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.
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.
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.
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.
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.