Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Grand Finale Trip: Tokyo, Fuji Rock, Mt. Fuji, Kamakura

Well, even though I've already said my goodbye, I want to round off the blog with a couple closing posts. First, I had a good trip at the end of July/beginning of August that I want to write about. Sorry about the bad formatting, but my computer dies a little bit every time I try to put pictures up here, so I can't go back and fix it because it would actually take 3 hours. On the other hand, if you want to see more pictures, please check out my flickr site, with sets conveniently named for each part of the trip (Fuji Rock, Tokyo, Climbing Mt Fuji, Kamakura).

Fuji Rock Festival
After we sent a rather ill-timed (should've come months earlier) and somewhat unprofessional email to the Sapporo Board of Education indicating our resignation, we quickly hopped on a plane down to Tokyo, running out of communication range in case our boss was mad at us!

(Wayne, looking good as always.) We stayed at a love hotel in Tokyo (best option for when you're in town, just go to Love Hotel Hill in Shibuya), then hopped on the Shinkansen out to the ski town of Naeba. We set up our tent on the resort's golf course, soon to be joined by some 15000 other campers. We had an awesome amalgamation of some 15 or 20 kiwis, brits, canadians, and one Japanese guy that made for a good crew and a good home base over the weekend (you can see some of us huddling under the tarp for shade in the middle of the picture).

For the next three days we would enjoy the sights and sounds of the 2008 Fuji Rock Festival (I was only naked for a very small part of it). The weekend consisted of: many half-hour walks from the tent to the performance grounds, which didn't get us too down, because you could hear the music the whole time; probably a couple hundred kilometres of walking back and forth between the 7 different stages; buying food and drinks pretty much every hour between sets, from one of a hundred different food stalls; cool off periods as well as morning showers / curative dips in conveniently close, mountain fresh, ice-cold creeks (pictured); endless hours of jumping, dancing, laughing and partying to a variety of awesome music; not very much sleep, but lots of taking pictures of other sleeping spectactors who didn't have a camp site.

I can't pick a favourite performance, because every time I try another memory pops into my head. We got rocked by Galactic, Primal Scream, Underworld, Michael Franti, and (surprisingly fun) the Bootsy Collins Tribute band featuring a James Brown impersonator who wouldn't let us stop dancing for three hours. Performers I hadn't heard before that also kicked butt were Hocus Pocus (French hip hop), Seasick Steve (blues/funny drunk southern USA man talking on stage), Big Willie's Burlesque, and an ongoing stream of DJ's. The dorkiest performance was probably the Presidents of the USA; the most monotonous was probably Kate Nash (not bad, just... monotonous - the girls were happy though); the most intense performance was probably Gogol Bordello. This is just the beginning of the list. You can see the whole lineup on the festival's website. The event wrapped up for us on Sunday evening with the much-loved Lee Scratch Perry, a packed performance by The Music (didn't really care much for them, though the crowd was happy and uppity), and an awesome closing set by Asian Dub Foundation, whom the crowd refused to let leave.

Other highlights include: sufficient portapotties (even though most of them were the terrible Japanese-style squat toilets, which quickly got filthy), with sinks and disinfectant soap to wash your hands (which you can't find in many public toilets in Japan); designated smoking areas so we could party without stinking, and ostracize those losers as much as possible (even though people smoke everywhere else in Japan); well-staffed gates so there was never a lineup to come and go; enough food stalls and trinket shops to keep life interesting, without feeling like stuff was being pressed on you at every moment; awesome ambience and a feel-good place through and through (look at those candles!); lastly though not exhaustively, plenty of buses to help us get away from the mess as fast as possible on Monday morning.

Recovering in Tokyo
We took it easy the next couple days in Tokyo. We strolled around Ginza for a day or two, circumnavigating the Emprorer's Palace and Gardens without seeing an entrance to anything interesting, checking out the Sony Building (see Alice in photo playing a Dragon Ball game), enjoying the variety of quality food that's simply not available in Sapporo, and being awed by the incredible amounts of wealth in this part of the city. At the end of the business day, the streets are flooded with chauffeured well-to-dos getting out of their black sedans and limos, dressed to the nines to go shop hopping. The streets here are not cracked and ugly (like everywhere else in Japan), your headspace is not filled with tacky neon signs, and pachinko parlours are not the only well-kept buildings. I'm sad to say that one of the few nice urban areas in Japan is this centre of conspicous wealth and consumerism.

Climbing Mt. Fuji
After Alice and Wayne went back to Sapporo, I raced to catch up with a couple guys we met the day before: they were going to motivate me to climb Mt. Fuji. I had had to buy some more gear in Tokyo, as I was heinously underprepared, but eventually I found the two hour bus (plus a transfer, then another hour bus) that took me to the 5th Station. If you're crazy, like a chunk of our Fuji Rock crew who climbed it the week before, you can spend two 8 hours day hiking up and down the whole terrible 3776m of Fuji. If you're smart (lazy), you can just bus to the 5th station which means you only have to hike something like 1400m.

I started hiking around 10pm. I was more or less alone for this part of the hike, so I just enjoyed the quiet, the feel of the trail beneath me (didn't bother with the headlamp), and the ridiculous number of stars over head. I caught up with my hiking buddies after an hour or two of hiking. We had some grub and snoozed for an hour or so at the hut at the 7th station (most expensive hour of sleep I've ever had).

When we got on the trail again, things weren't so pretty. It was somehow darker and much much colder - the sky was completely covered in heavy clouds. Plus, it was pouring rain. Oh, and our mate didn't have a light after the one I leant him died, and the mist from the rain made our headlamps glaring and next to useless on the dark and slippery shale anyway, and I had way too much weight in my bag, and I didn't have nearly enough gear for the weather. In this picture, Jon isn't looking so good. He hadn't hiked (or done any exercise) "in years" before this. Also, the oxygen was getting thinner at this point. About 5 feet outside the frame, somebody is leaning over the railing vomitting.

Well, things got worse before they got better. First, they got wetter and wetter. Then, forward momentum stopped. We had reached the dreaded Line Up. Yup, there you are on a trail on some mountain somewhere, and suddenly you are in a line up of hundreds of people. The reason, of course, is that Fuji is a rite of passage for Japanese people to be accomplished once in every lifetime, and it was the middle of peak season to boot. And many people hike it over night to catch the sunrise in the morning (I couldn't resist, even though I knew it would be packed.) Add to that the fact that Japanese people often travel in tour groups of about 50, wherein they are treated like children (meaning frequent stops and roll-calls and pats on the back), and the congestion was infinitely worse than it had to be.

But there was a shining light pulling us forward and giving us hope. It was about 330am when we reached the top and saw the vending machines. Luckily we were above the clouds, so the rain stopped and the sky was beautiful. However, it was too early. We still had an hour till sunrise, in wet clothes with the temperature hovering just above freezing (but with harsh wind that made it feel 5 below). Fortunately, there's also a restaurant on top of the summit (only in Japan!) that provided shelter and some warm soup, and the warmth of several hundred bodies crammed in a small space. I was glad for the extra weight in my bag now, because I put on every peice of clothing, wrapped myself in Alice's down sleeping bag (a little damp, still functional), and shivered as much as I could. For about half an hour I cursed myself for being underprepared, and feared that I had done something stupid as the cold refused to leave my limbs.

Nonetheless, as soon as hints of the sun's light started poking over the clouds, everybod flooded out of the hut to catch the action. Of course, it would take maybe an hour for the whole sun to rise, so we were being a little over earnest. I moved away from the crowd and found some place on a hill with room to breathe. With the sleeping bag wrapped around me, I continued to shiver as much as possible, periodically poking my camera out of my coccoon to take about a hundred more photos than necessary of the sun coming up. Maybe it was the cold affecting my brain, or the fact that I hadn't really slept, or I was deliriously hopeful that the minutest amount of sun would warm me up, but the sunrise was a new beauty each second fromt the first.

Eventually I warmed up enough to smile again and stop fearing for my fingers. At this point I really felt the energy of all the (hundreds) of people on the summit. As dorky as it may sound, some people had tears in their eyes, some were shouting with joy, some were laughing, and some simply sat quietly looking content. I think I did each in turn.

The hike down was long. The wide trail snaked back and forth to reduce the slope, but the shale and gravel still made it slippery and so each step required constant concentration. It didn't matter though. It was quiet and peaceful, and for hours you get to look to the hills on the horizon, float above the clouds, and kinda forget that anything else in the world exists.

I'll try to be more succint about the last part of the trip, because I know I've gone on long enough already. I promised my fellow teacher/friend Hideki (who made my life so much easier at the last school I worked at) that I would meet him in Kamakura, so I had to hike down Fuji quick, hop back on the buses back to Tokyo, then the train in Tokyo, then the train out of Tokyo, then the little monorail/shuttle/train thingy that runs through Kamakura to meet up with him after a long and stinky 4 or 5 hour trip. (With every article on me or in my bag wet and getting mildewy by the second, me stinking like sweat and dirt and lack of sleep, and looking worse than I smelled, I wouldn't get to shower till nearly a full day later.)

Kamakura was better than I expected. I went to see the big Buddha statue and a couple of the hundred temples, but I didn't even know that it was also a beach town. So, over two and half days I walked around the town with Hideki and his lovely wife, did the touristy temple thing that I've been longing to do (though an hour here and there suffices), sampled (more) tasty cuisine that's been lacking, nearly passed out from exhuastion every hour (on top of the hike being killer, in kamakura it was over 30 degrees with what felt like 100% humidity and sun sun sun), chatted with an awesome british fellow named Ken who offered me a bed in his family's house if I couldn't find a hotel, and other than that just hung out on the beach, reading, swimming, relaxing, and soaking the feeling in.

The feeling, of course, was relief and freedom. This trip was supposed to be a mid-summer recharge, a chance to get some rest and have some fun, and hopefully get some enthusiasm to help me surive another year in Japan. Once we decided to quit though, it took on a different nature. Alice and I ran into so many people at Fuji Rock who were thrilled to hear we are leaving, that there's no way we could feel bad about it or wonder if it was the wrong choice (if we would have wondered that anyway). Fuji Rock and the entire trip became a celebration, a finale, with no thoughts of work back in Sapporo to dampen the mood, and the elated feeling that after the trip, all we had was some packing, and then new places and open doors.

I shouldn't speak for Alice I guess. Suffice it to say, she had a good time too, and I (as usual) just added in all this over-analysing and signifying. I got back in time to receive a birthday parcel from home (Thanks mom, dad, ashleah!), and was greeted with a lovely and disgusting birthday cake prepared by Alice (had to eat it all before we started a cleanse two days later), who welcomed me home in characteristic fashion.

It was an awesome trip. And it was good to be home - because we had to pack up and move all our stuff into a friend's apartment within two days!!!!!

I'll probably write one or two more posts, reflecting or something deep like that. Please stay tuned.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Byebye, as they say in Japan

[Many young people in Japan use practically no English in their day to day lives, but pretty much everybody says 'Byebye,' which with their tone and gestures kinda contributes to them seeming a bit infantile.]

Well, there's really not much left to say, is there. I guess, thanks for being devoted readers (mom, dad, thousands of imaginary fans). I wouldn't have been able to do keep up this frantic pace (once a month, or whenever) or intensity of writing (no theme or driving aim, no plot, no editing, sometimes little evidence of prior thought) without you all to motivate me.



Oh, by the way, I'm going to have to end this blog soon, because I've decided not to stay another year in Japan!!! I could give all the thoughtful and heavy, emotion-laden reasons behind that decision but for now lets just skip to the bottom line. I believe leaving Japan (as opposed to staying in the same job, place, environment) will give me a more interesting life over the next year. If I stayed, I would learn more Japanese and earn more money. However, I don't have a specific use for Japanese planned later in life, and money comes and goes like the seasons, which really depend on where you are in the world, and therefore is totally contextual and thus meaningless on its own. Oh, and I think I said before that a girl might be the wrong reason to decide to recontract another year, so I figure that same girl is probably a good reason to break that contract off and split. With irrefutable logic in mind, it's time to make like a tree and leave (keeping with the season metaphor...).

Wow, I appear to have lost all ability to write.

I quit.

One more time, Goodbye.


WAIT!!!! Please read any other blogposts after this one. I promise to put in some pretty pictures!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

sometimes ups outnumber the downs

Personal update, the bad news first:

My bike was stolen. Trusting fool that I am, I thought it would be ok to leave my bike unlocked for 5 minutes while I ran into a store. I was on my way to dinner with one of the teachers I work with, and my contribution was to be some cake (along with the wine in my backpack). I guess I took too long deliberating chocolate mousse versus strawberry cheese-, because when I came back out, my beautilful 5th hand, 3-gear, mamacheri was gone. Idiot that I am, I had also left my backpack outside. So, along with the wine and some other random stuff, and the backpack that I`ve had for ages, I lost a bright and shiny and new digital camera, used just once. (If you remember, before I left Vancouver I debated buying a dSLR, or a compact digicam, or both. Well, since I only got to use the compact once, I think fate only wants me to have the SLR.) I can just imagine the fun the thief is having with it. Probably dropping it heaps in drunk parties with his crack-addict friends, knocking it against the bricks as he scurries away after scoping out places to hit up - none of this damaging the camera because of its awesome shockproof shell; probably taking nasty pictures in the shower with his ugly girlfriend, and, when he makes it to the beach once this summer, stupid pictures of himself making the peace sign underwater - which he can do because of the camera`s awesome waterproofing. Well, some greedy amoral asshole or underprivelaged and pitiable youth is going to have a delightfully picturesque summer.

Let this be a lesson to you (meaning me). Even in CrimeFree Japan, only trust people when you can see them, and always lock your damn bike up, idiot. Alternatively, have a crappy bike that isn`t worth stealing, and don`t own expensive possessions that will hurt your wallet if stolen.

The good news. Things are pretty good otherwise. I have enough positive thoughts and memories to swing the balance in the right direction.

Let`s see, a few weeks ago I hiked Mt. Yotei with some friends, staying overnight in a mountain hut. At about 1900 metres, Yotei is one of the tallest mountains in Hokkaido. It`s also called Ezo-Fuji because of the similar conical shape to the namesake volcano in the south. On the first day, we hiked up through the mist to emerge on top of clouds as far as the eye could see (always a cool feeling). The next morning broke clear, and we took in a 360 view of the surrounding farmland and lush, green, rolling hills receding off into the distance. One of our crew wrote a detailed and thoughtful post, with pictures, about the hike. So, I just point you in that direction if you`re curious. http://happyinhokkaido.typepad.com/happy/2008/06/yosh-mt-yotei.html

What else? Well, after my bike was stolen, I continued on to the dinner anyway. The dinner was a special request from my coworkers mother in law, who studies English and wanted to practice. Plus, my coworker (Hey Mori Sensei!) is an awesome guy, really good to me at work, with whom I was glad to share a relaxed evening away from the hullabuloo. The four of us (add his lovely wife) finally did relax after I forcefully shifted focus away from my recent idiocy (losing the bike). I feel like this small family was representative of a good possible future for Japan. All three were, on top of being very kind people, open-minded and interested in broader perspectives of the world. They all see value in speaking multiple languages, and communicating with people from other places, and talking about interesting issues rather than just exchanging pleasantries. We didn`t spend the whole time talking about how old I was, or how tall I was, or how I would rank the top ten most common Japanese foods. And they didn`t compliment my use of chopsticks - though you might only understand the significance of this after you`ve lived here. Best of all there was actually some nice cheese and fruit (as well as the scrumptious Japanese foods), which I have yet to see at any other dinner here.

Anyway, it was a nice time, and it made me realise for the first time that I finally have a relationship (can you use the word friendship with coworkers?) with a Japanese person that time has helped develop, where we understand each other better than we did at the start, and I believe we actually engage with each other as people, rather than as the functions we serve for each other.

After the dinner, at 1030, I got on a train heading north out of the city. At Toubetsu, in Ishikari (small city North of Sapporo), I took a ridiculously expensive taxi ride out to an old abandoned junior highschool in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere on the edge of this town. There were candles glowing everywhere. In the gym at this most random of locations, an all day alternative (ie not shit JPOP that is the ONLY option pretty much everywhere here) music fest was quietly kicking ass. Alice (who is responsible for anything halfway youthful and exciting in my life) and co had already enjoyed the music all day, which ranged from improv spoken word jazz to people playing little bamboo mouth harps (or so I was informed). In the evening, the Ainu groups took over. I got there in time to see Oki (see earlier post) and his lovely accompanying ladies, doing their waves of rythmic, hypnotic traditional singing. I like it more every time I hear it. Regardless of whether or not there were intoxicants involved, the scene was awesome. Similar to the concert in Obihiro, there were people of all ages, little kids and little dogs scurrying underfoot. The only lighting was candlelight. There was a woman making a line/dot piece of art on the wall over the course of the night. As soon as I jumped out of the taxi at the beginning and asked where Oki was, a couple people jumped on me in conversation. You can feel the energy of this kind of place as soon you as show up, and it`s so indescribably different from anything you can find here in the city. Relaxed but charged, human, alive. The music went till 5 in the morning. Well, actually, I went until 5 in the morning (the music kept going), at which time I took in the last of the sunrise quietly, and then retreated to our tent on the school field.

Not sure if this link into Facebook will work, but my friend Emma Rowbotham has some photos of the night in her `trivia times - Ainu I knew you` photo album. They capture but a fraction of the magic, some candles, a delightful child, the drawing on the wall (and there`s nothing indecent, so dont worry).

My hiking partner from above, Michael Snyder, has two relevant posts. One is copied news article talking about a recent government panel formed to discuss ongoing discrimination against the Ainu.

In the other he talks about an Ainu Solstice festival he took in one night in Asahikawa (you just have to scroll down a pinch).

OK. Back to the the good stuff. I`ve had a good week at work.
On Monday, I spent the day at the school I will be moving to in August. It is a highschool. It is a very big, flash, advanced highschool with students who can understand quite a lot of english. I followed around the JET who I will replace, met the teachers, and saw a few classes. Just about everything about the situation there looks different from the situation I`ve found so far in Junior Highschools: the ALTS are used far more effectively, far far more extensively, and the focus on actually communicating in English is very high. I`ve only got three weeks left at my current school, which I will be sad to leave in a lot of ways. Nonetheless, I`m pretty excited to test out the new scene of highschool.

Then Tuesday was Canada day. After a rare delicious and filling breakfast, courtesy the lovely Canadian Emma and the lovely Alice Alice, I went to school with lots of energy, a good out look, a canadian flag worn as a toga, and lots of Canadian stickers to hand out (thanks for buying those and sending them to me mom). I surprised a lot of kids out of their apathy with my enthusiasm all day, plus it just so happens we were actually doing a fun class activity that day, so, all in all I just felt great about being at work, and unequivocally enjoyed my job. Forgive the cheese factor, but I think I will always remember the smiles on those kids faces, and the energy with which they shouted `Happy Birthday Canada!` Shiny stickers and energetic bribery: have to employ more of that.

Today is a bit of a quieter day, so I have time to write this here blog. Yet, I`m still riding the energy from the past couple days, and I feel pretty content with my work situation at the moment. I feel like I have continued to relax more, and figure out ways to connect with these kids (meaning illicit a few more precious words here and there). Partly I think they are just becoming more comfortable with me, after three months together. So I do have mixed feelings about leaving, as I look forward to change and new things, but also feel I`ve started to find my place here.

I`ve got much to look forward to in the near future as well. We are taking off a couple days before the end of term to head down to Fuji Rock Festival (which I `ve mentioned before). After that, I`ve got a week to explore the area. I think I`m going to do a day or two in Tokyo, then hop down to Kamakura and see some old temples and a big budha and take pictures that a million other people have taken before me, followed by a wee hike up that well-known mountain, you know the one, that a million other people will probably be hiking at the same time as me. Yup, I`m meeting up with a friend (Lexis Lum) to hike Fuji on August 2nd, then returning home for some down time before starting a hopefully exciting and fulfilling year as a highscool ALT.