Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On a beach in Thailand...

Ahh, the power of the I am, not ten metres from the beach, and still able to post about my goings-on. The road to this small beach may be non-existent, but the internet is fast and ubiquitous. This is where I'm staying.
View Larger Map It's pretty much heaven on earth, white sandy beaches, delicious restaurants of all kinds right on the beach, many people of all different ages, and a relaxed and easy-going island atmosphere. Today it's been raining and windy, but otherwise the weather has been picture perfect. The moon is so bright at night that you can see as clearly as day. I don't have any pictures for yout yet; my camera is up at the bungalow and I don't feel like walking up to get it.

The trek to get here was a slog. After taking the train into Sapporo on Thursday night, there was a mixup, and I couldn't get into my friends house. I ended up sleeping in an internet cafe near the station (although that's not the hardship it sounds, cafes in japan have private booths, showers, free drinks, and reclining chairs..they're meant to be slept in by people who missed the last train home. If they didn't leave the lights on, or play soft-jazz all night they would be perfect) which ended up being a good move. I had to take the first train out in the morning to make it to the airport on time, but even being so close to the station I still missed as I took to long showering at the cafe. In any case, it didn't particularly matter, as it only takes 10 minutes to check-in, go through security, and board your plane in Japan. It's sooo much nicer then the endless lines and security rigomarole of home.

I arrived in Bangkok in the afternoon, and the weather was absolutely stiflingly hot. I took the bus into Banglamphu, the backpackers district, which was an adventure in itself. As you leave the airport, you climb onto the elevated freeway, and shantytown's and slumbs spread underneath you, until in the distance, highlighted by the blood-red sun, (which is red because of the smog) you see the skyscrapers of downtown. The vista aggressively highlights the economic disparities here, and it was the first time that I really felt that I was journeying through Sout-East Asia.

The drive through Banglamphu was similarly gorgeous, as the whole area was lit with lights, and the streets teemed as the Thai election, the first since the bloodless coup in 2006, was taking place two days later. After more than in hour in the inner-city traffic, made worse by cars parked in the street, and scooters weaving through the crowds oblivious to cars, pedestrians or sidewalks, we made it to Th Khao San, the backpackers street, and one of the major places of residents for tourist in Bangkok. The street was completely packed with people of all nationalities, going into and out of bars, restaurants, go-go dance halls and a thousand other places. I wandered around, somewhat lost, for 20 minutes or so, until I manges to find the ferry company to Koh Phangan. I caught the bus, which took around 12 hours to reach the port town. And from there, I took the ferry to Koh Phangan. It was similarly sweltering in Thong Sala, the main port city of the island. As soon as I stepped off the ferry I was assailed by taki drivers, offering to take me where I wanted to go in their songthaew. The songthaew is basically a pickup truck, with benches put along the sides in the back, and an open but covered roof. They are the main transportation around the island, if you don't take a boat, or rent a scooter.

After a harrowing hour long journey through the jungle which could optimistically be described as "roads," but which are in reality so washed out as to be dirt and rocks slopes, I finally arrived at my destination, the small beach of Au Tapan Nai Noi.

Since then, I've been lolling on the beach with the friends I've made here. Sleeping, swimming, and suntanning during the day, partying at night. It has been so idyllic and relaxed, that is, except for the crazyness that is the Full Moon Party.

The Full Moon Party has to been seen to be believed. It is an absolute madhouse, quite unlike anything I've been to before. It outdoes any rave, any rock festival that I've ever seen. Jen and Jackie, two Canadians who now live in Kenya, started the night off with me quietly enough. First, we made our way to one of the beach resorts down at the south end of the beach, as they had happy hour, and 100 baht cocktails from 5-7. Afterwards, we walked down to the other end of teh beach, and had a large thai barbecue at a different resort. We absolutely gorged on seafood and other treats, (I had sirloin steak and mussles with thai curry, which was unbelievably good) as we knew that we'd be drinking a lot later. We had a couple of large bottles of Singha, (a thai beer) but I took it slowly and paced myself, as I knew it would be a long night. Finally, at 11pm we caught the longtail boat down the coast of the island with some other friends of ours, and arrived at Had Rin, the site of the full moon party.

It certainly wasn't what I expected, and I think because of that, I didn't take full advantage of it. We disembarked from the boat, and made our way up the beach to the drink stands, where a hundred different stall where all selling the standard Full Moon drink, a plastic bucket, into which they poured a bottle of thai whiskey, a can of coke, and a bottle of Thai Red Bull. The whole thing went for the equivalent of $8. Now, to some of the more hardcore among, that may sound somewhat large, and yet tame, but let me assure you it is not. The Thais invented Red Bull, it was first made here, and it is quite a bit different than the stuff back home. Thai Red Bull is rocket fuel, as there are no legal limits on the amount of caffiene, guarana, and (I suspect) pseudo-speed. I was already half-cut when I arrived, but promptly bought a bucket, drank it, and went into a trance, dancing to ear-splittingly loud House music for 6 hours straight, till the sun burst over the sea. All in all, I have perhaps 15-20 mins of memory of the event, the rest is a blur. I didn't move around, I didn't see my friends, but I did acquire several mysterious bumps and scrapes.

Unfortunately, I missed the boat back to my beach, and was hence stuck on the beach at 8am, as the music continued to pump and people variously, threw up, took drugs, passed out, had sex, and went swimming in the garbage and piss-filled water. Although the party was set to continue until 6pm, (at which point the Christmas Full Moon Party was to begin) I desperately wanted to leave. As I am staying at a small and distant beach however, the taxi drivers wanted a princely sum of over $40 to drive me back home. I decided to take the taxi back to Thong Sala instead, hoping that the ferry would arrive with new tourists who also needed a ride to the beach. Unfortunately, no one arrived who did, except for Jen, but I never saw her, as she was passed out not 20 metres away in a different taxi. I gave up and paid the money, arriving back at the beach around noon. I stumbled home, striped down in my bungalow, and passed completely out.

Finally, around 6pm I woke up, and headed out for dinner. My Christmas night was fairly quiet, but after the crazyness of the night before, that whas undeniably a good thing. Today, I've been calling home, browsing the internet and taking it easy. I still have more than a few days here, which I am very thankful for, so in the next couple days I will probably do some scuba diving, snorkelling and hiking, that is, if I can peel myself off the warm sand and away from the embrace of the beach bar...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On the Way Out...

Wow, crap, it's been awhile since I posted! Errh, in my own defense however, I have been busy with other matters. Look, I finally finished another video! It's called Episode 3, but really, it's more of a mini-episode. Catch it here.

It's footage I shot of a hike that a bunch of us did back in August. Yeah, August. My current editing speed is about a minute a month, which is beyond pitiful, and into the realm of not even trying. But I have been filming quite a bit, and I promise that, come January, and the students being on break, I WILL get a little more done.

Well, with the self guilt out of the way, why don't I update everyone on what's been going on? Basically, since my last post, and with the exception of last week, I've been doing a ton of traveling.

The first weekend in December, I headed to Sapporo on Saturday, the 1st, for the Sapporo Mid-Year Conference. This once-a-year business trip is paid for by the Board of Education, and while the seminars range from moronic to useful, it's simply a great way to catch up with friends who don't live close to me. The parties were off the wall, (including the trippy karaoke bar pictured) and by the time I returned on Tuesday, I was exhausted. The best part of the trip however, was that both my Junior High Japanese Teachers of English, and the Elementary teachers came as well. 8 in all came with me, which was very unusual, as there were only about 40 Japanese teachers from all of Hokkaido invited, the vast majority from Sapporo. I was really proud to see my teachers really going at it, trying their hardest to understand all the English around them! And of course, it was a lot of fun going out in the big city with them.

The weekend after was another Musical rehearsal weekend, this time in the Southwestern town of Toyako. Toyako is quite famous for it's hot springs, as well as it's volcanoes. One mountain near the town is called "Showshinzan" because it erupted out of a farmer's field fifty years ago. We went to it, and smoke was boiling from the top. (Video coming soon.) Progress on the musical has been slow, and our lack of a pianist to play the parts is really REALLY frustrating, but I think we are still making progress. Actually, one of my Junior High School teachers has said he may be able to play the parts for a recording, and may even be able to come to the rehearsals, which has really lifted my spirits a lot.

School has been normal and routine, if occasionally frustrating, which is pretty much par for the course. Most of my classes are working on long term projects right now, and are not learning new grammar etc. so I have very little to do inside or outside of classes. This has been perfect, because I've spent most of the time preparing for my trip to Thailand, and getting Christmas stuff in order. I left a bunch of stuff, (like my transportation in Thailand) to the very last minute, so I was relieved today when it all finally came together. From Bangkok, I take an all-night bus, then a high speed ferry for 6 hours, then a jeep through the jungle for an hour, or a Thai long-boat around the coast of the island for 1 hr, so it should be quite the adventure. I'm really looking forward to it, and have already kind of checked out from my work responsibilities, but that's also partly because I just have so much other stuff going on right now! I'm really trying to prep a lot of the musical stuff for when I get back in January, I'm thinking about running for the Hokkaido JET President's Council, I've still got Squash going on, Gregory wants me to take up Kyuudo, or Japanese Archery, I really REALLY need to buy a snowboard and hit the slopes, and my Adult Conversation classes start at the end of next month! Busy times in Japan...but I wouldn't want it any other way.

Anyways, last weekend was supposed to offer a bit of rest and relaxation, as I wasn't travelling, but it ended being just as busy as any other. On Friday I was finally able to convince the elementary school JTE's to go out for a night. (Several of them are pictured in the top picture, which was taken at our party in Sapporo.) We were supposed to go to Torisei, the local fried chicken, sushi, beer etc. izakaya in town, but it was packed with companies having their "Bonenkai" or "Year-Forgetting-Party." The schools are having them too, but unfortunately I will miss them while I am in Thailand. On Saturday I went for one of my very rare shopping trips to Obihiro, in order to pick up Christmas presents for my family. I failed my saving throw vs. shiny! however and was literally FORCED to pick up a new digital camera. It's a Canon IXY 10, and is quite purty, quite good, and very very small (It's about the size of a pack of playing cards.) It's 7.1Megapixels, and I bought two 2gig SD cards for it, ($15 each, each one hold 700 pictures) and the whole package cost me less than $280....It's at a very nearly commodity price point, and it's a really awesome and small camera, far, far better than my measly 2 megapixel cell phone camera. So all the pictures after this point were taken on it.

Saturday night was especially busy, as I had two different parties in different towns to attend. First up was my Squash Bonenkai, at the Western (All-you-can-eat-barbeque-with-candy-and-sushi-and-ice-cream-and-all-you-can-drink-beer) in Otofuke. Don't believe for a second that Japan is a land of rice, and fish and healthy diets all the time. :D It was quite delicious, but wrapped up around 9 pm, when Chris picked me up to drive back to Shikaoi, for another "Pure-Malt" party.

These, put on the by the Pure Malt center in town, are designed to bring the 20-something girls who stay at the center together with the farmers of Shikaoi. It sounds weird I know, but what ends up coming out of all this is a great, nowhere-else-in-japan party, with live DJ's and Bands, an incredibly cheap all-night all-you-can-drink/eat (less than $10), and more young people then I knew even existed in Shikaoi. I rolled out of there around 2AM, and stumbled home early, because I had to wake up at 8AM the next morning.

Sunday, I had a special squash day. I originally thought it was a tournament, but it turned out to be an open-house for the club, so we had a lot of first-timers there. (Video Soon!) I didn't get to play as much as I had hoped too, but overall it was still a fun time. I got to play the club-founder (an ex-army officer with great English) in a match twice, beating him twice, and so winning the bet of "two beer."

And of course, Sunday night, I went to the Onsen with Chris which has become a bit of a weekly thing. Sunday is actually perfect, because nothing is going on, and I can sit in the hot water, rest, and get ready for the next week. I made great plans to clean my house, etc, none of which I've followed through on. Meh, that's what January is for!

Have a Good New Years!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Strange Times

This week, time has seemed...out-of-sync. That's really the best way to describe it. Perhaps a change is coming, I'm not really sure.

This weekend I had Thanksgiving dinner on Friday, which was a holiday here in Japan. It's kind of a made up holiday, but nonetheless, it was nice to have it off. Saturday I focused on my squash game, playing quite hard for 4.5 hours, before going out with a friend from town on Saturday night. Sunday, as usual, was a day for recovery. I got up late, had a delicious bowl of Ramen in Shimizu with Chris, and then we headed to the nearest onsen, (it's actually quite a nice one.) Afterwards, we watched the new Battlestar Galactica and headed home.

As I was leaving his house, I mentioned that I felt...weird. It's hard to explain, but my best explanation is that the temporality of the moment was displaced, or compressed. What I mean by that is, I felt placed out of time, or as I said on Sunday, "The past is occuring in the present." It may sound crazy, but that's what it felt like!

This weird feeling has persisted throughout the week, and seems to have had other effects. My routine, which had become pretty stable, has been completely shot this week. I stayed up far too late reading on Monday night, and also did a lot of messaging and Japanese studying, which for me, is unusual. Tuesday I was exhausted, and completely unmotivated, which isn't terribly surprising, but I also had this very weird feeling throughout the evening, much like my feeling on Sunday night, a sense of things, occurring out of order.

On Wednesday, this feeling only increased. I was still tired, and so I went home early, around 4:15. (Technically I should have gone to the Board of Education after school, but they never check.) I decided to have a nap before playing squash, but I was tired enough that I slept till 9pm. I had strange dreams, which took part not in the past, or the future, or in some strange dreamtime, but completely in the present. Sometimes, when you wake up, your disorientated for a second, perhaps you're unsure of where you are, but this time it took me literally minutes to figure out where I was and what was going on. I could have sworn I'd gotten on a plane a week ago and travelled back to Canada. It was a disconcerting feeling, and I was upset that I'd missed squash, but I decided to take it easy, and ended up going back to sleep a couple hours later.

Basically, the whole week has felt weird, I haven't been able to get anything done, (and the BoE has been extremely aggravating) and I've felt as if I'm waiting for some sort of change to happen, as if something big is going to happen soon. Who knows, but it's been....


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Good vibes in the strangest places

So I've been kind of down the last couple days, but tonight everything is looking up. It's amazing what a good supper, (spaghetti with garlic bread and salad, all homemade) and (strangely) bad reality TV (the amazing race) will do to lift one's spirits.

And someone in Shikaoi finally messaged me back. :D

Monday, November 19, 2007

Retrospective Part 2

We'll return you to your regularly scheduled programming (or lack thereof, what with the writer's strike in Hollywood and my own video-editing negligence) in a moment, but first, a quick rundown of the last couple weeks for me here in Shikaoi.

Life is dull. November has for many years now been my least favourite month, and this one, despite being located on the wind-swept plains of a frozen and foreign island, proved no less tiresome. The best word to describe the 11th month is neutral, or if you prefer, gray. The sky is gray. The ground is gray. The temperature is grey. My mood is grey. November lacks the crispness of autumn and the purity of winter. It's cold, but without the benefits of the cold, like snow and snowboarding. It's a month of transition, which means it's dirty and off-putting, but it's even worse than March because it lacks the promise of new warmth that wafts through the spring air. I hate November with a special passion.

At the same time, I've also stumbled onto my JET-scheduled culture shock. Back in the handbooks they gave us in August, it claimed that between 6-12 weeks we'd get our real culture shock. Not the "wow Japan is so crazy and wonderful" culture shock, but the "why the fuck can't I find whole wheat bread?" kind of culture shock. Of course, I thought to myself that it wouldn't be a problem for me, but right on schedule I've been going through it the last couple weeks. The biggest trigger for it has been my feeling of isolation these past couple weeks. For whatever reason, the people in my town that I used to hang out with just haven't been around. I'd be paranoid if I thought they were avoiding me, but it certainly seems odd. I had a bad experience with a teacher not telling me about an event I was supposed to go to, and myself consequently looking like a complete fool at a bar in town, before getting sworn at by one of my English teachers, so I guess it's just a feeling of getting a little burned with cultural miscommunication. What seems to happen with a lot of JET's is that they either integrate into their community, or they don't quite make it, and retreat into the understanding circle of foreigners in their area. I'm not at all bashing hanging out with foreigners, god knows, without them I wouldn't still be sane, but I feel as if I've lost the balance I used to have. I definitely feel like I've been sliding towards Option #2, and I think it's about time I did something about it. Perhaps that's too harsh an assesment, but I've just grown tired of messaging people in Japanese and never getting a response!

So my game plan for the next few weeks is to have fun in my area with some of my old friends, enjoy the 30cm of snow we just got, and figure out a way to pay for all the things I want to do in the next few months.

At this point I don't actually feel like writing up a couple retrospective points, so look for those in the future!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

3 Month Retrospective Part 1 of ?

Your shitting me right? I've been here a Quarter of a Year?! I realized this yesterday as I was eating the lunch made for me by my 8th Graders in Home-Ecc class, and it just blew my mind. I could swear that I've been here, perhaps a month, at most.

I guess this isn't really all that different than the timewarped university period. (4 years=2 years) but the ratio seems to be skewing evermore in my disfavour. At this rate by the time I'm 25 years will be passing by in daily chunks, which is a scary thought. And I can't claim that "being busy makes the time fly" as I've been less busy than I was in University, although I can already feel a certain restlessness growing itchily inside of me, telling to hurry and get things done. Maybe next week...

So I thought I'd go back over some the big dreams, assumptions etc. that I had before coming here and compare them with the way things really are. Of course, lots of bubbles get popped when coming to a new and exciting place, that's inevitable. But I still think it 's interesting to see just how things are different.

1. Schools
I was a little better informed than most people on this regard. I knew that the old myth about the impressiveness of Japanese schools was a complete load. I knew that the level of English was likely to be extremely low, and most students wouldn't have a lot of motivation to learn it. As with most things, the reality is somewhere in the middle. In every class I seem to have a few students who desperately want to learn English, (one girl moved from Sapporo to Shikaoi, and has been living by herself for 3 years so that she could take part in the Gr. 10 trip to Canada!) a majority of apathetic students with generally dismal English skills, and a few troublemakers. Pretty standard I guess. I haven't had any of the horror stories that I've heard from friends, but none of the huge successes either. The High School is perhaps the most surprising for me. The level of delinquency is certainly low, although that probably has a much to do with its rural location as the students themselves. As well, since High School is not mandatory, perhaps the worst students drop out. The level of English that the students possess is fascinating. While a very few continue to improve, most seem to get noticeably worse in High School. My Gr.7's have the highest level of English overall, my Gr.12's the lowest.

2. My House

Sorry to disappoint, but its not particularly "Japanese," apart from a few quirks. It's actually quit similar to my place in Montreal, with hardwood floors, (no tatami) and good insulation. The kitchen sometimes feels lacking in counter space, but that's not exactly the end of the world. I do have a Japanese style bath tub, which is quite deep, but I don't use it much as it is also very small in width and length. Heating is also typically Japanese, as it uses a kerosene heater supplied from an outdoor tank. All in all, it's decent, but small. But I guess that saves on heating!

More to come soon!...

Monday, October 22, 2007


It's interesting how the faster the time flies, the slower my blog posts get. Either some sort of arcane inverse temporality is at play here, or maybe it's simply all to easy to let the blog slide when other things demand your attention. I could have sworn it was just a week ago that I last posted, but my calendar informs me that it was two weeks.

If I was pressed to summarize those last two weeks, I would be in great danger, as they have blended together more than any others. Mostly, this is because I taught almost no classes. The second week of October was Fall break for my Junior High Students, and my 10th Graders were on their trip to Canada. (Their first day back at school was today and they were definitely more excited and genki then normal!) I spent the majority of my time during the week literally passing the time, both at work and at home. I listened to good new music, read, basically did anything but something productive. I spent the weekends partying, first in Obihiro, and last weekend in Tomakomai for the HAJET Fall meeting.

But forget all that, that's not what I want to talk about today. Twice in the past week I have been awestruck, (and I mean that word in it's original, literal connotation,) by the astonishing beauty of the land in which I live. It's not that it looks "oriental" or "japanese" or any one thing in particular.

Somehow, nature just comes together to consistently create jawdropping vistas; infinitely fractal clouds suffused with inner light, cascading verdant greenery which spills over ravines and gullies into crystalline mountain lakes, mountains which march off into the foggy distance-not terrifying in their soaring heights like the rockies-but inviting, with the promise of a thousand different intricacies. With the coming of autumn, the cold air has set in motion many changes. The skies, which were before hazy with summer humidity, are now clear, and for the first time last Thursday, as I was driving to judge an English Contest along a ridgeline farm road, I clearly caught sight of the Daisetzuan's for the first time, their peaks capped with the season's first snow. I had to stop and just stare for a minute, wishing I had had the foresight to bring my camera with me. (It now has a new home in my trunk, rather than in my house.) Now that the tree's have exploded in riotous colour, now that the harvest is being reaped in, now that the countryside is literally changing before my eyes, it is clear to see. Fall in Hokkaido is indescribably beautiful.

View Larger Map

As I drove home from Tomakomai yesterday I was once again struck by the beauty of the nature around me. The wind was blowing hard, and most of the trees where at their absolute peak of colour. I was driving Trina home as well, but she was sleeping, so I couldn't resist pulling out my cellphone and snapping off a few shots. They by no means do the landscape justice, but after looking at them, I almost like their hazy, grainy quality. It's not too far from a Lomo in fact, which I guess is high praise. The luminous and indistinct nature of the cellphone camera gives the shots an almost dreamlike quality, which is certainly how I felt yesterday.

These first 4 shots were taken as I drove through the Hidaka mountain range, which forms the Southeastern spine of Hokkaido. (The first "Pictures" placemark on the map.) This is the same road I take to Sapporo, and is a gorgeous drive, with bridge after bridge soaring over giant, forested ravines. As we made our over the mountain range and into the Tokachi farm plain the views were simply spectacular. The wind had already ripped all the leaves of the trees here, but that just gave a different perspective on things.

I had to drive Trina to Ikeda, ("Pictures" placemark #2) which was out of the way on the other side of Obihiro. To pay myself back, and as a bit of a treatment for all the weekend partying I went to Tokachigawa Onsen, a town full of spas and hot springs. (Onsen is Japanese for Hot Spring.) I stayed for two hours at the Daiichi Hotel, supposedly the nicest Onsen in the town, and lounged in all the various pools.

After stripping down (all onsens are naked) and washing up (which you must do before entering) I sat first in the indoor pools, then the rotemburo, then the sauna, and finally the pool pictured in the middle image at the link above. It was gorgeous, as the sun was just setting to my right, lighting the wispy clouds up with pink light as the river flowed in front of me and traffic trundled over the bridge. Of course, it would have been a little obvious if I took a cameraphone in. ;)

As I drove back, ("Pictures" Placemark #3) quite warm and soft, (apparently, Tokachigawa is a rare "peat spring" which is good for the skin,) but also quite sleepy, I took a few more pics. A storm had been rolling in for the last few hours, leading to some great sky shots.

Today I have finally started teaching again and it feels great. I saw my 10th Graders for the first time in two weeks, and on Wednesday I get to see my 7th graders for the first time in 2 weeks as well. I don't have much planned for this week, but this weekend is absolutely jam-packed. Apparently, only one weekend is worth planning events on, as literally everyone has planned activities. I have a High School enkai on Friday, which I may not be able to attend, a Musical Rehearsal in Atsuma (4 hrs away) all day Saturday, the Pure Malt Party back home in Shikaoi on Saturday night, and pumpkin carving on Sunday, so I am trying to rest up now. Happy Driving!

P.S. I haven't done any video in too long, but I've got a number of mini-episodes in the pipeline that I hope to be premiering soon! If you want to see party pics from the weekend, just take a look on Facebook! (I didn't smile in that last pic because I was trying to concentrate on taking a picture of myself with a cellphone while driving on the wrong side of the road, and I missed my face at least 4 or 5 times!)

Friday, October 5, 2007

I've been Bad!

about updating my blog. ;) What did you think I was going to reveal some ultra-juicy details? Those will have to wait for another post. Instead, I thought I would summarize the last few weeks of my life, but as an extra treat, give you a little bit of my own thoughts on Japan as I recently passed the two month mark of being here. Careful, this shit gets bloggy.

So after looking at my own blog it looks like it has been a week and a half since I posted! I don't really remember anything of that week, so I assume it was fairly ordinary. The weekend was the second long weekend of September, so I went down to Sapporo on Saturday. It was my first time driving to the main city of Hokkaido, and the drive was simply gorgeous. Initially, I was a little worried about how expensive it would be, but it ended up being much, much cheaper than taking the train, and it only took about 3 and a half hours. Most of the time the road passes through steep mountain gorges, and the number of tunnels I passed through can't even be counted! I'm definitely far more comfortable with driving in Japan now, as I was speeding along with the very best Japanese drivers. Of course, I can't really go all that fast, as at 110 km/h my steering wheel starts to violently shake and the whole car starts vibrating like the wheels are going to pop off. After 2 months in Japan though, 110 km/h (40 km/h over the limit) feels blindingly fast, way faster than 150 km/h does back home. I definitely don't want to be caught by the police though, as I've been told I'd have to apologize to the mayor! So I just find someone who is going faster than me, (which isn't very hard) and stick a couple hundred metres behind him. Mmm, police bait.

In any case, I came down out of the mountains, and made my way into downtown Sapporo to meet up with Parker and Laura, my Canadian friends in Sapporo. Getting into the city was quite a trial however, as the excellent directions and English-friendly signs of the countryside gave way to spaghetti interchanges and Kanji only roadsigns. (I went through this one repeatedly for 20 minutes or so before finally getting my bearings and the proper road!) I did see a great city sign of a suburb that was a picture of Lenin with the name of the city at the top and the slogan, "Be Ambitious Boys!" across the middle. Wish I got a picture, but I was busy driving. My adventures continued as I made my way slowly into town. I passed by the site of the Costco that is going up. (Opening in January, woohoo!) before hitting the exiting crowd of a Hokkaido Fighters (MLB) game. Once past that, it only took me another half-hour to get downtown and find a parking spot. I parked my car in the parking elevator and it was quickly whisked away to some unknown realm. (I'm quite serious about that! You drive your car onto the platform and get out, then the platform spins your car around and pulls it up into the building!)

I met up with Jenna, Parker, and Laura near the train station and we went out to a nearby Gaijin (foreigners) bar called The Jersey Cafe. We ended up staying there for most of the night, gorging ourselves on English beer and fish and chips, pizza etc. After two months of Japanese food, it was amazing, simply to die for! Perhaps most interesting however, were the group of friends we met at the bar, a group of soldiers from the nearby jetai (Japanese Self Defense Force) base in Chitose. Needless to say, they were quite a wild bunch, but because the officers are required to learn English, (in order to talk to the US army) their English was amazing for Japanese. (More on them later.) After this, we headed over to a nearby hole-in-the-wall that Parker had been to the week before. After getting there however, we were kicked out for not being Japanese! Actually the bartender asked us in Japanese if we could speak Japanese, and after myself and Jenna said we could, he kicked us out anyways. It was a real downer, and was a very strange feeling. I'd never experienced that kind of racism before, so it was a real shock. We ended up going to a Blues bar that we had been to before, but didn't stay out much longer.

All in all though, it was like a breath of fresh air just being in Sapporo. Shikaoi is a great little town, but after 4 years in Montreal, it's a big change. It can often feel devoid of young people, (mostly because it is) and consequently the nightlife is a little sporadic at best. There are a town of bars and karaoke joints, but I only want to go out drinking with 45 year old farmers with no english so many times. In Montreal I often felt like I never went out enough, that I was always staying home, while all these interesting things were happening, where as here I feel that I never go out enough, but that I am doing more than almost everyone else! Or maybe it's more a feeling that I haven't really found a "group" to hang out with in Shikaoi yet. In any case, it is a very strange mixture of the old and the new that I sometimes feel. It is amazing how much can change...and how little.

Nevertheless, It was wonderful just to see people dressed up and going out, to make friends in a random bar, and to basically have a "city" experience.

On Saturday, the fun continued, as I did a little shopping with Blair (the other ALT from my town) and Jenna. We went to a number of department stores in the downtown area, and I got a few essentials. (Most of which were cooking-related!) After shopping ourselves out around 4:00, we settled down at a bar called the Ginza Lion to indulge in some 800 mL glasses of my favourite beer in Japan, Yebisu. Then we made our way to Susukino, the red-light district of Sapporo, for tabe/nome-hodai (all you can eat/drink) Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki, which is originally from Osaka is basically egg mixed up with various vegetables and meat. Every table has a big flattop grill and you order which ever kind of okonomiyaki you like and they bring it to you raw. You dump it on in a pancake shape and then grill it up. Last, you drizzle mayonaise all over it, along with bonito (dried fish flakes) and wolf it down. It might sound gross but it's absolutely delicious, and by the time we left 2 hours later I was just about to keel over and die from all the okomiyaki and beer we had consumed!

I think it is hilarious that in almost every type of expensive Japanese dining, the food is either raw (sushi) or you are expected to cook it yourself. (Yakiniku or Okonomiyaki) This may sound like a raw deal, (oh I am SO funny) but in actuality, its great fun to cook food up with your friends, and the vast majority of restaurants are all-you-can-eat. Eating and drinking in Japan often seems to end up going to far, because you can order and order and order without paying extra, but it definitely makes you feel like a rich guy at a feast! Coincidentally, this is what you say after you eat at a restaurant. "ごうちそさま でした。Gochisosama Deshita” or, "It was a feast!"

Well, after that the debauchery continued. Next, we went to "Peace of Dreams" which was a very upscale bar owned by a family that Blair knew well in Sapporo. I ordered a Bloody Mary, as it is the closest thing you can get to a Caesar here, and it was amazing. The bartender hand-crushed cherry tomatoes and celery leaves, and used just the right amount of Tabasco. Each glass was about $9 but I didn't care, I had two! Well after that, (!) Blair went home to bed, and Parker and Laura had to catch the last train to the suburbs at 12AM, but Jenna and I were still up for more. We wandered over to TK6, another Gaijin bar in Tanooki Dori, the same covered street that houses the Jersey Cafe. We met up with Ryota, a friend of Jenna's, but I didn't stay with the two of them that long as I had other plans and the place was full of Kiwi's and Brits watching Rugby. I said goodnight to them, and met up with the army guys from the night before.

(This Section has been redacted. Children might be reading!)

Before leaving Sapporo on Monday, I took a trip down to the local mega mall, the Sapporo Factory. They have an amazing selection of foreign stores there, especially a preponderance of outdoor stores for some reason. Not only an Eddie Bauer, but a North Face, Columbia, and a bunch of others, as well as many other kinds of stores. I can definitely see myself going there way too often. I was really happy to head home though as I was completely exhausted from the excessive (well not too excessive) partying, and the general lack of decent sleep.

The following week went ordinarily enough. I'm now firmly ensconced in the routine of school life, and am occasionally given some lesson planning or materials to prepare. For the most part however, my simply being there is the great majority of my work responsibilities. The teachers would rather see me wandering the halls and bugging students, (in and out of class) than sitting in the staff room crafting lesson plans that don't fit with their curricula or the student's level anyways. Because I teach the unofficial English, there isn't really a curriculum anyways, the teachers have lesson plans, but the overall course of the ....course, is generally a little random, although it usually focuses on English and Canada in at least SOME way. For instance on Wednesday I gave a 15 minute lecture/listening test on Canadian indie music. I talked about Arcade Fire, The Meligrove Band, and Broken Social Scene. Did the kids learn any English? I suppose anything's possible, but I highly doubt it. Really, I was just trying to show them some new things, and that seems to be a huge part of my role here. Last week though was mostly taken up by end-of-term tests.

Last weekend was pretty ordinary, all things considered. I met up with the ALT's in Obihiro who I hadn't seen in awhile on Friday night, and we went to a bunch of different places, but for the most part I took it pretty easy. It was my Junior High School's cultural festival (Bunkusai) however, so I went to see them on Saturday. They were really cute doing all the different cultural things, such as dramatic readings, plays, Taiko (Japanese drums) and so on. By far the best part though was the Gr.8's class video, where they mocked all their teachers. It was absolutely hilarious even though I couldn't understand all of it, and didn't get parodied myself. It's sad to think that all that energy and creativity they have now will get beaten out of them by the time they get to High School. (The saying in Japan when it comes to education goes, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.") The smart ones will be off to the cram/academic high schools in the major cities spending all their time preparing for the University entrance exams, and I'll be teaching the not-so-smart ones in a year or two at Shikaoi Senior High. A fact made worse because I only teach the non-academic students at the Senior High. I do what I can, but sometimes getting them to be interested in English is a struggle to say the least. I actually have come to love my Junior High, as not only are the students great, but there are some teachers who are really genuinely interested in fostering the education of the students, which happens to be a pretty rare thing.

Perhaps the most positive development of the past week though is that I have found a Squash Club!! I went on Wednesday, as it is not very far away from me, (less than an hour) and I was simply blown away. There are about 5 people that meet twice a week and they are good. The guys are all great of course, but the one who surprised me the most was the 14-yr old All Japan Squash Champion. She kicks the ass of everyone else in the club; I don't stand a chance. I've already committed to joining, because not only is playing Squash for 2 hours twice a week amazing practice and exercise, but it was a ton of fun, and felt just great. I really am the charity case of the club though, they take turns playing me as they have to tone their game down a lot. I splurged yesterday and bought a new racquet and squash shoes, although I may have one coming from Canada...hmm we'll see.

Finally, FINALLY, we come to this weekend. Just like in Canada, it is a long weekend here too, (Not Thanksgiving of course, but Health and Sports Day) but unfortunately, most of my friends are headed to Aomori, across the ocean on the main island of Honshu, to see the Autumn Hell Festival. This takes place at the top of a mountain, which is said to be the entrance to the Buddhist Hell. (Jigoku) So it might be a bit of a quiet weekend, but I guess that's alright! I am going to play squash again tomorrow, and then indoor soccer on Sunday, which I guess is fitting considering why it's a long weekend. I guess it is a good idea to burn off some energy now, as I have no classes next week.

Oh and I almost forgot, I've been accepted to be the Vocal Director for the Hokkaido JET Musical! Rehearsals start next weekend in Tomokomai at the HAJET fall meeting, and we are doing Oklahoma, so it should be a lot of fun! I'm also hoping to start doing Taiko drumming on Friday so I am going to be busy, busy, busy.

Oh, it's 5:30, so I've got to clear out of the office! Sorry for the length, but I had to at least attempt to get up to date. (And trust me, I've left far too much out.)

P.S. No HD video yet, my laptop has been diagnosed with terminal, metastatic cancer and is ever so slowly dying. It just refuses to encode the video, which is due to some sort of Quicktime/Windows/HDTV apocalypse inside my computer....or something. I will probably have to send it in for repair within the next month or two!

Till next time,

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Time Just Goes So Fast!

Ok, so I made a lot of excuses and half-promises about getting the next episode of Tokachi Terebi out soon, and it didn't happen. Partly, this was because I have other commitments and I was busy partying and travelling around Hokkaido, but mostly this is because I was lazy and wanted to browse the Internet aimlessly at work. In any case, here it is; Episode 2 - Bon Odori.

I think it's pretty good, and definitely the first "real" episode. I hope you enjoy it.

In a day or two I will update you all on my life over the past few weeks. And as always, the HD version should be available in a day or two as well. (They take a LONG time to encode and upload!)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ahh It's been too long...

Nope I'm not dead. Yet. Really, I'm just fantastically lazy. This job is not the most straining, and it's easy to let the days slide by, one into the next without accomplishing much of anything. Nonetheless, I have been doing things...I've finally started studying Japanese regularly, I've made a ton of progress on my next video, (only a month after I filmed it at this point,) and of course, I've been partying it up.

So let's talk about my weekends first, as I know everyone is dying to know what I'm up to in my free time. Basically, it has been more of the same, with a party in Urahoro at Gwendolyn's house last weekend, and the Tokachi International Educators Circle welcome party at Iwanai gorge this past weekend.

Urahoro is a semi-industrial town in eastern Tokachi. I can't claim that it is the most pituresque of places, but on Saturday we did drive down to the beach and I had the chance to swim in the North Pacific while everyone else huddled around the fire claiming the water was too cold. (Must be because they are American!) The beach was sandy, and had a pretty gradual incline, but the waves were huge, which was both a lot of fun and a little scary. There were a couple Japanese surfers in wetsuits a little ways down the beach, so I decided to do a little bodysurfing and had a great time. Once it was dark we made our way back to Urahoro, and went out for dinner at Torisei, which seems to be an omnipresent chain of Izakayas (bars with food) in the Tokachi area. Torisei specializes in fried chicken, and it hands down beats out any fried chicken in Canada or the US. Of course, I think the Torisei in Shikaoi is nicer, and I should know, as I've been there once or twice a week since I got here! Sunday I recovered, had a little MickeyD's in Obihiro on my way home, and mostly spent the afternoon vowing never to drink again, or let my picture be taken again! Unfortunately, my students occasionally make their way to this blog, so you will be unable to see the pictures from that night...let's just say it was interesting.

The week went by quickly, but predictably, with more drinking. Tuesday was my "official enkai" or welcome party, making it my 5th (?) welcome party since I got here. It was held in the town hall, with most of the town's VIP's (such as the mayor present.) I had to give a 5 minute speech in Japanese which I was understandably nervous about! I think it went well, and afterwards I got a catered dinner with such specialities as raw sea urchin liver. Actually, it's not as bad as it sounds, it's just like fishy, orange butter. sort of. After that party was the inevitable nikai (second party) where I proceeded to drink too much and stumble home at 2 am.

Wednesday I was understandably a mess for most of the day, mostly because I had forgot to set my alarm, so I had to race out of the house to get to school. This made teaching 15 year olds all the more interesting, but it went fine. I was REALLY embarrassed to show up to work in that state, and do not want to repeat it. Wednesday, I drove to Chris' house to watch some BSG, and it eat Thai curry, which was amazingly good. Thursday, I had another office party at Torisei (detecting a pattern yet?) but only stayed out till 11:30. Friday I was supposed to be teaching at the High School, but the students are doing their end of term tests, so instead I got to administer the 1st year Canada Studies test, which was an interview type test. Actually, it was a little shocking how badly most of the students did on the test, and I am definitely looking forward to talking to my teacher about it. I did however manage to have a quiet night at home, which I sorely needed.

Saturday was the welcome party, and it was a tremendous amount of fun. It was situated at a lodge to the Southwest of me, right next to a beautiful river and gorge. After a short meeting and a hike, we started the night off with yakiniku (outdoor barbecue) and ate a tremendous, unbelievable amount of beef, (and beer.) Everyone got good and drunk, so that we could blow stuff up with fireworks, start a huge bonfire, and shoot each other with airsoft guns. Good times were had by all, but I drank too much, leading to a hangover that was made worse because we were all woken up at 6:30 AM by the bear warning (to scare them away) which was a 200 decibel Air Raid siren. I spent Sunday recovering, sleeping most of the afternoon away at home. (Surely the pattern of my life here so far MUST be obvious by now!)

Today, the students are continuing their tests, so I have been at the BOE office, doing a little studying, a little work, and far too much internet surfing! I've finally figured out how to get the memory card from my cell phone playing nice with my laptop so enjoy the photos in lieu of a proper video. (And thanks to Adam Cook for his photos as well! They are the nice ones!)

(Oh and next time I'll be less lazy and remember to rotate my cellphone pics before I upload them! doh!)

Friday, August 31, 2007

Gomen Ne!

So this week was fairly routine...but it was also busy! (did you really expect any different?) Primarily, this was because the teachers and I were busy preparing for today. Government officials and English teachers from all over Hokkaido descended on Shikaoi to study our method of teaching English. So of course, the teachers were incredibly nervous, and had extremely well-prepared classes, with a huge amount of special materials. My contribution was to photoshop up a number of posters that said things like, "Smile," "No Japanese," "Eye Contact," etc. It was actually kind of fun, and really got me a lot more into the teaching thing here. Turns out all those skills I picked up in university might not be so useless after all! With all the prep, the classes themselves went great, and were actually alot of fun to do.

I found that when I was under pressure to perform, I became a much better teacher. On the other hand, I still haven't finished editing any of the videos that I've been meaning to, which is weighing heavily on my conscience. (Though not too heavily. ;)

In other news, I climbed one last mountain last Sunday, but have otherwise been pretty lazy. I'd like to try kendo, but I am nervous as to whether I can make the time commitment, as it takes place on Wednesday and Friday (why friday??) nights. Tonight I'm going to my Junior High's enkai, and tomorrow I think I will drive to Obihiro to do a little shopping, before making my way to Urahoro ( a small town) to meet up with Gwendolyn whom I met last week and do a little partying. Sunday, maybe I'll go to an onsen, as I still haven't been to one! All in all, it's a pretty ordinary weekend in Shikaoi! Hell, if I can pull myself away from Bioshock (best game since HL2 by the way) maybe I'll even have to time to post some photos or finish a video. If a picture says a thousand words, then a 30 sec video would say at least 900 000 words! Damn thats a long blog post!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Back to School Business

So with the end of the Bon Odori holiday weekend, I've become exceedingly busy. I was in Sapporo from the 18th to the 22nd, for my Hokkaido Orientation, and the day after I got back I started teaching. On top of all that, I had an office party on Friday, and JET's from all over Hokkaido in town on Saturday and Sunday. This week should be a little more routine, so hopefully I will be able to catch up on all my small projects, (like this blog!) and you'll get to see all the great videos I've got in the pipeline.

Which reminds me, I haven't filmed anything in a week and a half! Time to get out into the beautiful summer sun!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Summer Lull

Today it is above 30 C for the third straight day, and work in the office has pretty much ground to an ice-cream induced halt. Of 12 workers in the office, 9 of them are away on vacation, including all of the management staff, so I don't think anything has been done today. Of course, this being Japan, I must still come in and dutifully sit at my desk anyways, rather than enjoying the weather outside while it lasts. I've been sitting on my computer, internet window shopping and watching youtube...anything more productive threatens to overheat my brain.

It's also a wonderful respite from the busyness of the last few days. With 2 busy days at work, an enkai, 2 karaoke/drinking parties (one of which nearly destroyed me,) a hike, and Bon Odori all in the space of 4 days, I'm really not complaining about the quiet. I have tonight to get some sleep and do my laundry, and then it seems as if I will once again be running around!

On the video front, I've got footage of the hike and Bon Odori, which I promise will shock and amaze you! Hopefully, I can get this up by the end of the week, but I've also got to work on my Japanese and my video about Calgary. (I've done none of those things today, so I really have to get on it.) On a more positive note, Episode 1 is FINALLY available in HD. You can find the link on the right side, but I recommend saving it to your computer rather than trying to watch it in your web browser. You'll need Quicktime, or FFDShow with a good media player like Media Player Classic in order to watch them. As I've said previously, hopefully in time I'll be able to offer streaming HD for those of you with beefy connections. Jaa Mata!

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Best Cure for too much drinking is actually a long walk!

Japan continues to astound and amaze! Just now, a man in uniform walked into the office, shoved a long pole with a suction mechanism and an aerosol can up to the ceiling and proceeded to clean (?) disinfect (?) reset (?) all the (what I think) are smoke alarms. Of course, this was not interesting in the slightest for the rest of the office staff, but I looked on with an almost child-like wonderment.

In terms of actual news, I've gone from being incredibly bored in the weekday evenings, to incredibly busy, and all it took was rampant alcoholism and a steady determination to meet people. Last night was my second enkai (welcome party,) this time hosted by many of the English teachers of Shikaoi. I drank lots of beer, ate sashimi, fried chicken, onigiri (rice balls...mine had cod eggs,) french fries, and green tea hagen dazs. It seems to be the prevailing wisdom here that it is better to just take your favourite foods and eat them all at once, rather than messing around with a menu, or genre of food. It's certainly enjoyable when your drinking too! Eventually (when the restaurant kicked us out) we made our way to one of the two karaoke places in town, stumbling home around 2:30. I fell asleep with my contacts in, which made waking up at 8:00 AM to drag my carcass to work particularly painful.

Tonight, the festivities continue, as I am driving to Obihiro-shi, the largest city around, to meet up with a number of other foreign English teachers. We are going to tabehodai, (all you can eat) which I've heard is particularly popular due to its cotton candy machine. I'll be staying the night, and tomorrow I'll be doing some hiking around a local Shinto shrine.

I still have nothing to do at the office, which on a day like today is a godsend, so I've finally been able to finish the first episode of Tokachi Terebi! I filmed it last sunday after the typhoon from Kyushu passed us by, and we were finally able to see the sun. It's a little retrospective and slow, but so are evening walks. I'm also still experimenting with how best to put my videos online, so while there will always be a copy on Youtube, I'm hoping to be able to do HD flash videos soon. It's very very new technology, so no promises. When I get the chance I'll post the HD version of this one up.

Episode 1: An Evening Walk

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

First week in Shikaoi-cho

Well I've been here almost a week now, (today is Day 7) and so far, I'm really coming to like Shikaoi. It's alot like the small towns described in all those endless pre-departure orientations; small, quiet, and friendly. But I think what I (and probably others) forget is that it's a new experience only for you. The people in my town have seen plenty of other ALT's come and go before me, and they take a lot in stride. I don't even get that many "jozuu nihongo desu" or "Austin wa takai desu."'s. They have their own lives, and unlike other towns I've heard of, expect me to have my own too. After the mad socializing in Tokyo, this comes as bit of a surprise, but it's probably good for my long term sanity. Mostly, I'm just starving for the company of people under the age of 35, local or no and for some good after work activities. The only people who really seem to stare are little children and old women...maybe everyone else is just being polite. (So much for "celebrity status")

But I think that's kind of perfect, and once summer vacation is over and everyone comes back to the town I am really looking forward to being part of the atmosphere here.

On the subject of atmosphere, I was out with the camera Sunday night taking various "atmospheric" shots of the nearby area, so I'll hurry up and post that soon. (And a little walkthrough of my apartment.)