Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Japanese School Lunch

For school lunches in the UK, I remember there being a cafeteria where you could pick your own meals. So much freedom, but at what cost? Most kids don't have the kind of restraint necessary to go for healthy over delicious. Of course there was salad, but what 15 year old CHOOSES salad? I'm pretty sure my friends and I had pasta, cheese, and beans every day for two years straight. Bliss.*

While the same cannot be said about English education, the Japanese take kyuushoku (school lunch) very seriously.There is one set meal a day, and everyone (barring allergies) has to eat it. Each middle school has a Jamie-Oliver-esque employee, whose only job it seems is to make the menu for the month and collect the lunch money.

My fellow ALTs and I have a passionate love-hate relationship with kyuushoku. When it's bad, its almost inedible. A good 70% of the time there's questionable fish, natto is pretty regular, and oh my god, the salads. Seaweed, Cabbage, mandarin orange slices, and miniature dried fish is not a salad. It's torture.

When it's good though, it's the best. I could be having the shittest week imaginable, but when I turn the corner towards the lunch room and can smell curry, everything turns to sunshine. Curry day is best day. Fact.

How to Not Lose Weight in Japan

Before I came to Japan, everyone was always telling me that Japanese food is super healthy. And in the beginning it seemed to be that way. So much so that I was in danger of losing weight. Or even worse, becoming slim and attractive. The horror.

Now if you find yourself in this predicament, never fear. I have spent the last 3 years researching in secret. Let Licha-do sensei tell you one weird trick to keep your arms flabby and muffin tops protruding.

Rice. White rice. Every day. Loads of it.

It started off innocent enough. 'Mottainai' is the Japanese cultural tradition of "waste not, want not". It comes from the Shinto belief that even the smallest objects have souls. Every grain of rice, every sesame seed, every weird little dried fish thing in my salad. As a result, kids are generally forced to eat all of their school lunch, especially in Elementary school (Even if they are absolutely stuffed, or don't like the food).

After everyone receives their nutritionally allotted amount, there is always left over soup, salad, and rice. It is the responsibility of the class to eat these too. Teachers wander around, cajoling the kids to take just a little bit more, desperate to get rid of that ethical weight hanging round everyone's neck.

One day I was feeling a little hungry, so I took some extra rice to help out. Suddenly I have a reputation for being a big rice-eater. I'm getting seconds every day, and there's no stopping it. More rice at the end? Why not give Ri-Chan thirds? He loves rice. Can't get enough. Thank you so much Richa-do.

Now it feels rude to say no. They are so happy to be rid of it that I just let it happen. What started as a carefully balanced meal has become a daily, non-stop, empty-carb, endurance challenge. The worst part is, I've gotten used to it. If I haven't eaten two or three bowls of rice in a day, my stomach starts grumbling.

2nd Dessert

Last week I hit the Jackpot. Its lunch time, and everything is fantastic. The salad looks edible, gyoza instead of fish, and for a special treat, strawberry tart.

One kid is out ill, so their meal is to be divvied up amongst the other students. I am inevitably given double rice. Dessert though is different. Its a highly prized commodity. Like Jackals circling for the kill, almost every boy (and myself) get up to Janken for 2nd dessert.**

15 becomes 10, then 5, then 1.
Ive done it.

After almost 3 years of losing every lunchtime, I finally win. With glee I clutch my prize to my chest. A small part of me feels guilty for stealing dessert from my own students mouths. A much larger part thinks that after all the mushy potatoes and bony fish Ive put up with, Ive earned this.

I sit back down with the kids. Everyone is clearly envious, which makes it all the better. After tackling my mountain of fluffy whites, Its time to savor my victory. As the awe-filled children look on in disbelief, I slowly unwrap my second strawberry tart, and jam the whole thing into my mouth all in one go.

Victory is sweet. So sweet in fact that Ive basically written the last 800 words purely so I could brag about it.

*If you swap out pasta and beans for rice and beer, you've basically described my current diet outside of school. Not much changes. Old dogs, new tricks, all that jazz.

**Janken is the most ancient Japanese art of conflict resolution. Whenever anything in Japan must be decided fairly, opponents are pitted in the ultimate game of wits. Whether its choosing teams, deciding who goes first, or who gets the extra milk, Janken is the all-powerful arbiter. In the west it is more commonly know by another name: "Rock-Paper-Scissors."

Friday, 10 March 2017

Beards and Back-country Snowboarding.

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

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

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

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

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

Cowboy-Kun and the Gnar-Gnar Pow-Pow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaving For Graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

**Australian for snow

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

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

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Drinking Your Way Into Japanese Culture

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking your way into Japanese Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So close. So very close. Next time.


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

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

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

Shameless Event Plugging 101

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

The Day After the Enkai

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

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

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

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

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


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

 **"The Rest of the Article

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

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

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

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

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