Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Ship Without A Sale

So, no sale until summer (or at least not at the inflated price Ashley is looking for). Kinnear's done a decent job, no more, and there's nothing in his track record to suggest we're going to be making a charge up the table (as the otherwise anonymous Michael Owen suggested on the back of one good result against Aston Villa). Without some new faces in January, the most we can hope for this season is simply to stay up. We're like a ship without a sail - and half of the passengers want to jump overboard.

Train Ride to Jogasaki

The seats on the Alpha Resort 21 had been turned to face the sea, blue and choppy, breaking on rocks and black, volcanic sand. We glided through Ito; the man behind finished his beer and began to snore. Autumn hadn't come this far south - the trees were still heavy with leaves, only now beginning to yellow. We ate tangerines we'd just picked in Usami and matched up islands to points on the map. Too late, we realised we'd overshot our stop.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Go Home and Procreate

Sounds like a plan to me.

To Work and Back

My commute's been a whole lot more enjoyable since I came across the library. No more scouring the train for a space between bleary-eyed workers in beetle-black suits or counting station platforms, closed-up eyelids and sloping heads. Instead, I saunter on to the carriage with a book, stand with my back against the metal rail, and work through a chapter's worth of Rebus, several pages of Kobo Abe, or a short story and a half by Yasunari Kawabata.

I never once look up before Mejirodai.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


After the panoply of delights that is teaching in an FE college, my workload here is a walk in the park. I've been busy this week with my final reports: circling numbered boxes, then adding some pre-prepared suggestion codes (B078 - should attend class more; B004 - should sing English songs aloud) to the bottom of the page. All in all, it took a couple of hours - or about the same length of time as getting a single pre-Entry student enrolled on a course.

I'll miss this job when it finishes. Maybe even enough to come back.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Find A Fascist

Yesterday I finally had time to browse the record of UK based fascists otherwise known as the BNP membership list. Fittingly, much of it reads like an elegy to an England that never existed for nine-tenths of the people who lived there: tea with the vicar and village fetes, cricket whites and croquet on the lawn. A member of Yorkshire CCC, name change by deed poll to Placidly, won't be renewing (unhappy with an Excalibur order), ex-serviceman, former proof reader (BA Language and Literature). Like minor characters in a Graham Greene novel, the respectable face of the party lives in the twilight, refugees from the surrounding world; even their hobbies are anachronisms - freshwater fishing and classic Ford cars, amateur radio and church crawling, medieval longbow, knitting, cross-stitching and "helping people in need" (though presumably this excludes foreigners, blacks and those Muslims in the corner shop).

Skimming down, there was a house four streets away from me, a former councillor for South Shields (Progressive, ironically), email addresses proclaiming englishloyal and sexymisscrosby, a businessman (international, but then who isn't nowadays?), 73 Squadron Osnabruck and, more frequently, proof of entitlement seen (not only foreigners sponging of the state, then).

How to beat the BNP, squalled the odious Hazel Blears in the following morning's Guardian. Judging by the state of their members, they're doing a pretty good job of it themselves.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Autumn Day in Tokyo

Where To Now?

If you don't want to teach children or spend half your day commuting to one-on-one lessons with businessmen, finding a good TEFL job in Europe can be a very slow experience. So far there have been only titbits: a school in Spanish Morocco that looked wonderful until I scrolled down and saw the kindergarten classes; Western Siberia I wrote off as too cold to start in January; Porto would be great, but I'm much more interested in picking up Spanish than Portuguese.

I've been here before. When I left Korea for the third and final time I had telephone interviews for Warsaw, Turin and Istanbul. Just before Christmas I turned them all down, on a whim. A few hours later I saw the advert for Sicily. I've never once looked back.

Sunday Morning Heaven

I woke up late to the sun shining on mountains, had a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich (Japanese rashers, the shape and thickness of a bookmark) while I read slowly through the last ten pages of The Great Railway Bazaar, then looked up last night's score on the BBC. Chelsea 0 Newcastle 0. In these times, it's as good as a victory.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Climbing the Oku-Tama

Armed with four photocopied pages from a fifteen-year-old guidebook, I took the local train an hour west to Kori Station for a three-peak hike through the Oku-Tama. The front car was packed with Japanese walkers, metal poles and camera tripods poking out of their designer day-packs. A man dressed all in red pushed his palm against the driver's carriage window, half blocking my view. There were weeds along the track and small, two-storey houses with gardens the size of a parked car. Two women in white face masks sat either side of me, hiking hats pulled low so that only their eyes and ear lobes remained contagious. Above the doors, a murdered ex-cabinet minister was on the TV news, followed by pictures of a Dutch seaside town.

For the hour and a quarter to the top of Mount Otsuka we tramped ever upwards, from narrow paths that had conifer roots sticking up like bones, through deep, biscuit-brown piles of birch leaves with the texture of tracing paper, to railway-sleeper risers scattered like matchsticks. We hurried on to Fuji Peak Garden, finding only a few picnic tables in the woods and a path to the Mitake-san cable car, where we hit a slow-moving town of concrete pavement, metal drains, electricity cables strung above hiking trail signposts, beer vending machines, souvenir shops selling wooden Buddhas and buckwheat noodles, bags of lemons and turnips for 200 yen (you paid by leaving two coins in a moneybox), and a two-hundred-year-old shrine that doubles as a mountaintop.

Continuing on to Mount Hinode, we lost the crowds within a few hundred metres, dropping down through conifer forest until the final climb to the circular summit. In the distance, Shinjuku stood like a citadel in a dusty brown haze, far across the urban sprawl. There was the sound of a transistor radio, a couple putting orange peel into an empty tin of Pringles, an plastic box of sushi and the hiss of camping gas. In the corner was the sign pointing us down to Hinatawada.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Upside of the Down

The plunging pound may be a worry for some, but for itinerant English teachers in Japan things are getting better by the day. When I arrived two months ago, 10,000 yen was worth just a little under fifty quid, more or less what it was last time I was here in 2005. This afternoon it was up to £71 - which makes the hundred grand I managed to save out of last month's pay (and the 250,000 I'll pocket two days before I leave) look a whole lot better than it did when I signed the contract.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On A Late Night Run

With one thing and another I haven't been able to run much recently. In fact, I'd almost forgotten how much I enjoyed the route: the two-lane cycle path shared with returning office workers, shirts loosened at the top button, and the dark shapes of cyclists without lights. Onions browning between houses in small, furrowed fields. A woman in a golf visor holding a carrier bag open for her dog to shit into. Three vending machines, bright and incongruous beside a rice paddy. The slight incline over the railway tracks and the turn by the river. Stacks of metal beer kegs piled-up behind the Suntory brewery. Trumpet flower scent and a green and white, floodlit cube with the name of a supermarket, hanging in the night sky. The illuminated metal cylinders where I turn for home that always make me think of China. The public bathouse at the end of my street, laundry spinning in machines and an old man closing his bakery for another night. I stop by the bins, jog up nine flights of stairs, key in the door code, and stumble to my bed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

His Master's Voice

The company president had on a dark blue suit and a paternalistic smile, worn like a necktie, as a fixture of his dress. Like an emperor, he travelled with a retinue to feed him names before the start of each audience. There was the clatter of hard-soled shoes outside my classroom door, a voice said "Michael desu. Igirisu-jin", a file snapped shut, and suddenly I saw an outstretched hand in front of my chest and greying hair, gelled back at the sides. "It's Michael, isn't it? How's everything going? Any problems?" I tried to squeeze out a reply, but he'd already hurried on. "You're from England, right? I've been told you're doing a great job. Thanks a lot. Keep up the hard work." Another smile, polite laughter, then the door was closed and I was left alone with my baggy suit and the lingering smell of aftershave.

Fuchu Library

The find of the week has undoubtedly been the Fuchu City Library, which one of my workmates stumbled across by chance while transporting a carrier bag of beer to the park. It's a proper Aladdin's Cave of English-language books (everything from Vonnegut to Yasunari, a complete set of Rebus to Basho's haiku travelogues), foreign magazines, DVDs and - wonder of wonders - VHS cassettes (my flat, like all shoebox-sized abodes, comes with a combined portable TV and video player, which until yesterday had remained unplugged). Our morning commute is now marked by its complete lack of any social intercourse. Who needs to talk when you can lean against the handrail and read The Little Prince?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hanging With The Cool Cats

With the majority of Japanese working sixteen hours a day then coming home to flats the size of a litter-tray, life can be hard for pet-starved Tokyoites. Luckily, help is at hand in the form of the imaginatively-monikered Nekobukero, where for the small sum of just 500 yen (about two quid fifty before the pound went through the floor) you can spend all day stroking, feeding and generally bothering the hell out of a bunch of flea-ridden moggies in a themed cats' house (good job someone spotted the need for that possessive s or they'd have some seriously disappointed male visitors on their hands).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Christmas Lights, Fuchu Station

Twenty-foot high Christmas trees in department store forecourts, Jingle Bells playing in a 7-11, a row of tatty baubles in the 100 Yen shop and KFC gearing their staff up for the December 24th rush. Well, there are only thirty-eight shopping days to go I suppose.

Cold Day In Nikko

For the second weekend in a row I was out of the house for half past six - this time for the long train ride north to UNESCO-listed Nikko (in Tochigi Prefecture, the first place I ever lived in Japan). As you can see, the crowds and autumn leaves were both at their peak.

And next Saturday I'll be getting up at noon.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Self-Service Society

Japanese vending machines are as ubiquitous as sheep in Australia, only without the practical benefits to lonely, single males. There are reckoned to be about 5.5 million of them in the country - one for every twenty-five people - selling everything from flowers to fishing bait, cigarettes and beer to the frankly unforgettable bread in a can (sadly, the machines dispensing soiled underwear have disappeared from the seedier corners of Tokyo).

Although this seems to suggest that number might be a bit of an underestimate.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

White Heat

For a high-tech country Japan adopts some pretty low-tech solutions. Mostly this has to do with keeping as many people as possible in some kind of employment - how else could you explain the old man in a hard hat and rubber flip-flops directing non-existent traffic around clearly-marked roadworks on a narrow backstreet? Or elderly ticket collectors who stand behind desks within touching distance of a self-service machine? All day today I watched two women work a 200-metre stretch of road with a twine brush and a dustpan the size of half a sledge, sweeping zelkova leaves into piles by the pavement. When they left at four, the road was no cleaner than it had been when they started.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cooling Off

The middle of week seven. We've snuck past halfway. It's right about this time that things normally begin to cool - relationships as quickly as the climate. The danger of doing short-term work in a country as alien as Japan is that you wind up teaching, living and socializing with at least one person who you'd barely give the time of day to under any other circumstances.

In my experience this never ends well.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Hiking the Western Tama

The view from Mount Jinba, slap bang on the border of Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures. I was home at two this morning, and back on the train for half past six. Four peaks and a long way later we made it to the rundown town by Sagamiko Lake just as the streetlights were coming on.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Coming Home

I started my last day in Matsumoto in a hotel onsen. The morning breeze blew dark red leaves into the outdoor pool. Through the steam I looked up at a pale blue sky and densely forested hills. Except for a fat man from Gibraltar, I had the whole place to myself.

Afterwards I whizzed round town Japanese-style, on the back of a mama-chari (mother's bike). The centre
had been closed for a festival. Stall fronts flapped in the wind, there was the smell of red beans and fried noodles, teenagers jumped around to hip-hop on a stage under traffic lights, a jazz band played in front of a cafe, a dance troupe blocked a street. By the time it got dark, we were already halfway home.

Stuff I Learned This Week

That even for a story about a Sunderland supporter becoming chancellor of Sunderland University, the mackems still need to go to Newcastle to take a pretty picture.

Joey Barton is actually a very good footballer, but still an accident waiting to happen.

A Confederacy of Dunces gets a whole lot better one hundred pages in.

A single vowel can make a very big difference (For the record, go-con is an innovative Japanese dating strategy whereby five men and five women hook-up in a public place; gokan will get you twenty years in jail - and a certain kind of respect from at least one of your male students).

It's possible to get sick of tofu. And curry rice.

Going to Shibuya dressed as Andy Warhol gets the girls. Going to Starbucks with a Teach Yourself Japanese book doesn't.

Lemsip really works. Eventually.

Friday, November 07, 2008


Twenty-six, twenty-one, eighteen kilometres to go. The speedometer flickered around 40, we entered yet another concrete tunnel. Over my shoulder middle-aged Japanese sat quiet and uncomplaining on fold-out seats in the aisle; two women picked up a conversation in French. The engine strained, the driver pushed a button to start another loop of adverts, traffic built-up patiently on the road behind.

The walk to Myojin Pond was flat and sunny, but the Japanese were dressed for a National Geographic expedition: waterproof boots, gaiters, retractable hiking poles, top-of-the-range Nikons with metre-long lenses and tripods, Gortex hats, designer jackets, and bells on their backpacks to ward off bears.

Which is slightly over the top when the biggest danger you face is the threat of a falling leaf.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Teacher's Voice

Since I came back from holiday I've been struggling to maintain a dynamic classroom presence while sounding like Macy Gray post-laryngectomy. For a language teacher losing your voice is about the worst thing that can happen to you, but right now it's calamitous. According to the terms of my contract, if I can't teach I not only lose a day's salary but also have to make-up the lessons on "a normal business day" - i.e. I get stuck with more work for zero extra pay.

This is, indisputably, a bastard.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Change Is Gonna Come

We got the news between classes, in the first afternoon break. The two Americans I work with got all excited, their teenage, one-party-state, shopaholic students were mostly nonplussed. "So guys, did you hear the news? Obama won. He`s the first black president...he beat McCain."
There was a moment's silence. "Who...who`s McCain?"

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Matsumoto Castle

Local Train to Matsumoto

The conductor walked the length of the train, touching the peak of his cap and bowing as he entered and left each carriage. Two old women in hiking boots passed boiled sweets to each other; the man opposite, bent forwards by the angle of his iron-hard seatback, turned another page in his book, bound in shiny brown envelope paper; people slept, their heads lolling around with the movement of the train. I folded my legs under the seat and tried my best to sleep between stations, opening my eyes to see a children's cartoon map of Fuji, persimmon trees, people dragging bikes in bags. As we pulled into Matsumoto a piped voice announced our arrival, drawing out the final syllable until we were halfway up the stairs. All around the station there were snow-capped mountains.