Friday, October 31, 2008

"We Must Do What We Must Do"

With a five-line email and three weeks' notice my holidays changed completely. The Thursday and Friday I thought I had off in the middle of November have been tacked on to the 'in-service days' at the end of my contract, leaving me with a useless fifty quid ticket to Kyoto and a hostel booking to cancel. Tomorrow morning I'm taking the train to Matsumoto, a small castle town in Nagano Prefecture, on the edge of the Japanese Alps. I guess I'd better make the most of it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

To A Coy Mountain

It was nothing more than a few snatched glimpses, peeping in and out of the trees and the approach to the station, but the snow-streaked cone was unmistakeably Mount Fuji. We scrambled out of our seats, craned our necks to the window, jabbered excitedly. The Japanese slept, or looked on impassively. Just another bunch of weird foreigners.

Fuji's appearances are as rare as a Sunderland derby win: other than the time I actually climbed it, I'd only seen the mountain twice before this morning. Once on a dawn Shinkansen ride to the airport, the other from my classroom window, hanging above the Tokyo skyline. Typically - maddeningly! - both times my camera was at home.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Late October, Tokyo

Autumn's here and the temperature's falling as fast as the leaves. Only twenty-one degrees today, and the sun was down by five o'clock. If it gets much worse I might even have to put a jacket on. That or move my scarf to the front of the wardrobe.

Back home it's raining. The daytime high is six above freezing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

'Tis The Season

Now the life's been sucked out of Halloween, and with shopping a close third to getting excessive amounts of sleep and visiting Disneyland in the average Japanese teenager's list of must-do everyday activities, Tokyo's department stores are already gearing up for their next big event.

That's right, Christmas.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Derby Day

I might be eight time zones and almost six thousand miles away from home, but these things still matter. Kick-off's 8.45 in Tokyo. I'm feeling dangerously confident.

Howay lads!

UPDATE: Every dog has its day, eventually. It's pathetic, but for the Mackems this is about as good as life ever gets.

Yesterday's Man

Talking of stereotypes, bad news for David Beckham who, in the three years since I was last in Japan, has gone from demi-god to half forgotten has-been.

A bit like his role in the England team, really.


Generally speaking, living abroad has taught me that a lot of our ideas about other nationalities have more than a grain of truth to them. The Chinese really can be rude, abrupt and money-obsessed; Czechs rarely smile until they've sunk at least five beers (and don't ever get them started on the Roma); the Korean temper is as hot as their food; Italians flirt with every woman except their mother and still think it's cool to wear sunglasses indoors (I swear in five months in Sicily I never once saw my landlady's eyes).

My current hosts, like our own island race, can be insufferably clannish and chauvanistic about their culture, and while they don't like sumo all that much, they do lap up karaoke, fall asleep on overcrowded trains (sometimes while they're standing), get pissed on two beers and will only when backed into the very tightest of tight corners ever say the dreaded word no.

The Japanese stereotype of us? I got my students to shout out some words: bowler hat, English gentleman, afternoon tea, checked clothes, Peter Rabbit, pickpockets, tall, good at football, and (with the aid of an electronic dictionary) reserved women.

Clearly, they've never been to the Bigg Market on a Saturday. Or St James' Park.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stealing A Country: Our National Shame

We are cursed with a government that sees personal freedoms as a cumbersome liability, exploits fear for its own ends, and would rather pander to prejudice than tackle it head on. It's evident in everything from ID cards and 42-days to the treatment of the Gurkha veterans, but most of all in the case of the Chagossians, a thirty-year scandal which makes me ashamed to be British.

The government's position is nothing short of contemptible, as is the US state department's claim that terrorists could make use of a bunch of rocks in the middle of the ocean. Although, saying that, there are many who would argue they already are.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Suntory Beer Tour

With some difficulty I managed to rouse myself from bed early enough on Saturday to do the hour long tour of Suntory's Musashino Brewery. It was an unsurprisingly surreal experience, conducted entirely in Japanese by a woman in a Butlin's jacket with a megaphone round her neck. The building was more like a nuclear power station than a place to brew beer, only marginally less interesting.

Much to my (continued) disappointment, the tour ended with a packet of salted rice crackers and three halves of lager (soft drinks if you come by bike!) rather than an unlimited supply of free beer. Even worse, we spent so long complaining I'd only just downed my second when we were kicked out.

Other than that, it was great.

Lazy Life

Although the days are way too long one thing I really like about this job is how little preparation it takes. I usually spend about 10-15 minutes each day planning, sometimes half as much again if I need to make materials. As for paperwork, all I've had to do so far is take a paper copy of the register and input it by computer once a week. Compared to my last job, it's a breeze.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Who Swears Wins

Almost. The world has certainly changed when you're so chuffed with a point at home to Manchester City. It could have been more, too, if not for another abject penalty decision from Rob Styles. Since when did a perfectly-timed tackle become a sending-off offence?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ground 103: Ajinomoto Stadium

It was lucky I'd had a few drinks beforehand because this was a dire, dire game. At kick-off Omiya were second bottom, behind Verdy only on goal difference. A few thousand aimless hoofs and one bit of soft defending later they were waist deep in sticky stuff and, after six defeats in a row, looking dead certs for the drop to J2. In England the atmosphere would have turned nasty long before Diego's late winner, but the Omiya fans carried on singing regardless, the final score incidental to the enjoyment of a sunny day out. At full-time the players stood in a line and bowed to the away end. We tidied up our beer cans, dropped them into rubbish bags at the exit, and headed home.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Vocabulary Building

There are three things my students never do: take notes, ask questions, or leave the room unless I actually stand by the door, hold it open, and usher them out one at a time. So I was doubly surprised today, at the end of a lesson on extreme adjectives, to see the whole class surround the board with their camera phones, snapping pictures of new words. It was (appropriately enough considering the subject matter) pretty hilarious.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The TEFL Trap

One of the many small ironies of the English teacher's life is being expected to improve your students' linguistic abilities at the same time as your own is slowly, constantly and, so it seems, irredeemably deteriorating. We've all had it, that awful feeling when you look at the whiteboard and realise you're no longer capable of spelling even the easiest of words. In the Czech Republic I saw a teacher spell habit with a double b; today, in the classroom next door, a scrawled dialogue began with the line Why are you so exited?; I once had three goes at architect while ten Italian teenagers looked on. But the symptoms are even worse for those of us who had no grounding in the language at school. Early on in my teaching career an over-keen Korean student sprung a question about transitive and intransitive verbs on me, right in the middle of class. It was way above my level of grammatical competence (even with my degree in English I would've struggled to explain the difference between a noun and a verb). Luckily, it was way above his too. Like all good teachers, I bluffed it out.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Things You See In Yokohama

There were two of them in the pushchair, dressed in frilly white hats and baby blue polo shirts, but it was the mother I noticed first. She was wearing a tight leather mini-skirt, matching boots turned down at the knee, and sunglasses that masked a good half of her face, a pair of bell rope-sized pig-tails swinging from the side. As we passed her children turned their faces towards me. It took another second before I realised they were dogs.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Daily Grind

Don't get me wrong, it's great being in Tokyo, but Monday to Friday my life is a set routine. Up at quarter past seven, on the train at 8.39, in class forty minutes later. I teach from twenty past ten to six. In my three allotted breaks I walk in circles round the campus. For lunch I have Power Donburi (a bowl of boiled rice and pork strips topped with fried egg yolk that hits your stomach likes a hammer) or whatever I can grab from the shop by the classroom (yesterday was a white rice triangle wrapped in dried, salted seaweed, a passable approximation of a Danish pastry with caramel in the middle, and a pack of three thinly-sliced sandwiches with ham and processed cheese). The air conditioning flits between 22 and 24 degrees. I make the same jokes six times a day, five on Mondays.

I'm home by half seven, cook, go jogging along a cycle path, sit on the computer, read for thirty minutes, and fall into bed by midnight. Fridays a bunch of us hit an izakaya (a Japanese pub that serves snack food as well as alcohol) by the station where everything on the menu is 300 yen.

Pretty much, we live for weekends.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Jimenez Departs

"To pursue other interests" (renewing his 'executive' season ticket at Stamford Bridge?) Wanted: One vice-president (player recruitment). No prior experience. Spanish contacts only.

Song Day

Today was Song Day, a chance for students to learn English through the medium of popular music. In practice, this meant I got to listen to John Lennon singing Imagine twenty-four times in seven hours. After fifteen piano intros I finally understood what had motivated Mark Chapman.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bald, Naked Man

Chases policemen with a rock and plastic pole. "He must be a bit crazy," says Japanese passer-by.

Banana Diet

The latest Japanese fad is the Banana Diet. Eat nothing but bananas in the morning, anything you want for the rest of the day, and make sure you're tucked up in bed by midnight.

There are two things you can't find in the world's biggest city: yellow fruit and overweight women.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Omiya Down

Meanwhile my Japanese team continued their headlong plummet to J2 hell, tonked four-nil at home by a side without a win in ten and three players light through suspension. Next up is third from bottom Tokyo Verdy. Away.

A Point!

I woke up to my mobile screaming the time in Japanese, switched on the laptop, made a cup of tea, replied to some emails, then resigned myself to looking at the score. Out of the corner of my eye all I could see was Everton 2...

Thank f*** for Steven Taylor!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Afternoons in Onsens

I solved my bathtime dilemma with a trip to the Jindaiji hot spring in Chofu, six minutes away on the express train to Shinjuku. There were four outdoor pools, a wooden barrel that shot jets of warm water down the small of your back, a sauna room and hot tub at only eight quid and change for the whole of the day.


Like almost everything else in my bathroom the tub is made from a runny-custard coloured plastic. It's big enough to sit cross-legged in, head and shoulders touching the back wall, knees three quarters of the way up the sides. By wedging the soles of my feet flat against the wall, arching my back so only the middle of my spine touches the bottom and holding on to the sides with either hand I'm just about able to dunk my hair in the water.

In future I think I'll be sticking to showers.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

University Students Arrested

For possession of 0.3 grammes of "dried plant material". Only in Japan would students smoking dope make the national news.

Mount Takao

High on sake and 300 yen beer, I stumbled, panted and sweated my way up 599 metres of Mount Takao. It took an hour and a bit to the top and half as much back down - most of it in the company of middle-aged Japanese in top-of-the-range hiking gear. A metal sign at the summit showed where Mount Fuji should have been, but in the haze all I could see was Tokyo sprawling like a fat man on a saggy couch.

"F*** off. F*** off. It's your last f***ing chance"

I don't care what Kinnear manages on the pitch, anyone who opens a press conference with the line Which one is Simon Bird? You're a c*** will do fine for me.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Scraping The Barrel

No matter which bunch of businessmen take over the club, where we finish in the league this season, or who ends up as manager, the biggest indictment of Dennis Wise's spell as commander-in-chief is this - that our squad was so bad we considered re-signing Stephen 'Can't pass, can't run, can't tackle' Carr.

There's a reason he's a free-agent. It's because he's shit.