Monday, February 28, 2011

Kaisei Goodbye

Today I was treated to the ultimate in visual spectacles - a Japanese high school graduation . Today, all my wee third years began the first day of the rest of their lives. I was asked all day, "What was your graduation like?" and I couldn't for the life of me remember. I can only assume that it was something of a non-event, probably involving nothing more than a signed school blouse and four vodka cruisers.

You guys, we could stand to learn something from the Japanese.

The ceremony was fairly innocuous in itself - lengthy speeches by the principal and trustees; awards; certificates; a tuneless rendition of the school song; proud parents wooed into slumber by the drone of name after name after name. But the outfits! You see - the Japanese don't have a prom, or anything vaguely resembling a school dance. I pitied them for that - I think the dignified Japanese mentality could do with the shake-up that 400 students grinding in time to S Club 7 will inspire.

Little did I know that graduation is where this all occurs. I must add here that my experience probably differs from the average graduation ceremony. Kaisei, as you know by now, has no uniform, and is therefore atypical when it comes to the formality and uniformity that important school occasions usually inspire. Whereas most high school students will graduate in their uniforms, with their Black Black hair and knee length skirts and perfectly pressed shirts, Kaisei's students get as much distance from this norm as possible.

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you:






This GIRL (she's 17, are you kidding me?!?!)

This BOY who went up on stage to accept his degree from the principal...

...dressed like THIS:

They were so cheerful, so proud, so full of personality, so unashamedly pumped for the future. I love my school. No two ways about it. And perhaps the best part was that although they were all dressed so ornately, with hair that must have taken hours and kimono comprised of 6 layers of clothing, on their feet...

... they all wore their old school sneakers.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Exercise is for fit people

As I write this, my wrist muscles are so sore I can barely move them. My bum is a pudding. My knees are swollen and my shoulders creak. I hate the world. I hate the snow. I hate exercise.

Today, I went snowboarding for the first time.

All you arses back in NZ who get on my back every time we chat, moaning about the fact that I live in immediate proximity to some of the best snow in the world, but choose to spend my weekends playing pool/reading books/ drinking sake - I capitulated. I folded. I caved.

This is for you (I hate you).

Today, I took 1.5 hour bus trip out to Kokusai, one of the closest ski resorts to Sapporo city.

I rented pants, goggles, board and gloves.

Lookit - I was going to give y'all a detailed, nuanced description of the experience.

The beauty of the mountains.

The number of times I fell (100? More?).

The terror and elation of catapulting down a slope at obscene speeds, knowing all along that the only way to stop is to fall over.

The terror and elation of catapulting down a slope BACKWARDS at obscene speeds, knowing all along that the only way to stop is to fall over.

Being bypassed by Japanese children by the hundred as tall as my knee.

Finding myself totally, utterly unable to stand up and thus sitting halfway down the mountain contemplating the universe.

Watching a girl wearing fake eyelashes carve it up.

Using Shu, a long-suffering Singaporean, weighing 40kg soaking wet, as leaning post, lever and wall.

The attractiveness of my fringe, frozen in icy tendrils to my forehead.

The redness of my face.

But I can't be bothered. I'm tired. I want my dinner.

Here's your proof:

Now buggeroff.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Interesting Things That Happen In Japan

(actually just one because I am far too lazy to recount all of them)

Japanese schools are strict. This is evident in the students, in their high grades and uniformly respectful demeanours. HOWEVER: This is not achieved easily. No, myriad crazy steps occur in the formation of these upstanding young adults.

What I learnt this week: at Junior High Schools, it is a general school rule that the students may not dye their hair. (ASIDE: I think this is a sensible rule a) because Japanese hair does not dye well or easily, and often looks it most beautiful and luscious in its natural, ebony state and b) I really wish someone had intervened when I was 13 and stopped me from using Sunsilk Custom Highlights). Now, in any Western school that had this rule, the offending student might be suspended, or be given an official warning, or detention, or some such formulaic punishment. In the Japanese school - wait for it - the student will be taken to the front of the class, given a small towel to protect their uniform, and have their hair SPRAY PAINTED BLACK BY THE TEACHER. I am astounded by this, and also amused. I like how it could only be utilized as a remedy in a country such as Japan, where the majority of the population have the exact same hair colour. Can you imagine the same punishment being issued in NZ?

"Stand still, Amy, while I cover up these honey highlights"

"But the hair spray is BLACK. My natural hair colour is BLONDE"

"Well, you shoulda thought of that before you got these highlights, no? Stand still!"

A fellow JET reports sitting on the bus behind a group of dangerous criminals junior high school students who pulled wet wipes from their bags and calmly ran them through their hair, stripping off the spray paint and revealing the bleached bangs beneath.

Perhaps just as strange is another story I heard, this time concerning a Senior High School. On the first day of attendance at this school, each student will have their hair colour checked against a chart, where it will be matched to one of the six accepted natural shades of Japanese hair (Really Black, Black, Mostly Black, Light Black, Lighter Black, Almost Brown You Giant Weirdo). Then, in the last weeks of their attendance at the school, just before graduation, the charts will be brought back out, and if the hair colour has been altered from the original shade, the offending student must immediately take steps to restore natural colour, otherwise permission to graduate will be withheld.

"Aha! Two years ago your hair was BLACK! Now it is clearly LIGHT BLACK!"

"But... The sun... The natural aging process.... My harsh shampoo..."

"No excuses! No graduation! NO CAREER! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA...."

Delinquent. Also, possible Sunsilk user.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

At Least You're Not a Crab, Frozen For Viewing Pleasure

This Friday was perhaps the first time I have ever been genuinely counting down to the release of a new song by an artist I like - I tend to count down to the release of books, or the end of school, or the days left until the weekend, but nothing else. This Friday, though, was the beginning of a new age of Gaga and since I, like, love her (and her brown eyes), I was looking forward to it.

Upon first listening I was more or less unimpressed, but I have since done an imitation of radio overplay by repeating it over and over and have effectively forced myself to come round. I love Gaga and am therefore prepared to accept this song as part of her progression. As a rule, I have liked the darker side of her former albums more than the radio-fodder, so if Born This Way is of a similar vein to Bad Romance and Poker Face, then I can probably anticipate a few more I Like It Rough's and to be thrown in the mix. And, who am I kidding, I LOVE Alejandro. And who am I to talk about radio fodder? I went to the Backstreet Boy's concert. Recently. And LOVED it.

Oh, hey, look, I just became a music reviewer. Shame. On a blog that's supposed to be about Japan... In news that crosses both genres, Taylor Swift is in Osaka. Oh Em Gee. (I am feigning irony, I would actually really like to be at this concert. In fact, I would sincerely like to be at the concert of ANY major international act in Japan, simply because I have a feeling that the Japan Mindset would manifest itself in the Japanese Mosh Pit, and everyone would just sort of stand and sway and smile, and I would only need the frenetic action of my feet, and could eschew elbowing entirely, in order to get to the front and witness Taylor's lovely wee self with mine own eyes)(This is actually a matter of some importance to me, given that when I was fortunate enough to see Gaga live in Auckland, and pushy enough to get to the very front row, I then passed out in the middle of Alejandro and had to be toted away by a long-suffering bouncer. And then I ate chips with Lady Hawke)(I really shouldn't blog on Sundays, its painfully poor writing and I keep putting apostrophes where they OUGHT NOT BE and offending The Principles of Structured Writing on many, many levels).

So I know I promised photos of Big White Things but Manfriend just purchased a new, phallic camera and insisted on taking all the shots (Me with Snowy Wolves; Me With Snowy Castle, Me with Snowy Stingray, Me with Japanese Baby, Me with Mulled Wine, Me with More Mulled Wine), which I was more than amenable to because I was having a Good Hair Day, but now all the photos, along with his sweet-smelling self, have departed for Niseko, and I am left with no visual aids with which to sustain your attention. The plight of The Lazy Photographer.

Here's one though, because The Fact of The iPhone means that occasionally I am texting/Twittering/playing Words with Friends when I walk past something photogenic, like fish cruelly suspended in ice, and it is the work of a finger to take a picture and then forget about it. For accuracy's sake (because this blog is nothing if not factual) it should be noted that this picture comes from the Ice Festival rather than Snow Festival, a fact that you could probably have deduced on your own, given that Ice is Transparent and Snow is Not, but I like to ensure clarity in all walks of life. That said, it's not wholly impossible that the 12 meter high sculpture of a Chinese Temple wasn't positively TEEMING with dead frozen fish, but I have no photographic evidence to support this with.

See? Possibly entirely devoid of marine life.

So yeah. The long weekend has ticked on past. I spent altogether too much of it Looking At Cold Things, but a satisfying portion of it Eating Hot Things. As I have mentioned, Manfriend has departed in his little black shoebox, taking with him all hope that I might eat a sensible dinner. This weekend I tried my hand at the creation of Valentine's chocolates, all of which were more or less a total failure, in that they are ugly, though still delicious. So I have maybe thirty tiny deformed chocolates filling the shelves of my fridge that must needs be disposed of before someone comes over and surveys sadly my total inability to Melt Chocolate And Pour It Into Moulds So That It Resembles Something You Might Give To Someone To Tell Them That You Love Them Instead of Looking Like The Droppings Of A Cancerous Rabbit.

Want one?

This week at school might feasibly push me over the edge of sanity and into the Abyss of Madness. It is Speaking Test week, meaning that I have to ask 120 students "Do You Enjoy Swimming?" and watch as they immediately forget every single word of English they ever learnt. One fellow JET had the immeasurable pleasure of watching one petrified student Literally Pee His Pants out of pure terror. Here's hoping I have that same joy. At least it will break up the monotony.

Have a good week, lovers. You're on the right track.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gravel Is Not Food

Cold is a State of Mind, or so Sheryl Jordan would have me believe, but I'm actually of the opinion that it's more a state of flesh. And skin. And hands. At the beginning of winter I took agin gloves - they make me clumsy, they prevent me from using my phone and I hate to lose sensations of touch. I am like a blind person. With sight. Which I guess makes me "like a person". And I am.

This time of year in Sapps is an exciting one - 'tis the coldest and snowiest month, and Hokkaido celebrates this curse with numerous snow and ice festivals. The Snow Festival proper, that which draws millions of tourists every year commenced on Monday. It's a pretty big deal. Big enough for Coke to make its very own can:

Talk to me when Coke have considered your details worth emblazoning on a mass-marketed vessel and I might consider you worth taking pictures of.

I briefly visited the site yesterday evening, but found myself short by several layers of enough clothes, and so lasted only about three blocks worth of magnificence before I sought refuge underground in the nearest subway station. Which then turned out to be a weird parallel universe when I found myself on a train that seemed to be entirely full of New Zealanders. I sat and stared as fern tattoos and crass vowels surrounded me. I was anticipating the haka at any moment. It didn't happen, for which I am fervently grateful, as I am certain that any Japanese people present would have immediately committed harakiri out of pure shock.

I aim to visit properly on Thursday evening, so expect a post about big white things (foreigners)(or snow sculptures)(probably both) imminently.

The weekend just gone was a delightful one, as I played hosts to two Kiwi friends visiting from down South. I told them that they had come on a good weekend - the weather was a balmy 2 degrees when they arrived. They looked at me with barely concealed disgust and disdain as they skidded on the ice, the usual temperature in their town hovering around 10-12 degrees.

Luckily, there were many things in Sapporo to distract them from the weather and the frostbite. Like this, for example:

...or maybe this...

Distracting, no?

This dude was just wandering around the streets.. alas, I kid. I know him. I attended his birthday party. Little did I know what was going on below. Actually, he was perhaps the most appropriately attired person at Saturday night's entertainment - a sexy 80's party, also known as a "Wear as Few Clothes and as Big Hair as Possible" Party. A blatant middle finger to the weather forecast.

I wore fake eyelashes:

And that's all! No, really.

The next day, I used the presence of friends to behave like a big hairy tourist, and road-tripped out to Niseko for coffee (most people go for skiing, but I have better priorities) and to Otaru for their version of the Snow Festival. There was a lot of loveliness:

Are you bored of snow yet? Man up.

You're doing really well.

This is your reward:

I won the fight, in case you're wandering. He was totally predictable. But I'm not going to go into detail. First rule of Fight Club. Even with bears.

In short, Otaru Festival truly magical. Cold, still, full of light. Also, full of tourists and pushy Japanese men with overlarge cameras. Despite that, very romantic. So romantic, in fact, that, standing at one end of a canal full of candles, Aravin and I had a sneaky pash. Well, he was asking for it:

And parted mouths to find one aforementioned overlong camera thrust in our faces. So, if you see our PDA on a brochure for Otaru, let me know will you? There's no business like snow business.

In all honesty, it was nice putting aside all pretence of being a local (talking quietly, bowing, not scowling at old ladies who thrust you bodily out of the way on the subway, not wearing enough clothes for the climate, saying "excuse me" a lot, eating too much fish, walking with teeny tiny steps, eschewing umbrellas in the snow, not jay-walking, carrying around branded shopping bags, considering "cute" the ultimate compliment, acting surprised that it's snowing etc) and just being an out-and-out tourist. Even if they clearly think we're really dumb:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sometimes I Take Photos

Oh hai. This is going to be one of those blogs, you know, the ones where i haven't actually done anything entertaining or relevant, like falling down a mountain or eating raw horse flesh or setting fire to my own feet, but I feel teeming, bursting SWELLING with things to say, and since I have this wonderful medium, things shall be said.

Today was a particularly unusual February day, in that the temperature reached a positively tropical 5 degrees. It was almost warm. The snow was melting off carports in rhythmic patterns and my walk to school was bathed in watery light.

I could almost remember summer. I could almost remember the colour of a sky that's not a dirty bruised green with unshed snow.

School has been slow and mellow. My third years have fled the corridors for the libraries and the inner sanctums of their clever minds, and so school seems quiet, as does my schedule. I can't complain - I have time to write, time to read, time to study Japanese. In the last two weeks I've read five new books, which is impressive even by my Superman standards (if you're interested, Lolita was fabulous and moving, Hearts in Atlantis wasn't nearly as scary as I've come to expect from old Mr King; Howl's Moving Castle reminded me why I don't particularly care for Diana Wynne Jones' writing; The Seventh Trumpet reminded me why I reeaally should have paid more attention in hisotry and should possibly think twice before visiting Russia and Essential Hemmingway made me lay my head down, exhausted).

I also had time to do this:

The whole Nail Art phenomenon had more or less passed me by, until one most excellent friend (you know who you are, AG) requested some of Japan's tackiest for her upcoming birthday, and I was forced into the stores to do some serious research because, you know, I love her and stuff. Of course, as the above illustrates, I don't love her enough to prevent me from putting her birthday present on my ten digits. Soz. Seriously though, shopping for this stuff was mind-boggling. I know that Japan loves its glitz and its glam and its plushy, pushy, kitten-covered, cracked-out, glittery gawdy nonsensical fabulousness but I wasn't prepared for the two full aisles of nail adornments that awaited me. This is naive, I realise, given that I'm living in a country that has spawned people like this girl:

I feel like she should come with a R18 sticker on her forehead. She's the ultimate in fantasy, the doll made real, Polly Pocket gone gothic. Her nails, though, are tame compared to those I found awaiting purchase (AG, you are safe, these are not those that are winging their way to you):

Can you imagine having those on your fingers? I feel like I'd be unable to do anything; like I'd go to do something wonderful like pen a novel or save a child and be so totally mesmerized by my own digits that I'd just stand still and perform spirit fingers endlessly.

In other news, the weather has been doing this:

I've turned so pale I'm almost irridescent:

When I Skype my bronzed, beautiful sisters, I turn the contrast settings up as high as they go, so I can ignore the fact that they look like Malibu Barbies and I look like Bella gone bad (bitofa Twilight reference in there for y'all, I'm hard and fast with the literature today).

I'm continuing to labour on with Japanese classes (if anyone's keeping track, I now know approximately 5 words). This week was some sort of Japanese special affair, the observance of which involved making sushi, and facing in a particular direction to eat it. This was considerably more entertaining than conjugating verbs, and I'm resting safe in the knowledge that if my future career as a *insert something meaningful and important here* fails, I can turn to sushi making:

You make me feel like I'm living a... White Dream? Is that racist? Should I have put them in my mouth? Oh well.

I'm running out of pictures now, and with a dearth of pixels so too dries up my commentary.

To end of a loving note, Valentine's Day approaches. This is a big deal in Japan and the supermarkets are full with all the necessaries for making homemade delicacies to present to your loved ones. The done thing in Japan is home-made chocolate, heart-shaped, decorated with sprinkles, elegantly wrapped and absolutely beautiful. However, the supermarkets also recognise that there are those among us for whom that particular task is as beyond reach as Pluto, and they have furnished an alternative, one which I gladly took.

This is what Aravin will be receiving for Valentine's Day:

All my love,