Nayoro – Same but different

This weekend saw the epic snowboarding road trip of doom to Nayoro, a small city in the middle of Hokkaido. The mountain there had all sorts of different courses to run and by the end of the day, when the gale force winds had closed the slope, I had tried all and suffered their wrath! And thus I sit here with an extremely sore neck and head after being ‘schooled’ on the advanced course.

Unlike the little country slopes we normally frequent, Nayoro is actually a decent-sized resort with many courses, ranging from a plain straight downhill run to near vertical ‘challenge’ courses. Although the day, and I guess the weekend, were cut short due to a giant blizzard that tore through central and northern Hokkaido, I was able to give most of the course a try at least. The most fun was definitely had on the tricks course, where I learnt to grind along rails, fly off ramps, and slide off picnic tables. Catching some real air is definitely on the awesome side of the fun spectrum. It’s good to know that Nayoro will be offering snowsports well into March though, as most of the nearby slopes are fast-closing as we technically enter spring. The ‘challenge’ course is at the top of the mountain, and comprised of a mostly near-vertical descent which was made more difficult by the extremely bumpy terrain, carefully hidden by a smooth layer of powder. It was difficult to navigate in a completely different way to hitting ramps and doing gnarly tricks. The downside manifested in a particularly violent fall where I cracked my head against the ice, resulting in amazing little lights which danced a little ditty in front of my vision for a while. A monster headache and some severe neck stiffness is now the result, but I am nonetheless pretty chuffed! The third time down I managed to navigate this hell slope without crashing once, whipping inbetween trees and dead branches as if I knew what I was doing!

Staying with the ALT’s in Nayoro and going out a drinking with them was also a grand activity, resulting in drunken karaoke with the local JSDF garrison. Needless to say, upon arrival back home, me and my broken self fell into quiet slumber! The drive home, through some positively amazing countryside even by Hokkaido’s standard, was also pretty special, with the landscape gradually turning darker shades of orange as the sun fell behind snow-covered farmland and forested mountains.

So the blizzard called a premature end to our trip, but Nayoro is a mere two hour drive away so we shall likely return this coming weekend to pick up where we left off! Hitting the ramps and flying through the air is an art I intend to perfect before the snow melts!

In other news, I write this in between classes, we just had one of the students have an epileptic fit in his science class. The nurse was on top of things and the town ambulance got here in record time which, I guess, is testament to their efficiency. Unlike SA, he didn’t even need to bring his own blankets to the hospital!

And that is pretty much that. Aside from school and snowboarding I’m starting to have to think about what I’ll be up to when I get back to the real world. At the moment, Masters sounds like a pretty good idea, but I shall also be applying for the usual range of internships and long-shot apprentice-level positions at relevant organizations. My best opportunity being a spot at the embassy in Tokyo, even if seriously high odds are nobody there will even remember my name, it’s still worth a try!

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Valentine’s Day in Japan

After my Tokyo travels and tour of South East Asia, I was faced this week with an understandable lack of funds. A severe form of poverty I have experienced several times as a student in 2006, where a R5 spring roll and whatever was in the cupboard at home for dinner was my food for the month. So entering this last week, I had braced myself for starvation and, most importantly, no chocolate!

But I had forgotten that it was Valentine’s day! And while I’m not exactly one who exacted much romantic attention from the ladies at the best of times (and what little that was gained on V-day was soon forgotten!), I didn’t realize that, in Japan, it’s totally different! It seems over here the women are generally wont to purchase chocolate goodness for every male in their office/school. For me, this is a sugary bonus that I hadn’t expected. Likewise, because I work at BOTH the office and the school, I am positively swimming in chocolate. Not because I warrant any special attention, but simply because I don’t have boobs! I’m not one for gender-discrimination, but when the women are expected to buy all the men chocolate, my distended kwashiorkor belly welcomes the boon in candy!

I think in precisely a month’s time the men have to reciprocate with white chocolate. But that’s after payday! For now, free gender-targeted chocolate is entirely welcome. Ladies take note!

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Tokyo, Trains and Travels

A busy weekend! With Monday being National Foundation Day, the past weekend proved the perfect opportunity for more travel. The weekend likewise coincided with the much-famed Sapporo Yuki Matsuri or ‘Snow Festival’. Not content to spend all my weekend looking at snowmen, I opted to do that and more. A friend of mine in Aomori mentioned that Rage Against the Machine were playing in Tokyo on the Sunday, and thus the beginnings of an epic travel of doom were formed! At the end of business on Monday night, I had gone by bus to Sapporo, flown to Aomori, taken the bullet train to Tokyo, seen RATM, and flown back to Sapporo. In the space of 3 days! Truly an awesome way to spend it.

I was able to view the snow festival at 6am in the morning on Saturday, allowing the dual pleasure of seeing the sculptures at sunrise as well as avoiding the throngs of tourists that descend upon Odori Park later in the day. To be brutally frank, I don’t see what the huge fuss is about this thing. Before I even enlisted on the JET programme I’d heard about the snow festival, with the hundreds of snow sculptures depicting everything from the latest Disney movie to big-breasted anime heroines. But aside from the few giant sculptures, roughly the size of a large house, the rest were rather… crude. They looked as if they were hewn with a chainsaw rather than chisel, resulting in at-times misshapen faces and forms. The large centerpiece statues were impressive, to be fair, including several made to seemingly glow with a bluish hue. But to be honest, if I didn’t live in Hokkaido, I think I would feel somewhat cheated by traveling so far to see the things (hotels are expensive in Sapporo, and they only get more so around the festival.) Nonetheless, I’m glad I saw it; one more thing off the checklist of life and all that. Fun fact: According to my JTE, many of the main snow sculptures were created by members of the JSDF (Japanese Army.) Integral training and all that I’m sure!

Aomori and the surrounding areas looked stunningly beautiful from the air, with snowy farmlands, mountains and the like cradling small towns in the middle. Juliet, the South African ALT stationed therein, explained that this was the poorest prefecture in all of Japan. Probably something to do with being razed to the ground by Allied forces in WW2. Then again, so was most of Japan, so it’s not a terribly valid excuse. From what I could tell, there was little to no industry or staple manufacturing base to fuel the city, meaning that the majority of Aomori’s income would, I assume, come from agriculture and fishing. Much like Hokkaido in this respect, only with more mouths to feed! Only one night was spent here, but it was certainly entertaining, with bountiful beer and Juliet and I displaying our country’s wonderous language called ‘afrikaans’ to the delight of the Married ALT duo Ron and Kelly, both of which who are extremely entertaining after a couple of drinks (much, I suspect, like any other warm-blooded human being!)

From there we embarked on the bullet train to Tokyo. At a speed of 360km/h, the train is whisper-quiet and not nearly as bumpy as a non-magnetic-levitation vehicle. I don’t know what I expected, but the train was interesting if only to say that I’ve done it. There are no jaw-dropping G-force effects or unnerving atmospheric pressures. It’s kinda just like being in a really fast, smooth-running train which, I guess, is precisely what a bullet train by definition should be!

Tokyo was just as vast and overwhelming as my first visit at the start of the JET programme. With skyscrapers as far as the eye can see and vast transportation networks, I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my head around quite how impressively HUGE it is. And then there was the concert itself. I’ve always been a RATM fan, even though I’m by political definition part of the ‘problem’ in their anarchistic eyes, so seeing them play live was a truly awesome experience. I had expected the Japanese fans to be largely docile throughout the concert, and the initial pre-show atmosphere certainly indicated such. But when the band came onto stage, my god! The hall virtually exploded with energy and never let down right until the end. A two hour session of awesome music, insane mosh pits (I have my fair share of cuts and bruises) and screaming has me now completely finished! Two days later and I am still exhausted. I have no regrets! I was able to get right to front about mid-way through the show as well, so seeing a band that I’ve always enjoyed playing from within sweat-catching distance was something I won’t easily forget!

And that was Tokyo in it’s brief madness. I got to ride the monorail to the airport, which was again quite an interesting train ride. Unlike the other rail lines, monorails tend to bank left or right, much like an aircraft would, rather than simply turn. Likewise, the trains go over skyscrapers, rivers and estuaries feeding into the Sea of Japan, with no need for sleeper tracks and all that jazz, so the experience is very much like flying through the city at low speed. My stomach did jump into my mouth at the first turn, however, as the experience of staring 100m down at children playing soccer while traveling at speed is… unnerving.

I left for the airport in Tokyo at 6am and got home to Sarufutsu at 22h00. A long-ass journey, but compared to the 24 hour monster that is getting home from Cambodia, it’s relatively manageable. One thing I have noticed is that the thought of a 6 hour journey somewhere is now not nearly as daunting as a few years back, where simply driving from Jo’burg to Durban was a minor operation. Out here, getting to any major city takes at least 6 hours, and then one compounds that the further one goes. I am getting quite used to traveling for a day or more now, if I might say so myself. Good practice, I think, for anyone who wants to go on a road trip when I return to SA?

Here are what pics I got before my camera died. Enjoy!

Juliet and John (Not me!) outside the concert hall
Associated footwear
Love and peace!
Love and Peace! Or something…
Disney promo for the next LW&Wardrobe movie... I think...
Disney promo for the next LW&Wardrobe movie… I think…

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