me and now it moves faster. I am confident that I should stay on and continue my adventures. I hope there will be plenty to write about in the months to come. Stay tuned for the next entry as I embark upon the Northern-most prefecture in Japan: Hokkaido. Happy New Year.

Further in to Serenity

With the emergence of autumn comes a wicked cold breeze to raise the bollocks. This issue does little to damage my mood however, as I look on in wonderment at the beauty of autumnal changes around Japan. For the most part, New Zealand is lacking in this department. There are few deciduous trees in Wellington so to see the streets lined yellow with the fallen leaves has been a beauty to behold. Tourists flock to this great city of Minoh for the maple trees. They are ushered along a track by these malting beacons, all the way up to our great waterfall (legitimized as the third most popular waterfall in Japan). It certainly is a magical walk I assure you.

So my first weekend of the month was spent fishing with a new friend here. It was a resultant failure albeit a lot of fun. We did not catch the tachiuo fish we were after though as a foreigner in this very Japanese territory, I am blessed certain privileges. In this case, I was offered a local’s catch. An old man with a lifetime of fishing experience wanted me to share in his spoils, so he gifted me a fish without a second thought and of course it would be rude to decline. Once again, the kindness of Japanese people is not lost on me. I am ever grateful for the immense generosity of everyone here. It never ceases to amaze me. This particular fishing spot was situated on a freight ship graveyard. There was a strange serenity to it, being surrounded by dilapidating ships of yesteryear, the sun exposing their degradation via soft amber light on their rusted hulls. My gratitude to Kentarou for showing me the local Japan. It’s always more exciting than the tourist version.

Now I don’t protest the cold all too much. It offers me the chance to defy my better efforts of living a healthy lifestyle, leaving the comforts of the indoors and getting some sunshine on my face. And what with the release of the new Harry Potter installment, I have no regrets in taking a night to watch “Wild Beasts and Where to Find Them.” As a student of film, I feel it necessary to make a short review here. Let me begin by saying I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Eddie Redmayne was well cast to the lead role. The supporting cast, however, really threw me. The demand for a love story in any Hollywood production really sponges the “magic” of a film not intent on creating a devoted love story. This is Harry Potter man! Focus on what everyone wants to see. Spin some dope magic and show me some mythical creatures. I don’t need to see a ten minute finale attempting to claw out some sort of emotion toward a supporting act romance of which I have zero interest… zero. Don’t get me going on the state of Hollywood films right now. My cynicism in this field will start to show. Save that lecture for Friday nights at Happy Hour. But then Colin Farrell killed it as the antagonist and the New York setting was a nice change from England so I would say it is still a film worth seeing in cinemas although I wouldn’t put it on the same pedestal as the Harry Potter Harry Potters. Okay. I’m finished with that.

In other news, one of my students won an English speaking competition. I am now the proud coach of a gold medalist. She really obliterated the competition too. I’m so proud.

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Right, time for a history lesson. When I think of my country’s history, I think of year 10 social studies and the amount of sighs that left my body when we were told to read up on The Treaty of Waitangi and the arrival of British settlers. Both of which happened only within the last couple hundred years. New Zealand has great folklore what with Maui, Ra the sun god, and the great taniwha in Wellington harbour. But our history is so brief in comparison to other countries. Recently I went to a museum in Tsutentaku which holds items that date back to the 8th century. There are mind-blowing pieces depicting the 12 signs of the zodiac through anthropomorphic gods, statues of Buddha whose eyes penetrate your soul, and mythical creatures of tradition tale that were embodied on paper centuries ago and still remain for us to see in this museum. Japanese art and history really does rise above a lot of the world. Being an isolated country for such a long time, Japan has a truly unique culture that comes across as both strange and intriguing simply because it has such a different background to what I and certainly many others are accustomed to. It’s fascinating. It’s mesmerizing. It’s addictive to study.

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In any case, once again citing the weather, tis the season to be jolly. In only a matter of weeks I will be celebrating yet another Christmas and yet another year. Already I have spent a night at a Christmas festival here in Osaka city. Once again I am put in a strange situation where I am experiencing a cultural conglomeration. Every year at the Umeda sky building, the German consulate hosts a Christmas party in honour of the relationship between Germany and Japan. This means bratwurst and pretzels, candle dipping, Christmas ornaments, mulled wine, candied almonds, and harsh German Christmas carols about the butchering of deviant children. I love to sit down and go over in my head the ironic feeling of celebrating a German Christmas as a kiwi lad in Japan. The world seems to be shrinking. Everyone is getting closer together, cultures intermingling and all that. I felt such a comfort walking around these stalls, with the mouth-watering smells and the Christmas jingles leading me on. Set aside your notions of commercialism and Christmas still has a magic to it. Osaka has been adorned with lights. The winter-coated bodies walking around are not as hurried as they were only a month ago. It’s starting to feel like Christmas. Perhaps Japan will finally rest for a moment when the holidays come around. It would be a nice change to the franticness I have seen in the last four months. Everyone works so hard here. The teachers at my school are there for 12 hours some days. Anyway, I’m still a sucker for festive cheer and I hope it sweeps the nation.

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This last weekend was no different as far as festivities go. I was fortunate enough to be shown around Kobe by my Japanese friend. Little beknownst to me, there was a world famous lights festival going on. Having not been informed prior to the weekend, I was instantly blown away. Japanese festivities cut no expense. This event was amazing, from the stunning lights, to the delicious street food. But more than anything, the happy families and glowing aura from all of these people. The mood was so fervently positive. And then there is city itself. Kobe isn’t far from Osaka or Kyoto and yet it has a unique style, especially with clothing. Much like a Cuba Street style, store owners have made gallant efforts to create unique stores in which customers are forced to pause for a moment to take in all that is on offer when they walk in the door. As is expected, crowded Japanese cities like Osaka, Tokyo, and Kobe, must find space where they can acquire it. And as such, no space it unutilized. Walking in to a clothing store can often be overwhelming due to the sheer amount of products spanning the walls, rooves, crawl spaces, etc. I personally love it. It comforts me to be in a close knit web of people and clothing alike, uncertain as to whether that was an end table brushing against your butt, or a “cheeky” local.

This month has been a blast. For every day I spend in Japan, I feel more enlightened, more cultured, and hungrier for new experiences. It’s so hard to pack in all that I want to do here. Every opportunity I have is spent exploring new things and in return, I am filled with an energy I have not felt before. I’m so happy to be living here. And I have so much to look forward to in the months to come. Christmas is coming up and my little sister will visit me. A group of us will road trip around Japan. I will then go to the Sapporo Snow Festival and the Ghilbi Museum in Tokyo. Then I’m off to Okinawa in March for some sun, diving, and R&R. I need to give my thanks to so many people for for enabling all of this. I will do my best in the months to come to give back where I can, because if there’s one thing that mother taught me, it’s that giving is more important than receiving. The Christmas spirit is rising. じゃね。

Fear and Loving in Japan

I have seen the dark abyss of a child’s mind and it takes form as a Japanese holiday. To put in to words the fear in the eyes of a child who is put through this torture is indescribable. This truly is the darkest festival I have witnessed and participated in to this day, The Tengu Matsuri. I think back to my first horror movie and the fear that it lay in to my poor virgin soul. Fortunately at the time I could console myself with the knowledge that these terrifying characters on screen had no presence here in the real world. Sadly for these Japanese children, Tengu creatures are not virtual images on a screen, they appear in the night to reap havoc and physical harm upon children. This is a reality that I cannot imagine experiencing as a defenseless juvenile. Every tear shed by the innocence that night was justified.

Allow me to foreshadow the events of a Tengu Matsuri. Essentially, it’s a festival, a day for celebration, which should connote festive feelings right? You would think so. And I certainly thought the same as I walked up to the temple in the late of evening. Food stalls and happy families filled the streets. The atmosphere was brimming with fervent laughter and cheerful faces. Many of my students were present and in the prime of their happiness, perhaps doing their best to hide the anxiety welling up inside them. Then it began with the beating of a ceremonial drum (insert yet another Lord of the Rings reference). The ephemeral cheerfulness on the kids’ faces collapsed completely. Like a flame to an ant hill, they scattered in a wave with enough force to knock down a small elephant. I was drawn up hill toward the sounds of muffled screams under the deep bass of the drum. There at the temple doors under the lantern light stood a dozen men in but white dressing around their waste and groin, brimming with inebriated smiles. A beautifully crafted hand-mechanized dragon with lustful hunger in its movements swayed on the veranda, inciting terror and apprehension in to the white-faced children doing their best to hide in the ruffles of their parents’ clothing. And then came the Tengu… Okay I need to be as clear as I can about this. Tengu are Japanese goblin-like creatures with long noses and hyper-aggravated expressions on their faces. And the men that dress up as these characters: temple monks – oh yeah how intimidating can a monk be? Well as it were… Extremely. All the temple workers congregate prior to the event and drink together until they are swaying with intoxication. Then when the time comes, they don the costume of a demonic creature before running in to the crowd of visitors with bamboo sticks, smacking anyone they can get to. I’m serious. Drunk monks run around in a terrifying costume and beat upon people’s heads. It is said that being hit by a Tengu should bring good luck to the victim, hence the reason to celebrate such barbarity. I’d never seen anything more brutally old-fashioned in my life! I was hit five times to a point where I was bleeding from the skull, literally. The expression on my student’s faces upon seeing me wounded by these drunken creatures was priceless. If they weren’t already terrified, they were then petrified. It was so much fun! And yes I feel luckier.

So The Tengu Matsuri takes the cake for the highlight of the month. But then there was the Eikaiwa session where I volunteered to give English lessons to older citizens here in Minoh. Here I was told wonderful stories of yesteryear from the voices of wisdomed men. On the topic of sport, I learnt a lot from these men. One of them was a table tennis champion here in Osaka which of course is no small feat when this is the second largest city of Japan. Then I met a man who is now a professor in the study of martial arts. His stories could bring the dead back to life. Then I met a man who grew up in a mountain village where they would ski to school everyday. He showed me photos of the place and this village was seriously the manifestation of a fairy tale. There was so much experience at this one table and it was so fascinating that I quickly forgot that I was a volunteer worker and not a cross-legged child listening to folk stories. I listened to these tales of Japanese heroes like I listen to Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter, in complete memorization.

On the topic of music, when I first brought up that I was very fond of small-venue gigs I was told by the locals that they scarcely exist. This is not true. We found a cafe that has live music every weekend and it is fantastic. The performers of the night were so enthusiastic, so passionate; they were clearly riding the ambition of becoming the next Radwimps, rising up from the smalls of Osaka pub-venues. Their energy and creativity reminded me of the fervent expressionism back home in Wellington. It was beautiful. The following weekend, we went to yet another small-venue music event in what felt like an apartment more than a venue, with just the addition of a bar and complete turntable setup. A Steve Zissou lookalike manned the tables for a period of the evening, and getting to know him I discovered there is actually a very present, though esoteric scene here for such events. He had moved to Osaka as an English teacher only to become an events manager of electronica/drum n bass events. There were a lot of these types here actually, visitors turned resident. It’s a reality that many come face-to-face with when the beauty of Japan engulfs them. Perhaps I will empathize with these figures one day.

So following this ephemeral apartment intrigue, I managed to crane myself out of bed early next morning to attend my first ever American Football game. I felt a sense of irony attending an American Football game in Japan as a kiwi who knew only rugby before this day but it was hugely thrilling. I loved every moment of it. I now have a new passion for a new sport. Some of the plays made by this particular team were so advanced that I couldn’t help but feel awe at the level of profession. It’s an experience I heartily recommend to anyone who should so find the opportunity. A friend and I were escorted to this game by a pair of local girls which leads me to my concluding point. I implore that should you ever visit Japan, be it for a week or a year, go and meet the locals! You will never see the real Japan as a tourist. All the best places I have visited here have been recommendations by the locals. From the video game bars to the unique clothing stores, to the secret serene areas void from hordes of tourists and locals alike, you must exert yourself and really engage the residents here in order to experience Japan at a truly authentic level. You won’t regret it. I have never met a Japanese person who is uninterested in having a conversation, and you never know where it will go. Chaos theory, though chaotic, will lead you to the most beautiful ends.

Mr Miyagi McFly

I am a bonafide sensei. I am responsible for the education of juvenile delinquents. Sadly, all those Japanese samurai films could not prepare me for the position. I feel more like a herder of sheep than an educator of language. Never have I had to contend with such volatile energy. To explain the situation as a mere culture shock would be a gross understatement. I find myself physically drained by their fervent outbursts. Honestly though… It’s absolutely brilliant and I love it.

I had heard only good things about teaching in Japan, until a mere handful of days before I was set to teach. Meeting with the JETs of Osaka, I was fortunate enough to learn of the many horrors that can come from teaching Juniour High Schoolers. For starters, I was told of the deranged Southern Osaka school kids who rip up their textbooks and jump out windows. I was told of female teachers having their bras unhooked in the hallways and male teachers being grabbed by their fifth limb to compare size. Students use the school grounds as their home away from home, doing whatever they want, sleeping wherever they want, and disregarding any form of authority. These stories were the first reality check I had experienced since arriving in Japan a month earlier. Needless to say (but I will for the sake of dramatic intrigue), I was a little shaken.

Like setting up defences for the siege of Helm’s Deep, I prepared myself mentally for the nightmare I was soon to endure. But then the first day passed without a hint of misconduct, and then the second, and the third, and the tenth. Still today, weeks after my first day as an English teacher, I have yet to experience anything demotivating or even remotely degenerate from my students. In fact, I believe my school to be the best-behaved school I have ever entered, a shining star amongst black holes perhaps. The kids have such energy. The teachers are motivated and compassionate toward their students and the general vibe that umbrellas the school is a cheerful one. Being here has already improved my own state of mind. I should make it very apparent though that despite my school’s great personality, there has still been a lot of adjusting to do. Unsurprisingly, things are just a little different in Japan.

In order to offer context, Juniour high-schoolers are aged roughly 13 to 16 years old. For me, this was a very confusing age, during which I went through puberty and explored new avenues of pain and pleasure: romantically, spiritually, and intellectually. Thinking back on my own experiences at this age, I am concerned about the effects that this point in one’s life can have on a person. And yet, there are few dramas to report. Most of these kids arrive to school with a smile on their dial. My memories of this age are fraught with melodrama so it’s such a refreshing feeling to see that the children here are less jarred by the disturbances that this time in their life brought me.

I must say that my norms have been challenged a great deal in Japan. What I consider to be status quo is often radically different here. It’s the way students present their affection for one another that has me raising the brow. Sometimes I fear to turn a corner at the risk of seeing something that could damage my retinas. I don’t want to overdramatize this at all, I’m sure it’s not that big a deal, but these teenage boys really enjoy each other’s physical company. In the four weeks that I have been teaching here at Go-Chu, I have seen a plethora of rambunctious teenagers asserting their love for one another with what I can only describe as a very contrast set of gestures. Whilst the girls engage in the standard mode of affection through the means of group huddles, fuelled by roaring giggles, the boys literally mount one another. I have seen a cornucopia of strange food groups created by boys coming together. I have seen pancake stacks, five boys high. I have seen bacon on the skillet. I have seen human sushi rolls. The list is endless. And nobody bats an eyelid. It’s completely normalised here. You can only imagine my reaction when I’m invited to join the “fun.” I assume that with my narrow vision clouded by preconceived notions of school etiquette, I react in a very foreign way to what is a native commonality. I am still very much the new kid on the block and it will take time to get accustomed to Japanese norms but sometimes I feel like a leopard amongst lions and it’s startling, yet, fascinating.

Teaching has already had a huge impact on me. The microhumans at my school are incredibly polite and affable creatures. I have already chosen a few favourites to mentor due to our mutual interests, and I hope that my presence here can have a positive effect on them. I think teaching is for most people, an innate skill that can be activated by a catalyst – such as starting a job as a teacher… Seriously though, I wasn’t sure it would be a job for me. I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher when I was still in school but now I find myself becoming compassionate about the job. It’s hugely rewarding. Anyway, here are some photos of the past month:

From Wellington to Osaka

With great ambition comes great loss. Amidst the excitement of preparing for a year abroad, I almost forgot to think upon the effects of leaving my friends and family in New Zealand for the sake of Japan. One of the most life-threatening situations for me is to be in a state of comfort. To be comfortable in your job and in your home, with your friends and with day-to-day life in general, is life-threatening. Living in such a way invites one to become a potato and neglect adventure. The push it takes to get out of that state will often have to be a big one. I think that in this regard, I was fortunate to have a whole 9 months to work up the strength to push out from my comfort zone. The ticket: The Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme.

Applying for the JET is an arduous, lengthy process, which separates the weak from the willing. The application papers alone are dense with interrogative questions. If you can swim through that ocean, however, you may be asked to interview for your position in JET. Now, this interview takes place two months after the application submission date in November so come January, Christmas and New Years have passed. For me, the summer sun had already seeped in to my brain, and I was basking in festive carelessness. I wasn’t thinking about JET whilst we swam through the gorgeous waters of New Zealand. The email informing me of this interview was a cold shower to my 30 degree, browning skin.

A panel of three women were waiting to greet me at The Japanese Embassy on the 18th floor of The Majestic Building in Wellington City. Their in-depth questions were unnerving, but I felt confident in my answers. None the less, I walked out of that building with a degree of doubt in my mind. And once again, I had to wait… and wait. It wouldn’t be until April, shortly after Easter that I would hear any news regarding my status for JET. So yet again, I waltzed in to a state of uncaring, not thinking too hard on whether or not I would be leaving for Japan this year or not.

My father and I were sailing down the Pelorus Sound for our Easter holiday when I got the email. I had been selected for The Jet Programme. Honestly, this moment for me was life-changing. At first, there was shock, then excitement, then contemplation, then sorrow. There was so much to think about. I sat at the bow for a good hour, just wondering how my future would look.

The remaining three months in New Zealand felt like a 7-second vine edit from a full feature film. They were over in a flash. I said my goodbyes, packed my bags and made for the airport on the 31st of July. Leaving my life in New Zealand wasn’t so difficult, I knew I would be back before long; however, leaving my girlfriend was like removing a part of my person. Words cannot describe the difficulty of saying goodbye to the person you love more than anyone else… so I won’t put it in to words at all. 30 Wellingtonians left on that plane with me, all headed for Japan to start their new lives with JET, only ONE would survive. No but seriously, my destination: Minoh, Osaka.

Fast-forward one month; I am now working as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) for Daigo Juniour High School. I have a desk, garnished with decorative Kiwi iconography, I have a brand new bicycle complete with the basket, and I have a room with a couch, yes a couch *enter Richard Branson joke here.* Setting myself up has been a lot easier than I had expected. I can thank Minoh Association For Global Awareness (MAFGA) for that. However, I have met a number of bumps in my adjusting to Japanese living.

Arriving in Tokyo, I was fortunate enough to be battling a flu from New Zealand. It not only made me extremely tired, sneezy, coughy, and watery-eyed, it also made me feel like patient-zero, ushering in a new disease to a virgin country like a harbinger of the zombie apocalypse or the next swine-flu. For three days I sat through lectures on Japanese etiquette, teaching protocols, and workshops on how to play Simon Says. The experience was excruciating. This little bug wouldn’t stop me from exploring the streets of Tokyo, however.

The first night in Tokyo, we fled the glamours of the gaijin hotel, and made for the streets with ambition in our hearts. Neon advertising and sky rise buildings set the mood for a massive culture shock. We strayed through the mysterious, magical maze, like mice on the move for a manchego monolith. And we found it.

A group of six over-conspicuous foreigners walk in to a Japanese restaurant – punchline. An elevator takes us up past the many levels of seating for this restaurant chain. We exit the 1.5 cubic metre box in to a cloud of smoke that fills the room. Ushered to our seats, we find solace beneath the smog. I would be lying if I said it did not enjoy the atmosphere though, the smoke offered an authentic Japanese feeling. The place is bustling with locals filling their stomachs with the wondrous gyoza, okonomiyaki, and dollar beer. I replace my flu symptoms with those of the town belligerent for a night. Before long, our adventure takes us to the red light district, deeper down the rabbit hole. Japanese people have quite a drinking culture, and as such, it’s far too easy to find places that offer Nomihodai, better known to me as all you can drink. This experience cost us ¥2,000 or about $20. The overwhelming culture shock soon settled, and before long so did we, back to our gaijin hotel, but not before seeing a number of unforgettable sights.

Tokyo was exciting when we were out of the hotel. We had our first experiences with Japanese food and drink, we visited Hachiko at Shibuya crossing, I got a fitted suit by an over-touchy yet charismatic Japanese elder. It was great, but after three days of JET orientation, I was excited to get to my new home, Minoh, Osaka.

Feeling very much worse for wear, I was taken to Osaka via shinkansen (bullet train) to meet my contracting organization. Did I mention it was the middle of summer and close to 40 degrees? In full suits, a dozen of us met our contracting organization under the beating sun. They were quite amused by our formality. It turns out that Osaka people are far more relaxed than those of Tokyo, a trait that works in the favour of a Kiwi boy. The reception was lovely and we soon felt quite at home. A welcoming party was organized for us to meet our school principals, some local figureheads, and the Lower Hutt (My Hometown) friendship club.

There are five Wellington cats here in Minoh and we all lean on each other for just about everything, it’s very comforting. A large number of other JETs have also played a role in our feelings of comfort. Typically, I have only excellent things to say about living in Minoh thus far. The people are so friendly and the area is beautiful. We are right next to the city, and there is always something interesting happening.

It feels like there is a festival every week, you can’t travel ten blocks without seeing something going on. Our first weekend was spent at a Fire Festival and a Summer Festival. The fire festival began with children walking lanterns up a river, yes it was cute. Then without notice, there were Japanese wrestlers running around with flaming torches and after that the locals began spinning flaming staves, much to the delight of the audience. It set the scene for a good night. The Summer Festival, only 15 minutes West, was like a street fair with all sorts of food such as omusoba (yakisoba noodles wrapped in an omelette), games for kids, and a stage for comedy performers. It was a great way to meet the locals; you will find that almost everyone wants to talk to the new foreign kids on the block.

The schools are on summer break for the majority of August, so there was plenty of time to get properly acquainted with the area. We’ve been to Rinku, a nice city south of Osaka with an attractive shopping area by the name of Pleasure Town. We have made numerous trips to Umeda for the Pokémon centre, the crazy huge arcades and the sky building. We have been to a plethora of temples, shrines and worship sites. We went to the breath-taking aquarium in Kaiyukan. We’ve visited Todai-ji Temple in Nara for the world’s largest Buddha. Nara is also home to thousands of tame deer that will bow for a biscuit. I strongly recommend going to the treasure museum which contains 8th century statues and memorabilia, as well as a thousand-armed Bodhisattva that will stare in to your soul. We spent our most recent weekend in Namba’s Dotonburi where the city changes its colours after hours and you don’t want to go home until morning. I’ve seen beautiful Japanese architecture, Japanese 73 fold damascus knives, and the views of the largest cities in the world. I’ve eaten some of the best food of my entire life and gazed at spiritually penetrating sights.

It has been one month since I arrived in Japan and already I’ve been inundated with splendours beyond my imagination. I am filled with vigour by the wondrous place I now live in. I am beyond excited for what is yet to come. Tomorrow I will officially begin teaching English to Junior High Schoolers as a bona fide Sensei. Wish me luck.