Friday, 10 March 2017

Beards and Back-country Snowboarding.

Around Christmas, I realised that I had not just forgotten to shave for a few week. Stubble had evolved to something much more exciting. It was becoming beard-like. More beard-like than it had ever been before. A blanket for my face.

At this pivotal moment, I had a choice. On one side stood professional respect, approachablity, and sexual appeal. When I'm clean shaven, I look less homeless and more like I have my shit together. My students don't shrink back in horror and fear as I walk in a room.  People tell me how young I still am. The school nutritionist asks me whether I enjoyed lunch, and giggles when I reply with "Er.. yea... oishii.. thanks." Shaven is clearly the "right" choice. The choice a sensible person would make.*

On the other side of this monumental crossroads loomed a great big bushy beard that would keep my face warm while freezing to death huddled on ski lifts.

"To shave or not to shave" is just one iteration of the hundred-odd choices we make daily, each spanning the same spectrum. Do I go for a run or play video games? Try to eat healthy or succumb to beer and Mac-Donald's? Act or leave things be. The eternal choice between what we should do and laziness.

Sometimes its just far too difficult. In my typical procrastinatory fashion, I put off choosing. Except "putting off choosing" is often a choice in itself. This is definitely true in regards to growing beards.

Cowboy-Kun and the Gnar-Gnar Pow-Pow

After another month of putting off, I had started to look like a bird was building a nest on my face. However it was mid-way through snowboard season, and the extra layer of insulation came in useful the day when I got lost on the slopes.

It was a Saturday. The night before it had been chucking it down with snow. By morning, the sun had started to peer around the mountain tops at the fresh blanket sprinkled over the rice fields. Beautiful powder and clear skies. A bluebird day. Every snowboarder's dream.

We start the day riding on the official courses, but I'm with Cowboy-kun. I call him Cowboy-kun because he's from Texas, and every time we go out together he herds me along, like a runty longhorn staggering across the Rocky Mountain Front. Cowboy-kun doesn't stick to the courses. He's on a constant search for the freshest gnar-gnar pow-pow** out there. And that means going off piste.

Every run we are on the hunt for untouched snow, slipping under the "do not enter" sign to the pristine back-country in the trees. Cowboy-kun thinks we can go out just a little bit further, and sneak back on to the course further down. Snow clouds are starting to roll in, but he figures it's worth the risk.
The river

We get there and its perfect. Waves and waves of fluffy powder curve and arch around the tree trunks. Its more like surfing than snowboarding. I'm carried away, floating on top of the white cloud below me.

Suddenly I remember myself. And I remember where I am. I pull up, but Cowboy-kun is no where in sight. I've clearly missed the point where we had to turn back. To the right, a terrifyingly steep valley no one as yet has ridden on. To the left are a group of tracks, leading in the exact opposite direction of where the course is. There I am, a lost cow, all alone in the middle of nowhere. The sun goes behind the clouds. More snow starts to fall. All I can hear is the muted patter of snowfall, and my increasingly heavy breathing. I have no choice but to follow the tracks. This is gonna be quite the adventure. At least I have my beard to keep me warm.

The quest to rejoin civilization starts well, but ends with walking for more than 15 minutes in a never-ending sea of white. The top of the mountain is steep, so I could glide along comfortably, and even start to enjoy being lost. Then I hit the flat riverside between the mountains.

Do not follow this route unless you enjoy hiking
When people talk about how great back-country boarding is, the bit they never seem to mention is when you're carrying your board through thigh-deep powder. Its a sensation much like trying to drag a log through quicksand. I mean Ive never done that, but I'm certain its the same.

An hour later the sound of Japanese pop music echoes through the empty hills.*** I stumble out of the wilderness and onto a road near a ski lift. Except Ive never seen this place before. Somehow I've managed to traverse two valleys and a river, ending up in the ski resort over. Bloodied and bruised, I head to the bus stop and catch a 15 minute ride back to my car.

Shaving For Graduation

March rolls around, and my face blanket is getting out of hand. Now if I wanted to give you some fancy-smansy Hollywood ending, Id tell you I shaved because my 3rd years were graduating. Because I wanted to be at my best the final time they saw me. Because I cared so deeply about them and their future.

The truth is far more self serving. First of all, its not all its cracked up to be. Beards are itchy, sometimes you get food stuck in them, and whenever you see anyone the first thing they say is "wow, your beard's getting big." I know. I grew it myself.

I also imagined that Id look glorious and handsome, like Pirlo, or Hemingway. The problem is, my sideburns grow exponentially faster than any of the other hair on my face. This gives my beard a decidedly Amish flavour. The result was not glorious. Instead think Tom Hanks in castaway, or one of those weird dwarfs from the god-awful Hobbit movies.****

Then my kids got involved. The boys from first grade would berate me daily with:

"Big face. You hair cutto. I am sorry, hige sori."

Which is the worst japanese gag going. "hige sori" is the Japanese phrase for shaving. And it rhymes with "I'm sorry". Hilarious. Gets even better when you hear it 10 times a day.

The final straw though was a kid who got a little too into my beard. During lessons, he would try to stroke my face. Apparently I looked just like a "super cute lion with soft soft fur." Very fuwa-fuwa. Which would have been fine if he was a 5 year old from my elementary school. He wasn't. He was a 15 year old teenager soon to graduate into High School.

Safe to say it was time for it to go. I shaved my beard, and with it went my 3rd grade students. I doubt you'll ever read this, but good luck. And don't pet the teachers.


*oishii (delicious) is probably the most commonly used Japanese word and as such is very important to master. Japanese people are incredible hype-men. Everything is delicious. No matter if it isn't. If there is food present, so is this word. If you wanna go a little smart-casual you can say umai (good) instead. Here in Joetsu everyone has the awesome habit of adding baka (crazy) to everything, so those of us who are down with the kids say baka umai (crazy good). Don't use it in Tokyo though unless you want people looking at you weird.

**Australian for snow

***Japanese ski places like to blast out-of-date pop tunes at you from the chairlifts while you snowboard. Just in case you didn't have enough stimulation throwing yourself down a mountain at break neck speeds.

****Not the dwarf they made look like a small attractive human to wedge in a contrived love story. The ugly one there purely for comedic effect.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Drinking Your Way Into Japanese Culture

Hisashiburi. It's been over half a year. I guess I just kinda forgot I had a blog. And it probably would have stayed that way too, except a tall, handsome, southern gent from the states asked me to write a piece for the AJET Connect magazine. If you haven't heard of it, I don't blame you - It's basically an online publication for people just like me, written by people just like me: JET program English Teachers.

So over Christmas I sharpened my favorite pencil, took out a fresh new pad of paper, then put them away. No one writes on paper anymore. So clunky. On my laptop I can edit again and again and again and again... days of fun.

I eventually got round to submitting the article. After a wrestling match with the Connect editor, we reached a version that is suitable for the general public. It may be in an obscure online magazine for Assistant Language Teachers in Japan, but I've been published, and I'm counting it.

My friend Ashuu-Chan did the layout for it, making me look far more professional than I deserve. It's on page 20 Please go and take a look, if only to see her artwork.

Below is the article converted to blog form (minus most of the editor's edits). I had so much fun putting it together that I'm gonna try and write one a month for the rest of the year. The first is only 2 days past the deadline. Clearly a good omen.

Drinking your way into Japanese Culture

Last month at the end-of-year work party, I had one of those glorious moments of belonging that make the whole Japan adventure worthwhile. The food is all but finished. Everyone is beginning to get those tell-tale pink cheeks. I can see a glint in the school Principal's eyes. Kocho-Sensei is clearly gearing himself up to leap across the cultural gap.

K: Licha-do sensei... Can you drink Japanese sake?

Classic. Why don't you ask me about sashimi and natto, too? Maybe  even finish off by complimenting my chopstick skills.

R: Of course! I love nihonshu. I went to Sake no Jin last year.

The magic words. It's as if I've gained a whole new dimension that Kocho-Sensei is seeing for the first time. But, maybe it's a trick. He has to make sure.

K: Really...? What do you like?

I don't wanna come across too keen. "Licha-do sensei, the alcoholic" is hardly the tag I want, but this is a chance to change Kocho-Sensei's perspective on foreign folk forever. I might actually manage to fit in.

R: Recently, I've been drinking Katafune (a local brewery which just won an award), but my real favorite is Nigorizake. Do you know Bishamon?

Kocho-Sensei only just catches his surprise before his eyes pop out, then breaks into the biggest cheeky grin I've ever seen this steely man pull.

K: So, you'll drink some with me tonight, right? What's your recommendation?

He hands me a list of incomprehensible names, all in kanji.

R: Ah... chotto... I can't read...

So close. So very close. Next time.


The longer you stay in Japan, the more you want to prove you aren't the typical Naruto fan foreigner, trying to buy a samurai sword, before going home to brag about your unique experiences in glorious sunrise land. Not that there's anything wrong with anime and history. Its just I don't want to be put into a little gaijin-shaped-box like that. After you've been here for two or three years, it becomes a compulsion. We long time sufferers desperately try to break expectations so that people engage with us, not as gaijin, but as real flesh and blood human beings.

If you're looking to be taken seriously in Japan, my first recommendation is to become fluent in Japanese. How enlightening. Almost like saying "All you need to do to become a pro footballer... is kick the football like a pro." And after studying for 10 years or more, you'll still slip up. It's almost enough to drive you to drinking.

Which is where my second recommendation comes in. Why drink thin, tasteless Asahi* when you can sample the real pinnacle of Japanese drinking culture: sake, otherwise known as nihonshu. For most, it's something you regret drinking with the sociology teacher at the nijikai, right before you butcher "Hey Jude" on the karaoke box. However, sake can, and should, be so much more. It's a chance to connect cultures without the social barriers that soberness creates. So much so that the concept has  entered many Japanese dictionaries:  ノミュニケーション (nomyu-nication).

Shameless Event Plugging 101

Now at this point in the Connect article, I go into advertisement mode and start gushing about how great Niigata's huge two day sake-tasting festival is. If you like the sound of that, and happen to live in Japan please check out the details. In fact, ill put the ending of the article as a footnote. For everyone else, don't read it. I totally sold out. It wasn't even subtle.**

The Day After the Enkai

Everyone in Japan sings the praises of nomyunication. And its true. Drinking parties are an incredible chance to break down social awkwardness and professional pretenses. A chance to actually get to know your enigmatic co-workers. A chance to actually talk like normal people about normal people things. Turns out the secretary at my main school is married with 3 kids. Found that out a month ago after 2 years of knowing her. Who knew.

Next day it's back to work. I look deep into my coworkers' eyes for a glimmer of the warm closeness I felt the night before. But I look in vain. The maths teacher will never bring up those super cool Japanese rock bands we spoke about together. Kocho-Sensei will never mention the 4 flasks of sake we shared. The secretary may as well not have a family. Its as if I dreamed the whole thing. They all follow the unspoken rule: What happens at enkai stays at enkai.***

Until finally on the way to class after lunch, the only young English teacher turns to me, and almost in a whisper says,

"Licha-do sensei... I heard that you can drink nihonshu."

A small smile creeps into the corner of his mouth. He knows what he's doing. Breaking the number one rule of enaki. But he doesn't care. Because we are more than co-workers. We are kinda-sorta friends. Everything is gonna be fine. His smile is contagious. I think I'm finally starting to fit in.


* This is of course all hyperbole. I actually do love Japanese Lager, as is obvious from the rotund beer belly Ive been carrying around recently.

 **"The Rest of the Article

I am of course extremely biased. I live in Niigata, which is famous for being an utterly boring prefecture full of rice fields.  We use that rice to make over 65% of Japan's nihonshu. As a result, there's a huge sake culture here. Living in Niigata, you quickly realize that nihonshu is the craft beer of Japan. Every city has its own local specialty. The variety is endless.

If you wanna become fluent in nomyu-nication but don't know where to start, look no further. Niigata's Sake no Jin (にいがた酒の陣) is being held this year on the 11th and 12th of March. If sake is the craft beer of Japan, then going to Sake no Jin is like hitting up Munich during Oktoberfest. 90 local breweries offer more than 500 different varieties to make it the biggest Japanese rice wine tasting event of the year. In exchange for your 2000-3000 yen entry fee, they arm you with a sake cup, and send you out into the stalls to try whatever you like the look of. I've gone every year since coming to Japan, and every year I leave with a new favorite.

Due to its fierce popularity, Sake no Jin has been designated this year's official Niigata AJET block event. We're grabbing a ryokan (complete with an onsen) for people who'd like to spend the night, and buses will be arranged to and from the event. If you're interested in joining us, you can RSVP here. There's loads more information on the AJET Block 2 Facebook group, or at Sake no Jin's website.

Richard is from Grimsby, U.K. and now lives in Joetsu, Niigata. He doesn’t drink as heavily as this article implies."

*** enkai  is usually translated to work party, although sometimes used for sports team drinking parties etc.

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Japanese Spirit of Gaman - Suffering in Silence

Two years ago I was young and full of hope. I had big plans for my life. Go to Japan and learn Japanese. See everything there is to see. Then write it all down and post once a month. Whats so hard about that? One measly post a month. Easy.

I am now 25, which is closer to 50 than my own birth. Basically an old man. And old people like me know the horrible truth - If you don't make time for them, life crowds in and steals your dreams.

I've been telling myself "I just need some free time to sit down and write", but there is always something that needs doing first. I have to go to this "job" thing, and by the time I get home my laundry basket has mysteriously filled itself up again. If I manage to get all of the chores done, there's still Japanese to study, video games to play, and beer to drink. Right at the back of my priority list, after all that super boring everyday stuff, are my big plans, slowly collecting dust.

This week I've finally put some time aside, picked a topic, and written a thing. Here it is.

Everything is Hunky-Dory

A key to understanding the Japanese is recognising their almost joyful acceptance of suffering. Japanese teachers stay at school until 10pm most nights because they cant be seen to leave before their superiors. The kids have club activities till 7. Then on top of their mountainous load of homework, they go to cram school because high school entrance exams are coming up. No one complains though. Everybody is struggling, everybody is working hard. Strap on your big boy pants and suck it up.

This attitude is encapsulated by the japanese word gaman - which is difficult to translate, but basically means "persevering silently in the face of adversity". When I speak to Japanese friends they don't want to talk about their long work hours, or how little sleep they've been getting. In fact they rarely want to talk about work at all. Everybody is struggling, everybody is working hard. They much prefer spending their few hours of free time pretending everything is hunky-dory. So we talk about how delicious the food we are eating is, or how beautiful the mountains look this time of year. Oishii ne! Kirei ne!*

When I try to complain about anything, it's just the same. I can tell they are tempted to join me. Tempted to let years and years of pent up frustration out. Instead they put on their best empathetic smile and sweetly utter the national mantra of gaman.

Ganbatte ne! - Do your best!

The Sado Long Ride

Back at the start of spring, I was polishing off a 3rd flask of sake while talking to my favorite Japanese person. We'll call him Kisu-San because even though he's a happily married man with a baby on the way, he regularly tries to kiss me on the cheek while drunk. Kisu-San is insistent that I join him on a 100km "fun" bike race on Sado island. I'm a little tipsy so I foolishly agree, despite the hibernation belly I'd been nurturing all winter.

Jump forward 3 months. The weekend of the Sado Long Ride rolls around and I am nowhere near ready. It becomes quickly apparent that Kisu-San has told some gigantic white lies. The 100km is really 130km, and we are staying in a hotel 30km away from the start line, bringing the grand total up to 160km. Then we get to the start line and I begin to realise how completely out of my depth I am. This is not a fun ride along the coast. Everyone has all the kit. Fancy bikes, jerseys, clip in pedals, aerodynamic helmets, the whole lot. Meanwhile here I am in trainers and a football top, with a bike I bought for 80 quid 3rd hand. Perfect.

Safe to say I did not gaman at all.  The British were once known for their stiff upper lip but those days are long gone. We have since taken up the national pastime of moaning loudly about everything. I am unable to do my persevering silently. It's just not how I was brought up. I complained non-stop to anyone who would listen. Mostly at Kisu-San

He however did not sink to my level. Instead Kisu-San put on his best empathetic smile and raised the battle cry of gaman.

Ganbatte ne! - Do your best!

In the end it was a really satisfying day. Being part of a thousand odd people all ganbatte-ing up and down the mountainous coast line really gave you that "we're all in this together" feel. There were young children with their fathers, and old age pensioners alike - all fighting against the odds. Conquering the land one kilometer at a time. The true spirit of gaman. I almost started enjoying the suffering, like a real Japanese person would.

That is until I remembered we all chose to do this voluntarily. And I could just as easily have been at home drinking beer and playing video games. It almost made doing laundry look attractive too.

Japanese Torture Techniques

The race was on Sunday and I was back to work on Monday. After 4 morning lessons I'm barely conscious at my desk, waiting for the angel of death to finally take me. Which is when things go from bad to baddest. The English teacher that supervises me wanders over with a worried look on her face.

"Er... Richard Sensei... I forgot to tell you something...Tomorrow is the Super Challenge Walk. I want you to walk with the first years. They are very excited to walk with you... Richard sensei... why.. why are you crying? "

Pefect. Just perfect. Last year we went on a relaxing little wander around the local area and solved puzzles at various locations. But clearly we had been going too soft on the 12 year olds in our care. Some of them had started to have fun and we couldn't have that. This year the school removed all enjoyable aspects by making the kids march a 38km course through the mountains. Which is basically torture.

For the first 20km it is chucking it down with rain. No one wants to be there. The first year students are really slow and beginning to look like drowned rats.  We get the news that the track and field long distance runners have already finished. Eventually the sun comes out and we settle down for lunch.

The next 18km takes us double the time the first half did, despite most of it being down hill. There isn't one kid in the whole group that isn't limping (I had been limping right from the start line.) Still no one is complaining, because the Japanese love suffering silently and at least it had stopped raining.

4km from the finish line disaster strikes. I've been stumbling along with the same group of first year guys since the beginning. One of the gang moans that he could really use the toilet. The Japanese don't complain so it must be serious. A clear sign that he is absolutely bursting.

Except my teacher brain doesn't kick in at all and I have completely forgotten about the spirit of gaman. I am such an idiot. I even make a joke that anywhere is a toilet if you try hard enough.

A few minutes later I notice the kid is missing. I run back round the corner to find him on the floor bawling his eyes out, desperately trying to take his tracksuit bottoms off. He's wet himself and its all my fault. How could I have missed such an obvious sign? How am I going to make this OK?

I Hate Long Distance Endurance Events

Thankfully out of nowhere a P.E. teacher comes sprinting down the road to save the day. Sensei pulls a pair of spare shorts out of his back, puts on his best empathetic smile and says the magic words

Ganbatte ne! - Do your best!

Another teacher pulls up in a truck and offers the poor kid a lift. He declines. Even at a young age the Japanese have been brainwashed into a joyful acceptance of suffering. With something resembling a smile, the kid dries his eyes, puts on the fresh shorts, and hobbles onward to the finish line.

The moral of the story I guess is that the Japanese are crazy, and I hate long distance endurance events.


* I was looking up how to spell hunky-dory, and it interestingly enough traces full circle back to the some of the early foreigners in Japan. Honcho-dori is Japanese for "main road". US sailors from the 1860s then combined it with "hunky" meaning "fit and healthy". Possibly it was used to suggest everything in life is going great (i.e. "easy street"), but knowing sailors it was more likely a reference to the massage parlors in the backstreets of Yokohama. I should also mention I know absolutely zero sailors.