Thursday, February 23, 2006

Waffle waffle WAFFLE from the JOC!

The Japanese Olympic Commitee, who are facing the very real posibility that their athletes will return from Turin without a single medal, have been quick to offer reasons (I say reasons... perhaps bullshit excuses would be a more accurate term). Amongst the many, here are my favourite two:

- the snow in Turin is inferior in quality to that of Japan, so our athletes are at a disadvantage.

- there is no Japanese food available in the Olympic village, and this has hampered the performance of our athletes.

What a load of old tosh... the two reasons I think that Japan is medal-less:

- the vast majority of the athletes train in-house against eachother and lower ranked asian nations, so when they come to a major competition and face the North Americans and Europeans they can't compete.

- Japanese athletes aren't Winter Olympic medal contenders, despite the hype generated by the Japanese media machine. This is because there is a long history and strong sense of insularity in Japan and a deep distrust of being individualistic and different, which can help them in some things but is the kiss of death when trying to win gold medals from confident Americans and Europeans in sports designed to show off individual talents.

Getting 10 medals in Nagano was a radar blip. It was part home field advantage, part fortune, and the 2 they got in Salt Lake City should have been considered a damn good haul. The Japanese media should realise that being Japanese doesn't automatically entitle you to Olympic success. All those gold medals in Athens? Most of them were won at Judo, the sport that Japan is absolutely number one in the world at. The female marathon runner? If Paula Radcliffe had been on song she'd have left you on the horizon!

The trouble for Japanese athletes is that when they fail, Japan fails. The pressure and responsibility are enormous, and the way things are here, a bad performance means no sponsorship, which means you're dropped quicker than you can say "gan-ba-tte"...

Monday, February 20, 2006

Driving center excitement

The Driving Test Centre in Chikushino near Kurume is a drab, dull and depressing place. Bureaucracy at its finest, endless waiting, sterile, dour surroundings. I've had the misfortune to go there twice, and these were two times more than I would have liked.

Last week, however, something rather funny happened at the centre. An instructional video was scheduled to be played, but when it was put on there were a few seconds of what my wife called "sexy porn" at the start. It seems that the instructor had made a copy of the tape over one from his private collection.

Far and away the most interesting thing that has happened there. I only wish I could have been there to see how the instructor explained it...

Great TV once again

Despite the mire that is Japanese terrestrial TV, little nuggets of gold can be found. Last night was a good example. The essential premise of the show was simple - stage a mock break-in, pretend to intimidate the houseowners and generally cause a threatening kerfuffle in order to see if the family dog will try to protect it's owners.

The first dog, a chihuahua, failed rather miserably, running away in terror before hiding in his red plastic cage.

When the second dog came out, I thought we'd hit the jackpot - A Doberman! Surely it was going to make mincemeat of the faux-intruders! Think about the ending of The Boys from Brazil!

Well, no... despite a fearsome reputation as guard dogs, it seems that this particular one had been trained well in the art of standing on the coffee table and shaking but not in the more useful discipline of tearing out the throat of an intruder. What happened next is something so Japanese that no analysis is needed...

A man dressed as a giant crab appears and tries to unsettle the dog! Drawing only curious glances, he quickly went back to wherever the hell he came from...

The final dog, a kind of Jack Russell in a knitted jacket, was a bit of a mystery. It was small, and the jacket suggested pampering, but I know the dog from old, and a number of them from my childhood were particularly territorial and viscious.

Sadly, this little dog wasn't, and immediately backed out of the room and bolted upstairs. When the owner returned him and shut the door, he scampered to the sofa and looked terrified.

At this point the action went back to the studio, and the guests had to guess what the dog would do next. There were many suggestions, including a belief that the dog would shit all over the rug, "as I do sometimes!" quoted the token fey man-tart on the panel. Another guy said the dog would hide his head under the rug, but it was the lusciously-mouthed Waka Inoue that guessed correctly - the dog would jump on the back of the sofa and stare at the wall. Apparently this is a dog thing and the showing of your back indicates that you are not an enemy and defenceless.

Generally, a disappointing showing. Not so much the dogs but the mock-intruders... dressing like ultra camp versions of the halloween skeletons from The Karate Kid and waving their arms and chuckling "woo!", they deserved the devil dogs that ate Gregory Peck's Mengele...

Friday, February 17, 2006

Alternative events for Japanese olympians

With their dismal showing ringing loud and clear across the nation, I thought it might be an idea to put forward some alternative events for the Japanese olympians to try. So here we go...

- Train station race: stationary just beyond the ticket gates, the competitors must race up the stairs, push past all the people in line, and find a forward facing seat. Extra points to be awarded for foreigner avoidance and answering cell phones loudly.

- Food appreciation race: sat at low tables, the competitors must quaff bowls of sour pickles, bitter vegetables and other non-descript dishes. Extra points to be awarded for teeth sucking, and repeated use of the words "amai", "oishii" and overreacting and saying "eeeeeeeaaaaahhh!" with closed eyes when drinking the overpriced, undertaste beer.

- Speed bowing: stood in a long line, the competitors must bow as many times as they can in a set time. The event could be split into the following disciplines - deep bow, polite bow, awkward-jerking-bow-when-meeting-an-acquaintance-in-public-whose-status-you-are-unsure-of and indifferent nod.

- Haste Cycling: the competitors must cycle through busy streets as slowly as possible, with the victor being the final competitor over the finish line. Extra points to be awarded for misuse of the bell, squeaking brakes and using a cell phone, umbrella or applying make up at the same time.

Big girl's blouse!

The air con isn't working today in our office, which isn't such a big deal as the weather is very mild. However, that hasn't stopped the arrogant, boorish sports teacher that sits across from me from complaining and putting his parts on like a 5 year old.

Whatever happened to warm biz (the Japanese government-led initiative to cut down on electricity costs by encouraging workers to wear warmer clothes)? Since I've been at the school, the air con is always on. Freezing cold in the summer, hot as hell in the autumn and winter. Surely one day won't kill you. Stop bleating like a spoilt girl and do some work.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Possibly the best party wig ever

It needs no words...

Bad hair at Daiso

With my parents, brother and his girlfriend in town, we've paid a lot of visits to the various 100 yen stores in Kurume. One of the true joys of this is the occasional witnessing of truly terrible hair. This is exactly what happened last night. Below are the two suspects.

Not the best photo I'm afraid, but you can just about see that his hair is a ghastly rug, perched on his head like a drowning spider. As for the second guy...

Well... after a number of abortive attempts to capture the true horror of this syrup, I decided to enlist the help of my mum, who stood next to the guy to make it look like I was taking a photo of her. Just look at the awfulness! That wouldn't fool anyone... you may as well wear a sandwich board reading "LOOK AT MY WIG"...

Winter Olympics Woe

Japan is having a horrorshow of an Olympics and no amount of smiling or subject changing on the part of the TV presenters will change that. Predicting a medal haul of 19 was at best naive and at worst arrogant, considering they are battling the seasoned cream of Europe and North America. As things stand - 3 days in, medal-less and with some of their big events behind them - Team Japan run the risk of coming away with absolutely nothing.

So why is this? Why have Japan thus far failed to deliver the promised goods?

For anyone that has lived in Japan for some time will know, there are two main reasons. First, Japanese athletes, having been raised from birth to believe that teamwork and group consensus are everything, are mentally at a disadvantage when it comes to individual events at the highest level. Snowboarding is a prime example - it's a "look at me!" sport in which the object is to outperform your opponents and show your skills off. In Japan, self-praise, especially when done publicly, is frowned upon due to people not wanting to appear boastful (the Japanese make up for this in many other ways, rest assured..) So it was no real surprise to many of us here to see a lack of air on jumps, a very conservative trick selection and some nervous tumbles (the girl that hit her arm overegged her pudding a little though.. to look at her on the ground with the officials crowding round you'd think she'd been a sniper victim. Very much a case of "I fucked up embarrassingly so I'll try to cover it with a suggestion of injury", the kind that top-flight footballers employ.

The second reason for Japan's weak showing is that the media build things up so much here that anything less than a spectacular team effort seems disastrous. Japan's domination of the Summer Olympic and World Championshop judo programmes were rightly celebrated - but this is a sport that originated in Japan and the country has been the zenith for all facets of Judo since time immemorial. It's a bit like snooker in the UK - despite the increasing strength of overseas players, the best players hail from the UK and it is the place to come to excel.

The Winter Olympics has re-exposed an anomaly in Japan- here is a country that seems to breathe the notion of doing your best and that trying hard is often better than actually doing something, yet when it comes to the olympics, all that matters is the medal haul. Obviously the media are very keen for Japan not to lose out to perennial enemies China and Korea, but it is the thirst for medals that has seemingly helped cripple the nation's performers. You can't really help but draw a comparison between this mentality and modern Japan. It's flash and often thrilling but beneath the surface there isn't a lot of substance. Japan's Olympic committee seem to view the medals as fashionable baubles, without really considering the time and effort it takes to train properly.

Japan really should take a leaf out of Britain's book. Great Britain are pretty shit at the winter olympics and they know it. When success does come, such as the last gasp gold medal for the women curlers in Salt Lake city 4 years ago, it was rightly lauded and for the next few weeks it was big news. A few months after the Olympics though, it lost it's lustre and the Scottish contingent of curlers could settle down to their real jobs again. The Great Britain team are probably the best in the world, but the media didn't and doesn't go into a frenzy and tar every other British competitor with the brush of expectation.

Will Japan win a medal at these games? Yeah, I think they'll probably take a bronze in the ice dancing but overall, regardless of how many medals are won between now and the Games' closing ceremony, this has been a startling wake up call to Japan, and it's something they will have to amend if they want to keep believing that they can compete with the very best in the world.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A bachelor no more..

Following a highly successful wedding yesterday (which a future blog entry will address in detail), my significant other has moved smoothly through the titles of friend, girlfriend and fiance to attain her new role of wife. I have likewise gone from friend to husband, and although we have been living together for over a month, we both feel that we are together for the first time.

To all the well-wishers, we thank you. Now I really must investigate my first cup of tea as a married man...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Bad hair on the train

Look at this guy.. if ever there was physical proof of the notion of "I'm not bald! Look, I have hair at the front! Look!" then this is it. It may appear to be some kind of quirky style but trust me, this guy is in denial...

Friday, February 10, 2006

UFO Catcher Championships!

I can be something of a complainer. Japan often makes me vent my spleen more than I used to, and my long-suffering wife will testify to the fact. I often find myself surrounded by formulaic and superficial crap, and it makes me shake my fists in anger.
Yet, every so often something happens in Japan that either knocks me sideways with spectacular creativity or is so close to my own often quirky sensibilities that I want to start purring like a cat in the sun.
Having been here for 2 years, I had completely failed to see any of the superb TV shows that I have witnessed in the last two weeks. How could I have done this? Well, I seldom watched the box back in the old apartment, and now that I have Yoko the TV seems to be on a lot more, and she can explain what is happening in some of the more alternative shows.
Last week there was an absolute cracker of a show that at once made me feel glad that I had come to Japan and made all those little pockets of bullshit worth experiencing. Last thursday saw an event that should be held worldwide.

Championship UFO catcher!

For anyone unaccustomed to the game, you have to guide the gripper above a toy and hope that it descends and picks it up before depositing the said toy in the hole for collection. It's a concept that has been popular in fairs throughout most of the world for years, but in Japan it is something of a national hobby.
In order to determine who would be the grand champion of Japan (or at least Tokyo), they held some regional events, in which wannabe champions battled it out. The semi final matches (pauses to consider the greatness of what he about to say) were played using oden instead of toys! Yes, the combatants had to accurately line up the pincers to pluck tofu and boiled eggs from a vat of hot water!

The second semi final in particular was spectacular, with the contestants (a man and a woman) plucking slippery eggs and soggy triangles of tofu out of the soup with such ease that they could have been in a circus (seeing the vast steel arms for the first time descending at pace towards a miniscule egg that was completely submerged in broth , I think I shouted something along the lines of "not a fucking chance!!") It was only when the man underestimated a difficultly places tofu piece that we had a winner.

The final would prove to be an epic battle. Two housewives, one big machine full of various toys with numbers on them showing their points value. The rules of the game were simple. If you manage to land a toy, you keep going until you miss, and then it's your opponents turn. The first woman to reach 30 points is the winner.
The shorter dumpier contestant got off to an absolute flier, and quickly racked up a chain of 6 or 7 toys on the bounce. At this point Yoko chimed in that she had landed toys with low point values, and only had 15 points to show for it. "Not good for the future," she grinned with a little too much villainy.
When she misjudged her next attempt, it was the turn of the second contestant, and she was able to put three toys in the hole. She fluffed the attempted grab on the whale shown below (even though it was right next to the hole) but the point values of the toys meant that she had 19 points and was ahead by 4.

The dumpy woman put away the 3 point whale and added another 4 with a large plastic beetle. Knowing that an 8 pointer would win it for her, she made a brave attempt to tease a large plush Elmo doll partially obstructed by smaller bears. She lifted it but it fell short, landing in such a way that all the snaggable parts were covered.
The other contestant didn't even consider going for Elmo. With only 19 points it wouldn't have won it for her outright, and she clearly realised that if she messed up, the dumpy woman could win the match with a conversion. She plumped for another of the whales, this one was 4 points, a low value but capable of putting serious pressure on her visibly sweating opponent.
It was now 23 against 22. Elmo was prominent but face down, and there didn't seem to be any way that he could be taken. Both players had clearly seen that a highly gettable 9 point dog was beneath him, so neither wanted to risk things unnecessarily. (Luke: What tactics! Yoko: Shut up, Ru..)

After taking what seemed like 10 minutes sizing up her options , the second woman made something of a nothing effort, trying for an almost impossible mushroom in the corner. Undoubtedly a waiting move. My god this was a chess match and no mistake! The dumpy woman saw something that noone had seen, and was able to snatch a little dog from the back middle. An impressive 7 points, giving her 29 but there was nothing easy left.
Taking her time just as her opponent had, you could almost see the thought bubble above her head saying "Go for Elmo! Gamble! GAMBLE!" Finally she made her choice. She pressed the button and the gripper whirred across... she was going for Elmo!! She judged it perfectly and the steel arms closed around the toy's midriff. It started to lift and for a few seconds it looked absolutely on the money. Elmo raised up and the grip looked true. But just when the beginnings of a victory smile formed on the dumpy woman's face, Elmo slipped and plopped back, in almost exactly the same position.
ALMOST exactly the same position. To me and no doubt most other viewers, Elmo was the same as he had been. However, a reverse angle reply in the studio showed that his arm was ever so slightly exposed. That was all the invitation the second woman needed, and despite my cries of opposition ("whaaaaat? are you mad?? you'll NEVER make that!") she snagged the arm perfectly and Elmo rose like a rescued child, gliding over and dropping into the hole without a sound. The dumpy woman could only look on. Her opponent had won.


Though it's been at the forefront of my mind for the last 6 months or so, I am suddenly feeling rather shocked that in about 48 hours I will be married. Even though we have already handed in our paperwork to city hall, and are thus technically already married, the big day looms large.

I'm looking forward immensely to being properly married, and starting a new life with my wife. So what can explain the feeling I have, which is the same feeling when you are trying to pluck up the courage to phone a girl you like for the first time. My parents, brother and his girlfriend are arriving tonight... maybe I'm thinking about that, as I haven't seen them for a year.

Could just be a case of pre-wedding jitters...

"It's a coffee table book.."

Having watched Throw Momma from the Train a few nights ago, I feel I should emulate creative writing student Mr Plisk and compile my own version of "100 girls I'd like to pork". So here we go, in no particular order..

1. Holly Valance when she was Flick Scully in Neighbours.
2. Lucy Liu in the role of Ling Woo c.1998.
3. Raquel Welch c.1966.
4. Shibasaki Ko (Mitsuko from Battle Royale) c.2000.
5. Takeuchi Yuko (Tomoko from Ringu) c.1998.
6. Jennifer Love Hewitt c.1999.
7. Jessica Alba before she dyed her hair blonde.
8. Natalie Imbrulia around the time of Torn.
9. Kendall Nunn.
10. The blonde from Abba c.mid 70s.
11. The Asian girl from Family Affairs c.2000
12. Jasmine Lowson (Big Breakfast newscaster) c.late 90s.
13. Michelle Lee when she made The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk.
14. Castaway Sun from TV show Lost.
15. Waka Inoue.
16. Shannon Elizabeth c.late 90s.
17. Prettee Kaur from that Knightrider-themed music video.
18. Brandy, particulary when she was in the video to Stunt 101.
19. Jane Seymour c.early 70s.
20. Claudine Auger c.early 60s.
21. Eri Furuse.
22. Konnie Huq.
23. Scarlett Johansson.
24. Felicity Kendall c.early 70s.
25. Rachel Stevens.
26. Catherine Bell.
27. The girl from the maybelene ad c.2000.
28. The jumping girl from the No More Cry music video.
29. Kym Valentine.
30. The girl with the perfect arse that I saw on the train to Kyoto.
31. The student nurse in Osaka.
32. The incredibly fit girl with the perfect action at the bowling alley.
33. The cutest of the girls at Doutor coffee.
34. The girl that works at the kaiten zushi restaurant in Kurume.
35. The cake shop girl at Omuta YouMe Town.
36. The actress that played Aki in You Only Live Twice c. the mid 60s.
37. Emily Booth c.2000.
38. Deadly Little Miho from Sin City.
39. Brooke Burke.
40. The mysterious Chinese girl in the window at University c.2001.
41. Melanie Sykes c.1995.
42. Louise Wener c.1995.
43. The sleepy office lady that's sometimes on the train.
44. The English-speaking staff girl at the bowling alley.
45. The girl from the Don't You Want Somebody to Love? music video.
46. Kelly Brook c.1998.
47. The actresses that played Fuk Mi and Fuk Yu in Goldmember.
48. Louise Nurding c.1995.
49. Maria Grazia Cucinotta c.1997.
50. The girl that works at Kurume Eki Lawsons.
52. The perfectly-waisted girl with terrible hair at the bowling alley.
53. The cheeky-faced softcore idol from last night's TV.
54. The lead actress in Friday night's Korean drama, Chang Gumu.
55. The girl that played the nurse in the Miami Beach Hotel in Goldfinger c.1964.
56. The final contestant of the pyjama wrestling on TV a few weeks ago.
57. The girl in the Ageru/A girl TV ad.
58. Matsushima Nanako (Reiko in Ringu) c.1998.
59. Kelly Chen c.1998.
60. Heidi Klum c.2001.
61. The HK girl on the cover of Time magazine last year.
62. The actress that played Lady Isobel Knowles in Elizabeth c.1998.
63. Celeste from Daphne and Celeste.
64. Newscaster Katie Derham.
65. The lead dnacer at JJ's Roller Disco in Beijing c.2000.
66. The beautiful girl dancing atop Kora mountain.
67. The checkout girl at Direx in Kurume.
68. The hairdresser near Hanabatake station.
69. The girl in the clothes shop in Ichibangai.
70. The girl that works at 7Eleven in Yanagawa.
71. The amusement centre staff girl near Hakata.
72. The girl modelling clothes on This Morning c.1994.
73. The girl who scandalously didn't win a TV modelling show c.1999.
74. Air Jockey Anna from Love FM.
75. The hairdressing assistant in Norwich c.2003.
76. The blase American girl at Heathrow c.2003.
77. The delightful Chinese girl at Ikon in Norwich c.1998.
78. The sulking daughter-in-law at Daiei c.2005.
79. The actress that plays Aki in 2nd House.
80. The actress that plays the girl in the blonde wig in 2nd House.
81. Rio Natsume.
82. Madeline West.
83. The girl on the Akomu TV ad before they changed the format.
84. The actress that played Lynn Warner in Prisoner c.1977.
85. The actress that played Tripitaka in Monkey Magic c.1979.
86. The cute girl that used to present Milkshake on Channel 5 c.1997.
87. The actresses that played the supermodels in the new version of The Italian Job.
88. The coffee shop helper c.1992.
89. The drummer from The Corrs c.1999.
90. Valerie Lyon c.1969.
91. The actress that played the nurse in Carry on Doctor c.1967.
92. The churlish student on the train.
93. The actress that played the girl that tends to bed-ridden Nanahara in Battle Royale c.2000.
94. Denise Richards c.1998.
95. Susanna Hoffs c.1985.
96. The Japanese girl on the NTA flyer.
97. The girl at the boiler company c.2002.
98. The smug office lady on the train c.2004.
99. The actress that played the Thai girl in Mean Girls.
100. The blonde girl that used to present late night sports on channel 5.

Bad hair on the train

This chap was sat across from me last night, and whilst his hair looked normal from the front, a viewing from a side angle revealed the terrible truth...

A salaryman mullet. Having seen this, it does make the whole head of hair seem like a wig, but who on earth would choose such a hairpiece? The fool looks like he's laid a large steak atop his head...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A day of bureaucracy

Things in the high school are bureaucratic at the best of times, but today has been exceptional. First of all we all assembled for the morning meeting, only to stand up, bow, sit down and open our diaries to be told that there was no news today and no announcements so consequently no meeting. If this was the case why the hell didn't they pass a message this morning?

Then, something that was even worse. After the Junior High School interview, we were all sat in the conference room and the other teachers started discussing next year's schedule. I patiently sat there and waited, and was understandably ignored, which is fair enough seeing as I won't be there next year. On and on it dragged, until it was almost the end of lunch time and we could finally leave. Heading back to my desk, I found two notes - one from a third grade international student that has a make or break University interview in Tokyo soon and needs emergency English help, and another from a third grade advanced course student that has three make or break entrance interviews in the next two weeks and wanted me to check her writing and do some listening with her.

Two students in need, and there was me sat having to listen to bullshit that doesn't concern me. Apparently the students asked another teacher if they could see me but they said that I was in an important meeting. Important my arse.

More Craaazy TV

Yesterday was Wednesday, or as I now know it Sui-Ju, and its reputation for wacky TV was well deserved yet again. At around 7ish, I happened upon (surprise, surprise) a food program. But, my fiance was quick to point out, a food program that I would like because the contestants are useless and no-one ever says "oishiiiii!!!"

I noted with interest that the contestants were all young, aesthetically attractive women with rather large chests - my fiance cheerfully told me that they were "softporn idols" and they had to make a Valentine's Day cake for the guests.

Porn stars baking cakes... you know you're in Japan when you start saying sentences like that.

So anyway, slightly reminiscent of Can't Cook, Won't Cook, there was a brief montage of the girls in the kitchen, trying in earnest to do what they evidently have never done in their lives. They really looked like they were taking every care to produce a well-made, delicious cake. That illusion was spectacularly shattered when it came to the presentation, however.

Apart from one girl, who I will refer to later, every girl on the show produced roughly the same thing - an sloppy mud pie of a cake that had been thrown together, uncooked and smothered in every piece of confectionary the girls could lay their perfectly manicured hands on.

Yes, that's right, I did say uncooked. Had the purpose of the show been to throw together a rushed, shoddy trifle then the girls would have been ok. As it was, there were harsh words and cries of "BITTER!" and "IS THIS FROM A RUBBISH BIN?", which made the girls' cute aprons and sugary Valentines cards seem very redundant indeed. It seems that these girls see a cake as something that is put together like a salad and bought from a shop. How my grandmothers would chuckle...

One of the best dynamics of this show was that the panel were sat in a long line, and everyone had to try the cakes. So if the first guy found it disgusting, it was a safe bet that everyone else would as well, and the criticism increased with each successive taster (for one girl, who had arguablty made the greatest effort of all, every single panel member had to run off screen to spit in a strategically placed bucket). Kinda hard on the girl that genuinely thought she was making something of beauty, great for the viewing public.

Now about the girl I mentioned earlier. Immediately taking a liking to her for having an exceedingly cheeky face, I was stunned to see that not only did she understand how the mechanics of baking worked, she went on to make a cake that could sit in a glass case in anyones bakery. The panel agreed, and my pride for cheeky-face was slightly offset by the full-mouth cries of "oishiiiiiii!" and men thinking that they are attractive by shouting with cake dropping from their mouths. Thank heavens for the orange-skinned French pastry chef, usually the harshest critic, who after a discrete nibble said something along the lines of "yes, rather pleasant".

In true Japanese fashion, amidst the celebrations and hysterics (apparently this was the first time that a contestant had made something that was genuinely delicious) the camera shot back to the other girls, who were putting on a brave face but were clearly as dejected and miserable as their awful cakes.

For a show that showed busty beauties baking, this show did have some intellectual substance. That is, it was a clear pastiche on the failings of J-girl fashion - the rushed, haphazard way in which the so-called cakes were thrown together is unerringly similar to the way in which the J-girls approach their coordination of clothes and accessories.

Ah, maybe it really was just porn stars and cakes..


Though Jon often said so when we worked together in Omuta, I had never witnessed first hand the lack of basic geography flaunted by Japanese students. Well all that changed this afternoon, thanks to an exercise in blind ignorance courtesy of two 10th grade students.

Flicking through the same text book that brought Jon so much misery in Omuta, I came across the European cities lesson and decided to give it a go.

Now I should point out that this lesson isn't a gimme by any means. What with the things that happened in the eastern bloc in the 90s, even I had to pause to think which country Belgrade was in. But there is no excuse for what happened next.

I asked the first student, A, which country London was in.

"United Kingdom".

Close, but that refers to a number of countries.

"Uhh.. England?" she ventured.

Correct! I had high hopes for A - she is one of the better English students in the class. I didn't know it then but this guess was as good as it would get.

Turning to the second student, Y, I asked him to tell me another country in the United Kingdom. Now I wasn't expecting much, seeing as this is a guy who wears a hair clip, covers his written work with girlish hearts and prefers prancing and gossip to studying. But his straight-faced suggestions of Malaysia and Brazil were, in the words of Mr T, "absoludicrous".

Moving on from the UK, Madrid was next. Real Madrid, I hinted. "Ahhh!" enthused Y. "England!" (failing to note that England had already been mentioned). Even Paris, which I foolishly assumed to be a shoe-in, proved difficult. We went through Italy, Europe and Russia before my mentioning of The Eiffel Tower and "it begins with F-R-A-N" gave it away.

Other efforts by A and Y? Berlin is in Stockholm apparently and Vienna is in Australia (but for the al they would have
been right).

The lesson ended and A and Y went back to studying and prancing respectively.

The only lesson learnt was theirs to me - that most Japanese kids don't have a clue about cities and countries other than their own. This view was bolstered after the lesson when I tried it on some other students. The result? The Japanese kids were next to useless. The Koreans were marginally better. The Taiwanese were the best by far, though only scored around 50 percent.

And the teachers? The department head was very good, and was able to narrow down his choices when unsure. He proved to be the exception, as the three other teachers I spoke to knew England, France, Germany and Italy but that was it.

The reason for this lack of knowledge? History. Japan was cut off from the rest of the world for centuries and they are still years behind the west when it comes to basic geography. Then there's the fact that Japan was considered to be a group of many countries in feudal times and before, and this mentality remains, albeit faintly.

So how to fix things? Having an unbiased geography syllabus in schools that doesn't consist solely of a sports teacher shouting words from a bygone textbook at 40 kids might improve things a little.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Train times

Well I am currently on a very busy afternoon train from Yanagawa to Kurume and I confident that I can make the following statement - when on the train between Omuta and Kurume, Japanese commuters will not sit next to you if all the other seats are taken. If they have a choice of other seats they will NEVER sit next to you. In fact the only time a Japanese sits next to you is if they are one of those crazies that wants to try out their English before they have to go back to their hospital...

Tomfoolery aboard the 7.33 to Yanagawa

Having discovered that I had somehow acquired a clown's hand horn sometime during the stag night, I was determined to put it to some good use this morning on the usually dull and uneventful train journey to work. As a fan of surreal comedy and having an eye and ear for the ridiculous it was an opportunity that I just couldn't miss.

So there I was, amongst a throng of young professionals and school students as the train rattled smoothly toward its destination. My hand already in my coat pocket, I gave the horn a few half squeezes (a trial run in my apartment showed that the sound only comes after three or four contractions) and then a big one.

The resultant honk was a little quieter than I had hoped, although it was loud enough to make most people jump a little. What followed was what we practical jokers like to call the cream. Being Japanese commuters and mostly strangers, noone was willing to raise the obvious questions ("what was that?", "was that a horn?"), so there was a lot of pretending it didn't happen, covert glances to see if a culprit could be spotted and a great deal of blank expressions (the latter obviously because the idea of a horn being sounded on a train was completely not in keeping with Japanese protocol and thus dismissed). It was for the latter of this group that I gave a second toot a few minutes later, and now even they were shooting glances everywhere. One man even went so far as to sigh and pretend to look at the destination map as if he was lost in order to glance around when he turned back.

Was I rumbled? Not as far as I can tell, but I must have been a prime suspect, being one of those crazy, unpredictable foreigners in a big coat. Would I care if I had been rumbled? Not a chance. If bringing a bit of harmless Pythonian humour to a morning commute is a crime, lock me up and throw away the key.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Communication Breakdown

The last two days have been very cold here in Fukuoka prefecture, and the mutterings of "samui desu ne!" have been even more frequent than usual. With my two sweaters in the wash, I wore just my shirt today, with a thermal undershirt beneath. This didn't seem to compute with any of my colleagues, who have all stared at me and said "you're wearing a shirt... you must be cold", to which I reply that I have a thermal undershirt, but to no avail. They pause for a second and then repeat "But you're wearing a shirt.."

It seems that in Japan, you need to wear your warm clothes on the outside, or not at all...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Stag Night

After late additions and cancellations, 8 guys and yours truly descended on Ichibangai's Zawatami for a couple of hours of ale and cheer, punctuated by food. I arrived at Gerard's apartment for a pre-beer, and after a chat about the origins of Irish names, we headed into town. Not realising that bikes were the order of the day, I had been dropped off by Yoko, so we had to make it a brisk march. On the way we met two more of the partygoers, Ben and Solomon, whose bikes were made a little redundant by our walking, and we arrived 10 minutes late.

Partygoer number 5, Jon, was standing outside the place, and had been there for some time due to inaccurate intelligence regarding times. Everyone was a little cold, so we headed it. Partygoer number 6, Dunstan, was waiting for us, enjoying a comfortable wall seat. So far so good. We had just sat down and asked the staff to commence the 2 hours of fixed price drinking when Aaron, partygoer 8, arrived with characteristic good timing, and almost took a beer straight from the waitress' hands.

The food started arriving in fits and starts, and the sashimi and prawn crackers in particular were quaffed with the eagerness that befits a bunch of ex-pats on a stag night. Despite a few false starts, the nabe was fired up and it was left to Jon to orchestrate things. After a few minutes, the final two guests arrived, Andrew and Pat, and more beer was ordered. By this time, the staff were taking a little longer to reappear with our ale, so we adopted the tried and tested method of ordering at least 3 beers more than we required to balance things out. At one stage our main waitress appeared holding 5 mugs of beer in one hand (an impressive feat for anyone, but she had quite a small hand too), and there was a general consensus that she could probably manage 6, if not 7.

Casually glancing to the table behind us, we were mildly amused to see a young man completely comatose on his back. Solomon ventured an "is he ok?" and the man's friends nodded. Then, bizarrely, they tried to push the guy under the table, with no regard for his head or spinal column. With impressive agility despite the beer and red wine, Solomon grabbed him just before he slid under, and we both inquired as to whether he was ok, what he had been drinking, for how long and was he breathing. These were answered "yes!", "shochu!", "Since 8pm!" and "I don't know, I'll check... yes, he is!" respectively.

When they all got up to leave, the comotose man remained just that, so incredibly one of his friends grabbed his feet and started dragging him along the wooden floor. Everyone at our table rushed to take a quick photo of this, but the results were generally poor, as my own attests. The photo of Ben's reinactment was infinitely clearer.

It was about the time that the topic of conversation inevitably turned to Solomon's cooked-egg phobia, and variations on the usual questions were asked and patiently answered (if you ate an egg that was half cooked, would that make any difference?, if you see eggs cooking on TV do you feel sick?, what's the worst egg-thing you could imagine eating?), that Ben revealed a carrier bag with a gift for me.

Opening it, I was delighted to find a rubber "barcode" salaryman wig, and duly put it on. As this was happening, a waiter appeared carrying a large keg of ale and 9 glasses. It seems that we were drinking far too much for the staff to keep up with, so we had been invited to see to ourselves.

With Pat having prime position next to the keg, he selflessly took it upon himself to be the pourer-in-chief, and expertly navigated the keg and two more just like it. Kurume bar owners will eventually cotton on to the fact that foreigners at nomihodai put away far more beer than the average, and that they are probably losing money. Hopefully that won't be for a long time, as all you can drink accompanied by a smorgasbord of snackage for 15 quid has become something we have all become attached to.

Despite starting around 9.45, the two hour deal was kindly allowed to continue until after 12, when major inroads were made into the final keg of ale. Jokes had been made, amusing news stories recounted and Herculean amounts of beer put away. Now came the task of couting out the money. There's a funny thing that happens when inebriation and money meet. Everyone becomes certain that despite the blurred vision and wobbling, this money-count is the finest they have ever done, and that this is the task for which they were put on the earth.

As it happened, it was my duty to collect the various cash and coins, and in a gallant and very gentlemanly mass move, the guys refused to let me contribute, each putting in something to cover my share. It was a proud moment, though the sight of me in my wig did nothing to suggest as much.

There had been talk of karaoke as early as 11pm, and certain quarters were already planning their set lists. Having assembled outside, we then bade farewell to Andrew and Pat, who had an early start in the morning, as well as Solomon, who parted a little later along the road as we approached the karaoke bar. It was here that we gained another partgoer, Paul, who was in the area. Once again, set-price drinks were the order of the day, and despite at least 2 testimonies that the in-house beer was "fucking awful", a deal of it was polished off.

The singing began in earnest, and there was soon a burgeoning waiting list. As is always the case, favourite songs were chosen and belted out - Jump (Ben), Supersonic (Gerard), Metallica (Aaron and me), The Monster Mash (me), Something-that-only-Aussies-have-ever-heard-of (Jon). The days when, faced with the novelty of karaoke, we would frown and complain about not knowing what to sing were well and truly behind us. We are now karaoke veterans. Yet, that doesn't stop the occasional song being halted when someone (ok, me) presses the stop button instead of the enter button. An easy mistake to make when inebriated and carrying around a night of beer.

When karaoke ended around 3ish, someone had the bright idea of heading into the bunkagai (basically the soho-esque bar and entertainment district) to find a bar, or even some form of "entertainment". Having walked around for what seemed like hours, the consensus was reached that we should find a quiet bar and decide what to do from there (someone's insistence that if we did end up in a hostess place, we could expect to pay upwards of 10,000 yen just to get it had some bearing on the decision, I'm sure).

So at 4am we rolled up to habitual haunt Lowdash, and groggily nursed pints and whiskeys. There was some considerable flagging at this point, headed by Jon, who was doing his best impression of a pile of washing.

With 5am a distinct threat, a couple more partygoers left, Dunsan, Aaron, Paul and not surprisingly Jon. Finding some kind of second wind, Gerard, Ben and myself decided to grab some food from one of the portable ramen stalls on the street, but to our chagrin they were all closing up. A trip to the usually reliable Gusto proved unsuccessful, so Mos Burger was the only alternative.

Seated next to a table of Japanese partygoers, Gerard leaned in towards me and we had a conversation that seemed very profound at the time:

Gerard: Luke.
Me: Yeah.
Gerard: I think... you should ask yer man there to wear your wig. That's something you should think about doing.
Luke: Man, you go ahead. Gift of the gab and all that.

So he did, and the Japanese guy obliged. I must admit that before Gerard made the suggestion, I had forgotten that I was even wearing the wig, so snug was the fit. What a sight I must have been, a tottering giant (in Japan at least) wearing a salaryman's pate through the streets of Kurume.

The not so rosy fingers of dawn were starting to creep into view, so we called it a night there. Ben, who was working at 10am, cheerfully cycled home, with 2 and a half hours of kip ahead of him. Gerard and me, propelled in part by an in-depth but cohension-lacking debate on ALT teaching, stopped by his apartment so that I could pick up Round Ireland with a Fridge and then I stumbled home. A shade before 7am, worn and weary but all the better for it. Just enough time to don the jimmyjams and read a paragraph or two before sleep took me.

Waking up at 1am and realising I'd left the big light on, I didn't have a hangover or a splitting headache. Only a superb night out under my belt. And a clown's hand horn in my pocket, but heaven knows where that came from...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kurume's Brit night

A few weeks ago, I found myself sat with Ben and Lucy, drinking tea and chatting about our respective home towns in England. We had a good long chat, and we all agreed that it was almost like being back home. What about having some kind of British theme night?, Lucy suggested. All the guys and girls from the UK sitting around, drinking builder's tea, eating cakes, talking about the weather, watching British comedy on TV, quietly complaining about things. Within a day or so a plan was in motion, and last night saw the event realised.

The requirements were simple - be British and bring along something relevant. To wit, there were jaffa cakes, baked beans, bacon and egg sandwiches, a Kevin Keegan birthday card, a union jack box and flag, some eccles cakes, some homemade flapjack, some trifle and baked beans on toast, amongst other things. But it was in the DVD department that the guests really excelled themselves - Rising Damp, Little Britain and Camberwick Green, all classics that would be almost certainly lost on our Antipodean and North American friends.

As well as the consumption of home-style food and the watching of British TV shows, there was an almost constant declaration of "I'll put the kettle on", as well as in depth talks about the weather, the class system, property, food and how good kids TV was in the 1980s. There were crass jokes, quickfire interjections of satire and sarcasm and the reading of a letter from Granddad that was such a perfect English cliche of eccentricity and irrelevance that it seemed it was a clever forgery.

Despite all the festivities, the care-free drinking, opinions and perfectly-cut cricket lunch sandwiches there was a shadow underlying the evening. Apparently our Australian, Canadian and American friends were less than enthusiastic about the party, and there was a great deal of harrumphing and mumbled asides about "those bloody poms". Things turned a shade ridiculous when someone even questioned whether the Irish guy should be there, as Ireland isn't part of Great Britain.

All I can say is this - far from being a political statement, last night was just a chance to remember some of the things we miss about home, to sit back, drink strong tea and complain about the weather whilst watching off-centre TV shows from decades past. There's nothing stopping the staging of an Australian night or Canadian night, and I guarrantee there would be no sulking and foot stamping from the Brits. Honest...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Alternative Heroes - Earl Jolly Brown

Despite a role in an early episode of Perry Mason later appearing as Jelly in Black Belt Jones, it is for his portrayal of softly-spoken henchman Whisper in the Bond film Live and Let Die that the wonderfully named Earl Jolly Brown is remembered for.
Not at the top of Mr Big's pecking order by any means - Earl is clearly subserviant to both Tee-Hee and Baron Samedi - Whisper is nonetheless an important if small cog in the heroin magnate's crime machine. Earl Jolly Brown shows us a memorable villain in Whisper, and the faintly humorous yet at the same time sinister set pieces in which he appears (driving the dart-firing pimpmobile, posing as a room service waiter at Bond's bungalow, monitoring a CCTV monitor whilst wearing a scandalous hawaiian shirt, appearing in a hillarious red outfit and then carrying Bond out of the room under one arm, taking a break on the sofa only for Kananga to make it explode with a compressed air gun, being in charge of opening the shark gate whilst Bond and Solitaire are being lowered into the water and finally being kicked into and locked in the empty heroin cannister by a resourceful Roger Moore) are made all the more vivid by his deadpan acting.
It's to Earl Jolly Brown's credit that he wasn't completely overshadowed by his higher ranking fellow henchman, expertly played by Julius W Harris and Geoffrey Holder. Despite only having a handful of whispered lines ("Your champagne, sir"... "Shall I open it?... Shall I OPEN IT?" and "Look out!") he remains one of the best loved Bond characters, and for this, as well as everything above, and for having a tremendous name, Early Jolly Brown, you are an alternative hero.

Alternative Heroes - Christopher Ecclestone

Christopher Ecclestone is one of those actors that can credibly portray just about any kind of character, from any kind of background, believably and sincerely. My first exposure to Christopher Ecclestone was in the TV series Cracker, in which he played DCI Bilborough, who ends up being snared and fatally stabbed by a pschopathic football fan (Robert Carlyle). My second was in the mid 90s TV series Hearts and Minds, in which he played a teacher that makes a off-hand comment that spirals out of control and ends up dividing the school and turning his life upside down. In both these roles, Ecclestone played grounded, salt of the earth characters with such finesse that it was impossible not to become emotionally attached to them.

Every actor should be able to play a role, but what separates Ecclestone from 90% of other thespians is that he is equally skilled at being both hero and villain, victim and oppressor. As the ex-pat bad guy in Gone in 60 seconds he played a fairly eccentric but lethally ruthless furniture enthusiast. As the lead character in The Second Coming, he played an ordinary guy going through extraordinary circumstances. And in Working Title's Elizabeth, he played the part of the villainous Duke of Norfolk with such relish and panashe that it's almost impossible to imagine anyone else ever being able to do the role justice.

I must admit that I haven't seen Shallow Grave, in which Ecclestone is said to shine (this will be rectified as soon as I can make my way to the video store), and I haven't seen anything of the new series of Doctor Who, in which he has apparently brought gravitas and authenticity to the role, but if his enviable resume is anything to go by they are bound to be interesting.

One mark of a great actor is that whatever they're in is good (Tom Hanks, David Jason, for example). This is certainly true of Ecclestone, and it's for this, as well as being arguably the best actor in England, and for being in that fantastic TV show from 1996 Our Friends in the North, that, Christopher Ecclestone, you are an alternative hero.