Despite there being a page-long explanation of the rules in the current junior high school PE textbook, very few of my students have even heard of cricket, let alone played it, so while Mrs M, M Jr and myself were in London over the Christmas holidays, I was interested to see the following article - published as part of a regular column called Bridging People - in Eikoku News Digest
, one of a handful of Japanese-language newspapers available in the UK:
Building bridges between the UK and Japan
In September 2012 a motion was proposed in the Scottish Parliament to recognise the activities not of a Scotsman but of a Japanese man. He was to be commended for his untiring work in popularising cricket - a sport normally regarded as the preserve of the English gentleman - in his home country. His influence has spread far and wide, and through his activities he has formed lasting connections around the world.
Naoki Miyaji - profile
Born on 16th September 1978 in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan (full name Miyaji Alex Naoki / 宮地・アレックス・直樹).
Graduated from Keio University.
Completed an MA at the London School of Economics.
First chosen to represent Japan's national cricket team in 2000.
Has since played in Melbourne, Australia and for various clubs in London.
CEO of the Japan Cricket Association since 2008.
Created Cricket For Smiles, a project to support the recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake.
On 12th September 2012 at the parliament building in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and a World Heritage Site, a motion was proposed to commend Naoki Miyaji. Miyaji was being acknowledged for his efforts in popularising cricket in Japan, although at the time, he was representing his home country on an overseas tour.
The following day in Samoa, a tiny island in the South Pacific, Miyaji had just finished practicing for the the upcoming World Cricket League [a tournament for national sides without test status], and was about to go out for an evening meal with his teammates. One of them showed his mobile phone to Miyaji, saying, ‘Look, this has just popped up on the news'. Miyaji peered at the screen and saw a report about the Scottish Parliament's motion to commend him. Miyaji - now back in Japan and working hard at the offices of the Japan Cricket Association - reflects with a wry smile, ‘At the time I had no idea what it was all about.'
Naoki Miyaji was born and brought up in Japan by his Japanese father and Scottish mother, and as a ten year old went to stay at an aunt’s house in Wimbledon, West London for the summer holidays. During that brief trip he attended a sports camp and had his first encounter with cricket. Miyaji had neither seen nor heard of the game in Japan, 'but for some reason,' he says, 'it made a strong impression on me’. In junior high school he brought up the subject with a surprised ALT, who as Miyaji recalls, 'certainly didn’t think he’d be talking with a Japanese student about cricket!’ Pleased that her son had taken an interest in the culture of her home country, Miyaji's mother bought him a complete set of cricket equipment, which he used at the local park with his brothers, making up the rules as they went along. Miyaji began to play cricket properly after joining the cricket club at Keio University. ‘To be honest, even then we didn’t properly understand the rules. In fact,' he says, laughing, 'on the first day of practice I was the only person who brought a bat with them!'
Miyaji, who had loved sport since he was a child, played a key part in the inter-university tournament six months later, and was subsequently chosen to represent Japan at Lord's - the headquarters of cricket and hallowed ground for players and fans alike - against a prestigious MCC team. ‘The MCC players had an aura of nobility about them,' says Miyaji. 'They were energetic but relaxed at the same time. They listened to our questions intently and always had an intelligent answer. I thought to myself, "so this is what a true gentleman is".'
Having spoken English with his mother since he was a child, Miyaji is now fluent, so he looks after Japanese teams when they are on tour in the UK, and acts as a point of contact for the International Cricket Council when he is in Japan. Since being chosen as a member of the national team he has had plenty of opportunities to travel, appearing as far afield as the United Arab Emirates, Botswana and China. Seeking opportunities to improve his technique, he has played in Australia, and of course in England, the birthplace of cricket. But while cricket has opened a window onto the world for Miyaji. rather than moving abroad, he has chosen Japan as his base. Here, awareness of cricket, which is popular in countries all over the world, is low. Even if you are chosen for the national side, there is no coach and no practice ground, a situation that Miyaji decided he had to try and change.
The Great East Japan Earthquake struck on 11th March 2011, and at the time Miyaji was in Tokyo, on his way back from representing Japan at an invitation match in New Zealand. At the end of February that year, a devastating earthquake had struck the south island of New Zealand, and he had also travelled there to discuss plans for a charity event. After the quake in Japan, however, Miyaji redirected his efforts towards the recovery in his home country.
When the quake hit, his mother was living in Shichigahama Town in Miyagi Prefecture. She survived, and soon afterwards opened a knitting class as a way of bringing the local community together. 'Maybe I can do something as well,' Miyaji thought. It wasn't within his power to hand out food, give shelter or provide the kind of essentials that would enable victims of the disaster to survive, so instead, he thought, why not play cricket with children in the area as a first step on the road to recovery. The Japan Cricket Association, of which Miyaji is CEO, is an NPO with the aim of increasing opportunities for people to enjoy playing sports, thereby popularising cricket. 'At times like these,' he thought, 'if you can't do anything as the representative of a visible organisation, then what exactly are you representing it for? Since people in the disaster-stricken areas were saying that the smiles and laughter of their children were their biggest inspiration, I started the Cricket For Smiles project to enable children from those areas to have fun, and to enjoy playing cricket.'
At schools in the disaster-affected region of Tohoku, lessons were being taught in temporary classrooms, and playing fields and sports halls were either partly or wholly unusable. In other words, during breaktimes and after school, children had no chance to play baseball, soccer and so on. In that environment, regardless of whether or not the instinct to play such a completely novel sport existed, the rules were changed to enable playing in a limited space, and plastic bats and rubber balls were utilised, so that cricket became a fun game that got people moving and brought smiles to their faces. After a workshop in Kessen-numa City in Miyagi Prefecture in which staff and parents from numerous elementary and junior high schools took part, Cricket For Smiles was taken up by the Kessen-numa Board Of Education, and cricket lessons were started at every school in the area.
'The Scottish Parliament commends Mr Miyaji and the Japan Cricket Association for developing the Cricket For Smiles programme.' This is a phrase taken from a motion proposed on 12th September 2012. 'It's not me who should be recognised,' says Miyaji. 'It's the people who have turned cricket into a global network', says Miyaji, a sentiment that is backed by the many supporters of Cricket For Smiles: by the donations of money and cricket equipment from Indian people in Dubai, from Schools in Scotland, from Scots in Shanghai, and from New Zealanders in London.
'In Japan the scope of cricket is extremely narrow, but around the world, its influence travels far and wide,' says Miyaji, and thus, a man who lives in East Asia, where cricket is treated as a 'minor sport', is actually an important part of a much bigger picture.As the original text of the motion points out,
'there are now over 3,000 regular cricketers in Japan, with teams at both senior and junior level, including some 30 university teams'. So perhaps this sport of the English gentleman can one day overtake baseball as the most enjoyable thing to do with a bat and a ball on a summer's afternoon in Japan.(Donations can be made to Cricket For Smiles via their homepage, which can be viewed in both English and Japanese.
Day 5 – Erimo Town to Churui Village えりも町 – 忠類村 – 91km
There were so many futons in Mr Village Middle’s spare room that I wondered if he wasn’t running a guest house on the side. Having said that, there were also no sheets, no pillows and no curtains, so that I had to drape an old piece of material across the window when the first rays of the sun hit me directly in the face.
By that point Mr Village Middle had already left the house, although having returned at about nine, he said that the weather was no good for harvesting konbu and they had only been able to do prep work. Before I left he gave me a shoe-box sized package of the stuff for Mrs M’s family, and even drove me to the post office to send it off.
Calling in at Cape Erimo the previous day had given me the idea that instead of just wandering aimlessly around Hokkaido for five weeks, I should circumnavigate its coastline. With this in mind my next goal was Cape Nosappu to the northeast, heading for which would first of all take me along a 33-kilometre stretch of Route 336 better known as the Ohgon-dohro (黄金道路 / Gold Road).
The Gold Road was completed in 1934 and follows the rugged coastline between Erimo Town and Hiro-o Town. It took seven years to build, and earned its nickname because of the astronomical construction costs, which in today’s money would amount to approximately six billion yen, or more than a thousand pounds per metre of tarmac.
The road is closed due to bad weather more than any other in the country – approximately ten times a year – and in 1981, four people died from carbon monoxide poisoning after becoming stranded in one of its tunnels during a snowstorm. In fact, more of the Gold Road seems to be in tunnels than out of them, and even when I wasn’t cycling through one, I was overlooked by hillsides and cliff faces swathed in concrete and steel, or protected from potential rockfalls by barriers like this one.
Due to the harsh winter weather and the battering the Gold Road takes from the Pacific, it is still eating up construction cash even now, and when I was there, work was underway to lengthen its longest tunnel to nearly 5km. Up above, too, workers abseiled between a network of scaffolding walkways, their safety ropes disappearing into the fog, and crashing waves enveloped me in a fine mist of sea spray.
At Hiro-o Town – whose streets were lined with signs advertising its winter-only Santa Land theme park – the landscape levelled off, and I took a road that aside from one slight kink ran dead straight for about fifteen kilometres.
Cycling 100km a day necessitates a drastic increase in one’s calorie intake, so despite having breakfast at a convenience store in Hiro-o, it wasn’t long before I was feeling peckish, and it wasn't long after that that I was feeling absolutely bloody starving.
Out here there was nothing but fields and farmhouses, and the only shop in the coastal village of Asahihama was shut. That morning Mr Village Middle had given me a bag of pickled gyoja
(wild garlic) to send me on my way, which had stunk so much there was a danger of my clothes and camping kit (not to mention my breath) becoming infused with the aroma, so I had thrown it away. This meant that my only remaining rations were two satsumas and an emergency Cup Noodle, which as I now realised was useless without some emergency hot water.It wasn't until halfway through the afternoon that I finally found
a row of trusty jihanki
(自販機 / vending machines), which emerged from the fog at an otherwise deserted crossroads. The can of hot tea and bottle of pop I bought gave me just enough energy to make it to a supermarket, and I eventually called it a day at Churui Village, whose symbol is an animal known as Naumann’s Elephant.
Heinrich Edmund Naumann worked as an advisor to the Meiji government in the late 1800s, among other things producing the first proper geological map of Japan, and discovered the fossilised remains of a kind of half-elephant, half-mammoth hybrid in Yokosuka near Tokyo. T
he species - which lived in Japan for around 100,000 years, and whose tusks were up to two and a half metres long - was officially named after him in 1924, and since a Naumann's elephant was discovered in Churui in 1969 (the remains of one, that is, not a living version), the village now has its very own Naumann's Elephant Museum
. After checking in at the campsite next door and having a very hearty evening meal,
I could have done with an extra, mammoth-like covering of fur to help me through the night, which was damp, dark and distinctly chilly.
As a follow-up to my post about gorgeous gals I'd like to go out with if only Mrs M would let me, and as promised, it's time for a counter-list of studly Japanese fellas.
Except it's not. I asked Mrs M to tell me which of her countrymen she'd most like to be wined and dined by, and she said that, to be honest, there were barely enough to count on the fingers of, er, one finger. So instead, I have decided to disregard looks (almost) altogether, and give you a list of chaps who while they aren't necessarily handsome, may be attractive to the opposite sex for other reasons - for example, they're good at sport, or they're funny, or they have managed to become famous despite the rather obvious handicap of coming from Ibaraki.
So without further ado:
1) Takashi Okamura
Okamura is one of the four or five most famous comedians - in fact, possibly one of the four or five most famous people - in Japan, and turned his diminutive stature (he is just 156cm / 5'1" tall) to his advantage by playing the boké
(fall guy) to his sidekick Hiroyuki Yabé's tsukkomi
(straight man). As Ninety-Nine (it is an unwritten rule for Japanese comedy duos to have an English name, other examples being Downtown, Black Mayonnaise, Peace and Un-Girls), the two began fronting a phenomenally successful show called Mecha x 2 Iketeru
in the the mid-90s, which specialises in crazy stunts and Candid Camera-style pranks.
As well as a physical toll - at one point Okamura broke his shoulder during filming - the pressures of fame took a mental one, too, and in 2010 Okamura was admitted to hospital suffering from nervous exhaustion. In the cut-throat world of Japanese TV, if a celebrity disappears from view there is a very good chance they will never reappear, but Okamura is so well loved that after five months off he was welcomed back into the TV fold with open arms.
My current favourite show of his is Moté Moté 99
, which isn't really comedy at all, and involves a group of single women travelling to some far-flung corner of the Japanese archipelago to meet a group of single men and hopefully find their soulmates (rather like Blind Date back in the day, Moté Moté recently witnessed its first marriage). The ironic thing is that despite presiding over so much matchmaking, Okamura himself is, famously, still single, and recently backed out of a relationship with a woman he had been fixed up with in a different segment of the same show.
2) Yuki Ohtsu
Like most footballers, Yuki Ohtsu appears to spend more time perfecting his hairstyle than he does perfecting his ball skills (although having said that, he uses nowhere near as much peroxide as his more renowned countryman Keisuké Honda, pictured here).
Ohtsu's nickname is charao, which means 'flash guy', but gets an inclusion on this list because a) he comes from Mito, and b) while representing his country at the London Olympics, he scored three goals, including a spectacular long-range effort against Mexico, and a less spectacular but more important short-range effort against Spain.
3) Watanabé 'Helmut' Naomichi
Watanabé was working as a director for TBS Television when he was chosen to take part in a reality-style segment of the otherwise unremarkable show Nakai Masahiro No Kinyohbi No Suma-Tachi
for short). After four summers trying to turn a profit in a beach-front café (a feat that he eventually managed in 2006), Watanabé - possibly voluntarily, possibly against his will - moved to the wilds of Ibaraki to try his hand at being a farmer. He was so well suited to the task that five and a half years later he is still there, and currently putting the finishing touches to a new house, into which his parents will soon be moving from their present home in Amami Ohshima, an island off the south-west coast of Kyushu.
Obviously Watanabé is being paid by TBS for his Hitori-Noh-gyo
(ひとり農業 / One-man Farming) spot on Kinsuma, and lives with a small production team on the farm, but his softly spoken, undemonstrative manner is quite unlike that of the celebrity types who occasionally drop by to help out with rice planting, crop picking and so on.
(He's the one on the right in this photo, by the way.)
Particularly in an era when the pervading trend is to move away from the countryside (for the first time in human history, over half of the world's population now lives in cities), Watanabé is setting an admirable example of how to live a life of comparative self-sufficiency. While he is always trying his hand at new tasks - beekeeping, solar power, making charcoal etc - at forty years old, and particularly now that he is settled in Ibaraki, what the viewing public really wants is for Watanabé to find romance...
4) Kohei Uchimura
Forget personality, muscles are where it's at, and no one in Japan has better defined pecs than Kohei Uchimura, who won the combined gymnastics gold medal at London 2012.
Uchimura's parents run a gymnastics school, and while they did of course encourage their son to become a gymnast pretty much from the moment he could stand up, he turned out to have a unique and instinctive talent for the sport.
For an NHK documentary broadcast just before the Olympics, Uchimura's abilities were tested in various different ways and compared to other top gymnasts: for example, when blindfolded, he can tell to within a degree or two how far his body is from vertical, and even as he is performing multiple, spinning somersaults above the floor or the wooden horse, his eyes are open and he is aware of exactly where he is in relation to his surroundings - the spectators, the lights on the ceiling of the hall, and the apparatus itself.
Don't get your hopes up, though, because as I was writing this blog post, Uchimura announced in quick succession that he a) had got married and b) is to become a father, a coincidence that is known in Japanese as dekichatta kekkon (出来ちゃった結婚 / a shotgun wedding).
5) Sanma Akashiya
Sanma - real name Takafumi Sugimoto - is one of those people born with two or three times the energy and enthusiasm of an ordinary mortal. If he ever sleeps, I can't imagine it is for that long, and his waking hours are a whirl of presenting, socialising, joking and laughing (particularly the latter).
When I first started watching Sanma, I thought that maybe he was just playing up for the camera, but his enthusiasm is infectious, and more importantly, it is underpinned with genuine comic talent.
As the host of numerous TV shows, he invariably manages to be the funniest person in the studio, and many is the time his co-stars will applaud a well-placed one-liner. More importantly, he manages to avoid being self-righteous or sentimental, a trap into which many of his contemporaries fall all too easily, and the main reason I like his show Honma Dekka is that if there is even the slightest hint of someone taking themselves seriously, Sanma will immediately step in with a put-down or comic aside.
6) Yuki Saito
I am still largely ignorant of baseball, but one player who is worth mentioning for his clean-cut good looks and gentlemanly behaviour is Yuki Saito, who broke numerous records as a star pitcher for Waséda High School and Waséda University.
Even while pitching his way through a sweltering summer's afternoon, rather than using his sleeve, Saito would mop his brow with a blue handkerchief, a habit that earned him the nickname hankachi ohshi - the handkerchief prince - and which caused sales of blue handkerchiefs to sky-rocket.
Another incident that has entered baseball folklore occurred at the end of a press conference, when Saito not only tidied his own chair beneath the table, but that of his coach as well. Not something you will see John Terry or Ashley Cole do, for example, and while Saito's record since turning professional has thus far failed to live up to expectations, his status as a housewives' favourite comes with a lifetime guarantee.
7) Kenta Nishimura
If you're after honesty in a man, look no further than writer Kenta Nishimura, winner of the 2010 Akutagawa Prize for his novel Kuéki Ressha (苦役列車 / literally, Hard Toil, Ordinary Train).
At a press conference after the announcement, Nishimura turned up in a check shirt and shorts, and proceeded to charm the assembled journalists with his unpretentious manner. When asked what he was doing when he heard about the prize, he said that he was at home and had been thinking of going to a brothel.
'Lucky I didn't, isn't it?' he said, and went on to describe his utterly unglamorous lifestyle, confessing that he doesn't have any friends and doesn't even talk to anyone on a regular basis. Nishimura never went to high school, managed to acquire a criminal record between various dead-end jobs, and while he certainly doesn't have Saito's looks or Okamura's earning power, anyone this self-effacing deserves a fighting chance with the opposite sex (conversely, I wonder whether he hasn't been flooded with offers of marriage since finding fame).
8) Akihiro Yamaguchi
I was going to include four-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Kohsuké Kitajima on this list, in particular for his post-race interview after the 100m breaststroke final at Athens 2004, during which he said words to the effect of 'That was really wicked. I've properly got goosebumps.' (ちょう気持ちいい。鳥肌ものです。). In terms of Japanese swimming, though, the future lies with Akihiro Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi failed to make the Japanese team for London 2012, but not long after it was over he set a new world record in Kitajima's other specialist event, the 200m breaststroke. Not only was the record set at a minor swimming meeting in an outdoor pool, but Yamaguchi is still a high school student, and at the time had just celebrated his eighteenth birthday.
Look out for Yamaguchi at Rio 2016, and in the meantime, here is a picture of him in his swimming trunks.
9) Takeshi Kitano
Kitano is one of the most famous comedian-stroke-presenters in Japan, and like Sanma, can be seen on prime-time TV several times a week. The really unique thing about him, though, is his ability as a film director.
Not many people in Japan have even seen them, but films like Sonatine (ソナチネ in Japanese), Zatoichi, Hana-bi, Brother and Kikujiro are almost in a genre of their own. You might describe them as philosophical gangster comedies, in that they combine dead-pan humour with extreme violence and occasional meditations on the meaning of life, and you can clearly see their influence in the early work of Quentin Tarantino - ie. two parts gangsters-in-suits-hanging-out-and-telling-jokes to one part graphically bloody violence.
In fact, Kitano was once involved in a life-imitating-art gangster-style kerfuffle, which became known as 'The Friday Incident'. When a journalist tried to buttonhole Kitano's university student girlfriend (he was already married at the time, and has allegedly fathered at least one secret love child), he got a gang of buddies together and drove over to the offices of the newspaper where the journalist worked. As well as trashing the place with umbrellas and fire extinguishers, the group beat up several members of staff, and at one point, Kitano was quoted as uttering the immortal words Bucchi-korosu kono yaro! (ぶち殺すぞこのやろう！/ I'll fucking kill you, you arsehole!).
10) Takahiro Tasaki
It is not unreasonable to suggest that high school girls are the most culturally influential minority in Japan, and when questioned in a recent TV programme - presented, predictably enough, by Sanma - about who is the fittest bloke in Japan, the most popular choice by some distance was Takahiro Tasaki of the R&B vocal / dance group Exile. In fact, one of the girls interviewed for the programme found Takahiro so attractive that the mere thought of him caused her to burst into tears.
It may not surprise you to learn that before winning a 'vocal battle audition' to become a member of Exile, Takahiro trained and worked as a hairdresser, and for those of you who are interested in that kind of thing, his vital statistics are as follows:
Birthday: 8th December
Star sign: Sagittarius
Height: 180cm (5'10")
Blood group: O
Hobbies: karaté, calligraphy
Be warned, however, as Takahiro was born in 1984, which by the Chinese calendar makes him a rat. Hmm...
So that's it. As always, any suggestions for additions to this top ten of totty will be most welcome, and in the interests of balance, next time round I suppose I should compile a gay and transgender one...
If you know of anyone male who has moved or is thinking of moving to Japan – ie. working here rather than just taking a holiday – it is 99% certain they are not just coming for the culture, the comic books, the Zen meditation or the nuclear meltdowns. No, what they are secretly – or not-so-secretly, as the case may be – here for is the women, and it has to be said that despite taking a genuine interest in the woodcuts of Katsushika Hokusai, the films of Takeshi Kitano, learning a martial art and eating raw fish, I was no different.
My dream came true in the form of Mrs M, and while we are of course now blissfully happily married, I thought it might be interesting to tell you who are the top ten Japanese women that just supposing I wasn’t blissfully happily married to Mrs M, I wouldn’t be entirely displeased to find sitting across the table from me in a posh restaurant, for example, or next to me at an office party.
The most visible ladies in Japan, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, are the forty-eight members of AKB48, whose management team hit upon the ingenious idea of an annual election to decide who is the most popular – and by implication, the cutest – member of the group. In a stroke of marketing genius, the rules of the election dictate that you are only entitled to vote if you have purchased an AKB48 CD or download, and the winner of the election is promoted to ‘lead singer’ (I put the words ‘lead singer’ in quotation marks because whether what AKB48 do can be described as singing – and indeed whether any of them actually sing on their records – is a moot point) for the proceeding year. In both 2009 and 2011 this was Atsuko Maéda, who while she does have a certain charm is also rather annoying. Whenever you see Maéda on TV, she is almost guaranteed to burst into tears from the sheer emotional strain of being in a girl group (as in this commercial for ochazuké
), and frankly, she should just pull herself together.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that anyone who thinks AKB48 are a prime example of Japanese womanhood is sorely mistaken, and would be better advised to do a Google image search for this lot instead:
1) Mari Yaguchi used to be in Morning Musumé, who were the AKB48 of their day, and the reason I have a soft spot for her is that she reminds me of Mrs M. While both Yaguchi and Mrs M are petite, however, Yaguchi’s husband is a foot taller than me, so I almost certainly wouldn’t stand a chance with her if – purely hypothetically, you understand – we happened to attend the same suburban swingers' key-swapping party.
2) Perfume are also a girl group, and to be brutally frank, every bit as talentless as both AKB48 and Morning Musumé. They are, however, less annoying (I have yet to see a member of Perfume cry on national television, for example), less ubiquitous, less numerous and better looking, in an impressively leggy kind of a way.
3) Speaking of legginess, I would argue that the most statuesque of Japanese models is Yu Yamada, whose face was absolutely everywhere when she first came to prominence in the mid-noughties. In the context of the fashion world, Yamada is already past her prime, but has a distinctly un-Japanese exoticism about her, possibly because she hails from the southern islands of Okinawa.
4) Attractive older women are known as jukujo (熟 女), and the queen of the jukujo is Sawa Suzuki, actress, variety show regular and a kind of Japanese version of Rula Lenska. Don’t get your hopes up, though, as she is currently engaged to be married to a man ten years her junior.
5) Possibly because I watch her every week on Honma Dekka, another jukujo eminently deserving of a mention is Wakako Shimazaki, who is, incredibly, still single.
6) Ayako Katoh is also a regular on Honma Dekka, and as well as keeping a level head when all about her are taking the piss, she either has very good taste in clothes or a very good stylist.
7) As Swiss Tony may once have said, a beautiful woman is worth nothing without a beautiful personality, which is why the next lady on my list is Ayano Fukuda, who is kinda quirky, kinda cute and, most important of all, kinda funny. Fukuda is an impressionist currently doing the variety show rounds, and while she may well have disappeared from view a year from now (worryingly, she only ever seems to trot out the same two impersonations), she will always have at least one fan club member in Ibaraki.
8) My next choice will be seen by many as wildly eccentric, but again, partly because she is on TV every week (Sekai Banzuké, Itté Q) and partly because she is the antithesis of AKB48 girly cuteness, Ayako Imoto is, as the saying has it, quite fit. She strikes me as the kind of woman who could hold her own in a fight, an argument or a piss up, and who because she has travelled the world several times over, would almost certainly have something interesting to say for herself should one, for example, find oneself sitting across the table from her in a pie and mash shop.
Oh, hang on, that wasn't the right photo…
9) To continue the theme of strong women, I couldn’t possibly finish this post without mentioning at least one member of the Nadéshiko Japan women’s football team, who while they aren’t exactly Girls Aloud, are the height of glamour compared to Nadéshiko GB, for example, or even Nadéshiko Sweden. While many men would ask Nahomi Kawasumi
to accompany them on a romantic night out at Old Trafford, the Bernabéu Stadium or, er, Ladysmead
, I would offer my spare ticket to Saki Kumagai, who is a) rather attractive, and b) scored the winning goal in a World Cup final penalty shoot-out
10) Last but not least, when it comes to having crushes on famous people, I have always believed that it’s important to seek out someone a little more obscure and a little more accessible – so obscure and accessible, in fact, that there really is the slimmest of chances one might find oneself sitting next to her on the bus, for example, or in the launderette. The reason being, in this case, that the thoroughly charming Shizuka Haségawa is a presenter-stroke-reporter for NHK Ibaraki, whose studios are just down the road from where I now live. When Haségawa was on TV the other week, onii-san described her in no uncertain terms as being busu
(ugly), but that only endeared her to me more, not to mention increasing my confidence that should the opportunity arise, our destinies may still be intertwined (Haségawa is so obscure that I couldn't find a decent picture of her, so the curious amongst you will have to make do with her NHK Ibaraki profile page
So that’s that. I'd like to reassure you that I ran this blog post past Mrs M just in case she took offence (she didn’t, mainly because she knows that not a single one of the aforementioned women would give me a second glance if I was quite literally the last man on earth), and I suppose the obvious follow-up would be a post about the Japanese men she thinks are deserving of a wider – or rather, worldwide – audience. In the meantime, suggestions for additions to the list would be much appreciated: who is your ideal J-lady, and why?
My passion for football has been on the wane in recent years, something that may or may not be due to the fact that in my humble opinion, most players in the UK are overpaid, overprotected, ignorant, racist, womanising, alcoholic thugs with barely enough social skills to buy a pint of milk and barely enough footballing skills to play their way out of a paper bag. Taking this into consideration, and seeing as England are currently battling it out in Euro 2012 (no doubt doomed to be knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals), I thought that now might be a good time to tell you the story of Naoki Matsuda.
At fifteen years old, Matsuda was playing as a striker for the junior high school team in his home town of Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture, when his coach had a request from Ikuéi High School in nearby Maébashi, asking if they had any decent defenders. The coach suggested that Matsuda try a change of position, and it soon became clear that this was where he had been destined to play all along. Having progressed to the Ikuéi High School team, he became the subject of a bidding war between no less than ten professional clubs, and was eventually signed by Yokohama F Marinos. (For no discernable reason whatsoever, the 'F' of Yokohama F Marinos is short for flügel, which among other things means 'wing' in German, and marinos is Spanish for 'mariner'.) Matsuda was named in the J-League team of the season in 2000 and 2002, and won the title with Yokohama in 2003 and 2004. He represented his country at every level from under-15 onwards, and boasted the rare accolade of having played at two Olympic Games, including a match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that became known as the ‘miracle of Miami’, when the under-23 side beat Brazil one-nil. He was in the Japan team that made it through the group stages of the 2002 World Cup, and ended up with a total of 40 caps, scoring a goal in his final match in 2005.
It is with Yokohama, though, that Matsuda will forever be associated, and where he made 385 appearances, scoring 27 goals and earning the nickname 'Mr Marinos'. He is also third on the J-League all-time list for red cards, and was by all accounts quite a prickly character, not to say downright scary (his autobiography, published in 2009, is called Toh-soh-nin (闘争人 / Conflict Man). In order to induce the proper fighting spirit before matches, Matsuda would often ask his teammates to slap him, a habit that once backfired when he was diagnosed with concussion. During a Nabisco Cup match in 2003, he became incensed by what he saw as foul play by a member of the opposition, and was heard to shout 'Yaru yo! Yacchau yo!' at the referee. Roughly translated, this means 'I'll do you! I'll fucking do you!' and was subsequently adopted by the Yokohama supporters as a terrace chant. Matsuda didn't always get on with his superiors, either, and during another Nabisco Cup match, this time in 2007, he apparently 'glared' at the manager as he was giving orders from the sidelines, and then refused to shake his hand after being substituted.
But such incidents merely served to endear Matsuda to his fans, and to demonstrate how passionate he was about the game. In a match in 2000 when Avispa Fukuoka opted to sit back and defend the lead they held over Yokohama, he stopped in the middle of the pitch, sat down on the ball and started hurling abuse at the opposition players. At a tearful post-match press conference, he said, 'Those guys aren't professionals. They don't seem to understand how their supporters feel, how desperately they're fighting for them.'
With ten minutes still to play in a match in the 2007 season, Matsuda volunteered to play in goal when Yokohama's keeper was sent off and their quota of substitutions had already been used up. Perhaps most incredibly of all (money-grabbing Premiership players, take note), he accepted a 40% pay cut when the club were encountering financial difficulties in 2007.
Yokohama finally decided to let Matsuda go in 2010, and after sixteen years of loyal service, he signed for Matsumoto Yamaga, who at the time were a semi-professional team in the third tier of the Japanese league. During a training session for Matsumoto on 2nd August 2011, Matsuda collapsed with heatstroke and was rushed to hospital. He had suffered a heart attack, and while for a time doctors managed to restore a faint heartbeat, Matsuda never regained consciousness, and passed away two days later, on 4th August 2011. He was just thirty-four years old.
As well as his wife and three children, Matsuda's funeral was attended by numerous members of the Japanese footballing fraternity, including the entire playing staff of Yokohama F Marinos, and among others, FIFA president Sepp Blatter sent a personal message of condolence. More importantly, Matsuda's death highlighted the importance of AEDs - automated external defibrillators - which are designed to be used in just such an emergency, when someone suffers a heart attack and professional medical help has yet to arrive. It is believed that Matsuda's life might have been saved had there been an AED on hand at the training ground where he fell ill, and there has since been a concerted effort to raise awareness of AEDs, and to equip a greater number of sports facilities, workplaces and public buildings with them.
Both literally and figuratively, Matsuda gave his life to football, and nowhere was this exhibited more clearly than in a speech he made on 4th December 2010, after his final game for Yokohama at the Nissan Stadium.
Speeches by the manager and club president were all but drowned out by chants of 'NA-O-KI! NA-O-KI! NA-O-KI!' and even after the players had performed a lap of honour and left the field, the chants continued. Eventually, Matsuda re-emerged from the changing room and took up the microphone, and this is what he said:
'Thank you very much for supporting me over the past sixteen years, even though I'm so selfish and impertinent. I've always been a bit crazy, but everyone has cheered me on, so...
'I like to think that I've fought hard and put my heart into every match for the Marinos. Of course I've pissed a few people off as well, but your support has given me strength.
'The Marinos' supporters are fantastic. At a time like this I can't quite put across how I feel about you, but anyway, all I can say is that you're the best. And I just feel thankful.
'I don't really know what I'm saying any more but... It's just that, I fucking love football, and I really want to carry on playing.
'Football really is the greatest. I suppose there are still some people out there who don't know anything about it, but I just want to appeal to them through who I am...
'I really want to show everyone what's great about football, so please let me carry on doing what I'm doing.'
I can't imagine Wayne Rooney ever making a speech like that (actually, I can't imagine Wayne Rooney ever making a speech), let alone one as heartfelt or as eloquent, and apart from the poignancy Matsuda's words have acquired in retrospect, they resonate because they express what so many football fans feel - what I felt when I was a boy, and what I still feel occasionally when I watch a football match - and embody the kind of qualities that are so often lacking from the modern game.
(In case you're interested, here's a transcription of Matsuda's speech in Japanese, as borrowed from this
ただ、もう何言ってるかわかんないけど… ただ、オレ、マジでサッカー好きなんすよ。 マジで、もっとサッカーやりたいっす。
I had intended to work at the friendly, rural junior high school and friendly, rural elementary school for another couple of years, but just before Christmas a friend of mine made me a job offer I couldn't refuse, and as of this month I shall be working at not one but five friendly, rural junior high schools in the next town (and to Mrs M's delight, earning an extra few thousand yen into the bargain). So before I forget what it was all like - and if it's OK with you - I'm just going to pop on my rose-tinted spectacles and go for a quick jaunt down memory lane.
As you may remember from my posts about baseball
, I spent the first fortnight of the summer holidays having a go at the various club activities on offer at the school. Possibly because most such sports were originally imported (while some schools have kendo or judo clubs, that wasn't the case here), the chants and calls employed by the students as they played were almost exclusively in English - or rather, a brand of English specially adapted for use by Japanese teenagers.
When I was with the tennis club we shouted 'Naishoh!' ('Nice shot!') when a point was won, 'Naisu catchee!' (a sarcastic 'Nice catch!') when the ball went out of play, and 'Faitoh!' ('Fight!') for any exhortation to try harder. With the basketball club
it was 'Naishuu!' ('Nice shooting!') when a point was won and 'Domai!' ('Don't mind!') when the ball went out of play. And with the volleyball club it was 'Chaa!' when there was a 'Chance!' to win a point and, er, 'Spaiku!' for a spike (ie. what you or I would call a smash).
Aside from stretching, squat jumps, press-ups and so on, we would start the day with at least ten laps of the school grounds, to be completed within a certain time limit and accompanied by a chant of the club members' own devising. The volleyball girls would maintain a continuous call-and-response of '[name of junior high school], hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-hoooh!' and the tennis girls would chant '[name of junior high school], faitoh, ho, ho, hoooh!'
Before the basketball girls started jogging, we stood one at a time on a kind of podium next to the playing field for koédasu
(声出す), which entailed each of us in turn shouting the name of the club, our own name and our aim for the day - eg. 'I WILL PRACTICE HARD AND SUPPORT MY FELLOW CLUB MEMBERS!' - at the tops of our voices.M-sensei was in charge of the table tennis club, and on the day that I joined in fully lived up to his reputation as the angriest teacher at the school. Each member of the club keeps a
notebook in which they write about what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and reflect on how their practice and tournament matches went, and M-sensei berated the students for their lack of application in fulfilling this task for the best part of three quarters of an hour. In fact, he spent most of the morning in a barely concealed state of frustration and anger, and the entire time we were in the sports hall, I only saw him smile once.Then again, the table tennis club is the most successful at the school, and its members regularly progress from regional to prefectural tournaments
(despite having the tidiest pitch, the soccer team hasn't made it beyond the first stage of a tournament in more than five years), so this climate of fear seems to do the trick.More significantly, such a regime really does appear to instill confidence in the students. My playing partner for the morning was T-kun, who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and hardly utters a word during the normal course of school life, but who patiently took me through the basics of the game in simple Japanese
, and who appeared to be taking it very easy indeed as we knocked the ball back and forth - once or twice I even noticed him suppress a smile after I had played a particularly poor shot.
Club activities were a lot less formal at the elementary school, although H-sensei, the 5th year homeroom teacher, did a very good job of knocking the brass band into shape. At the beginning of last April, most of its members had never even picked up an instrument, but for sports day in September they performed a selection of pop songs, film theme tunes and the school song, all while marching in formation.
As it turned out, H-sensei was classically trained, and explained to me that she only became a teacher after much soul-searching over whether or not to try her hand at being a professional musician instead. She also re-wrote a Japanese folk tale in easy English for her homeroom class to perform at the end-of-year culture festival, where along with demonstrations of their acting, writing, arithmetic, skipping and unicycling skills, almost all of the students did some kind of musical performance.
While only one student fainted from the heat and only one was injured seriously enough to be taken to hospital during the junior high sports festival, its culture festival only went ahead with the aid of large numbers of surgical masks and large amounts of prescription cold medicine. But where the elementary students tend to be slightly off key in an endearing kind of way when they're singing or playing, the junior high students sounded like full-blown professionals for the inter-class chorus contest. Formation dance routines copied from the latest pop videos received the biggest applause, but the highlight of the day for me was a swinging, jazzy waltz performed by five members of the brass band - I'm a sucker for underdogs, and the quintet's tuba player was the fat kid with chronic eczema..
The students I most enjoyed teaching English to were the tokubetsushién (特別支援 / special needs, which after studiously consulting his dictionary at the beginning of the year, my fellow teacher K-sensei insisted on calling 'the handicapped class'). Because there were only four of them, there was more time to get to know their personalities than in the usual classes of twenty or thirty-plus, and in any case, they were an inherently memorable - if rather motley - group.
Like the aforementioned tuba player, A-san was overweight and suffered from eczema, not to mention permanently greasy hair and a uniform that only saw the inside of a washing machine about once a month. But despite such obvious drawbacks, she had a pretty good grasp of English and the kind of sunny personality that could brighten up the greyest of days, and while a certain amount of what she said was impenetrable - she would sometimes rock back and forth in her chair and talk to herself - we would often share a joke with each other as she waited for the other members of the class to finish writing. K-san was the quietest of the four, and another A-san the most awkward (sometimes she would sit through an entire lesson grumpily staring out of the window and refusing to answer any questions, even from K-sensei), but the star of the show was I-kun.
For roughly fifty per cent of the time, I-kun had a cold, a stomach ache or some other indefinable illness, and when he wasn't excusing himself to go to the loo, he would be blowing his nose on the roll of toilet paper that was always close at hand, and throwing the remnants into a tatty old cardboard box he used as a wastepaper basket. For the remaining fifty per cent of the time, though, I-kun was unstoppable, and instead of studying English in the conventional manner, treated our lessons as a kind of free-form word association game. Whenever he managed to come up with a correct answer - which was mostly, it has to be said, by pure chance - he would exclaim, Ah! Yappari, oré wa tensai da! (あっ！やっぱり、俺は天才だ！/ 'Ah! Just as I thought, I'm a genius!'), and while most of his gags will be meaningless to a non-Japanese speaker - in fact, most of his gags will be meaningless even to a native Japanese speaker - I made a note of some of the ones that made me laugh:
For the days of the week: 'Monday, Tuesday, Queuesday...'
Or: 'Saturday, Sunday, nandé?' (nandé means 'why?')
When counting: 'thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-Doraémon...' (Doraémon is a famous cartoon character)
Or: 'thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-san...' (san is Japanese for the number three)
And in the same vein: 'ten, twenty, santy, forty...'
Instead of 'I leave home at seven forty', 'I leave home at seven horse'
Instead of 'Her husband Koji teaches Japanese', 'Her brass band Koji teaches Japanese'
Instead of 'Miss Green', 'Miss Glico' (Glico is a famous confectionery company)
K-sensei - 'What's the past tense of "have"?' I-kun – 'Ham and egg!'
And instead of 'I like tea', 'I like unchi' (unchi means 'poo')
Rather than sharing a single table, the special needs students preferred to spread their desks around the classroom, and I-kun was always furthest from the blackboard. Even when copying word-for-word, his spelling was atrocious, and at first I put this down to his learning disabilities. Eventually, however, I came to the realisation that he was merely short sighted.
'Do you wear contact lenses?' I asked him.
'Yes, yes. I wear contact lenses,' he replied.
'Does I-kun wear contact lenses?' I asked M-sensei later that day (as well as the table tennis club, M-sensei oversaw the special needs students).
'No, he doesn't,' said M-sensei. 'His mother won't let him.'
The following lesson, I-kun was sitting in his usual position at the back of the classroom, and instead of a dialogue from the textbook about school timetables, he wrote this:
I have FOR GENERAL WRITING
They are ADHESIVE STICK
How PLASTIC ERASER MADE IN JAPAN
In other words, he gave up trying to write what was on the board and instead copied whatever English he could find on the items in his pencil case.
Despite his hard-man image, M-sensei was the most visibly emotional of the teachers during the graduation ceremony at the end of March (he had taught I-kun at elementary as well as junior high school), for which the kocho-sensei made a typically rambling speech about a spacecraft that was lost for several years on its way back from collecting samples in a far-flung corner of the solar system, and a musician who became successful despite going blind after a childhood illness.
Apart from the graduation ceremony, beginning of term ceremonies, end of term ceremonies, clubs, lessons and exams, there were plenty of other events to keep the students occupied. These included sankenkai (散見会 / open day), ohsohji (大掃除 / spring cleaning) and sohkohkai (壮行会 / a rousing send-off to the summer sports tournament, for which a group of students in bandanas and white gloves chanted and gesticulated along to the rhythm of a big bass drum, and which looked and sounded like something from a Kurosawa samurai film). There was work experience week, school council elections, a drill for evacuating in the event of a disaster, and a drill for evacuating in the event of a suspicious intruder. A visiting high school headmaster made a speech about 'What it means to become an adult' (which despite the title had nothing to do with sex education), and one day we were all shown a video about bullying, which coincidentally was one of the most post-modern experiences of my entire life (I was in a school sports hall with some junior high school students, watching a video in which some junior high school students are in a school sports hall watching a performance of a play by some junior high school students that depicts the true story of how one of their classmates was bullied, and is performed on a stage set that recreates one of the classrooms at the school. As well as flashbacks to the bullying and to how the bullying was then turned into a play, at the climax of both the play and the video, the girl who has been bullied, who is playing the role of herself in the play, breaks out of character and delivers an emotional speech to the audience - or rather the audiences, if you include those of us watching the video - as herself. Confused? Unless you happen to be Noam Chomsky, I should hope so).
When writing about the junior high school in particular, I have tried to emphasise how friendly and relaxed it was, but despite his apparently laid-back attitude, the kocho-sensei ran a very tight ship, where even the slightest transgression from school rules was deemed unacceptable - normally the student in question would be surrounded by a posse of teachers, given a very stern talking to and leave the staff room in tears. The school was such a nice place to work precisely because the students hardly ever caused trouble, behaved badly during lessons or vandalised school property, and precisely because they always said hello when they passed you in the corridor, and always addressed those students in the years above them as 'so-and-so senpai' (先輩 / senior) rather than just by their names.
At a rehearsal for the graduation ceremony, the students' conduct was monitored down to the minutest detail, including how to stand up and sit down, how to bow while both standing up and sitting down, and even how to walk out of the hall at the end of the ceremony - a reminder of which was displayed behind the scenes on the day, and reads as follows:
- Sitting bow
- Hands when bowing - don't let them hang
- Girls' hands - don't open them, don't curl them up into a ball (cat hands)
- How to walk when you leave - don't let your mind wander
- How to replace your graduation certificate (when you are sitting down)
On one of my last days at the school, a former student dropped by to let us know the results of his university entrance exams, and while he was chatting with the other teachers, I went outside to load some things into my car. His girlfriend - who told me that she too was a former student - was loitering at the front door.
'You can go into the staff room and say hello if you want,' I said.
'I'm not allowed.'
'Having your hair dyed is against the rules.'
Her hair had reddish-brown highlights, and even though she had long since graduated from the school, its regime still applied. I wonder if I'll still be under the same spell in three years' time?
'This morning,' K-sensei told me the other day, 'when I looked at the thermometer it was minus eight degrees.'
'At 4.30, you mean?' (K-sensei's sleep patterns make Margaret Thatcher look like a lazy teenager, and 4.30am is when he usually gets up.)
'No, at 4,' he said.
'You woke up at 4am?'
'No, no. I woke up at 3.30. I got up at 4, and by 4.30, the temperature was minus ten. It is the first time in my life this has happened.'
Statistically speaking, this winter has in fact been marginally warmer than average, but around here at least, the reality doesn't quite tally with the statistics. For example, the other week we went on a day trip to the Fukuroda Waterfall (Fukuroda-no-taki / 袋田の滝), which had frozen up several weeks earlier than usual - it won't be long before the more adventurous sightseers are strapping on the crampons and climbing their way up.
In actual fact, winter temperatures in Ibaraki tend to be similar to those in the UK, but it's the quality of the cold here that's different. In the summer, warm, humid air arrives in Japan from the tropics - often in the form of typhoons - but in the winter, cold, dry air sweeps in from the continent. Until about a fortnight ago, more than a month had passed without a single drop of rain, and most people's front lawns now look like old-style brown bristle doormats. The school playground turned into a dustbowl, and when the first year boys sat down for their English class after a lunchtime kickabout, they looked as if they'd just walked off the set of The Hurt Locker. (Parenthetically, one of my Japanese teachers holidayed to the US last year, and said that Salt Lake City is even drier - her rheumatism, she said, almost completely cleared up.)
While the brief interlude of grey skies and drizzle may have given me a pang of nostalgia, for the most part, the almost constant sunshine makes a pleasant change from those damp, grey days of a British winter. Apart from giving your skin the approximate texture and appearance of a fine-grade sandpaper, the main problem with the lack of moisture is that you are more likely to fall ill. Almost half the school came down with a cold last October, one of the first years caught whooping cough, and according to the latest circular to land on my desk, a student at the elementary school now has type-B influenza (when the humidity level is at 50% the flu virus perishes almost immediately, but at 35% it can survive for up to 24 hours - or so one of the experts on Honma Dekka?! said last week). While some people gargle with salt water, the primary method for flu prevention is still the surgical mask (which I still can't quite bring myself to wear, no matter how much I would like to fit in with the locals), although my immune system would function a lot more efficiently if only I could keep warm at home.
There are three very important features that almost every building in Japan lacks, and those are double glazing (ni-juu-mado / 二重窓), insulation (dan-netsu-zai / 断熱材) and central heating (er, sentoraru hiitingu). During a trip to Tokyo before Christmas, friends of mine were kind enough to let me spend the night in their spare room, and even though the building itself was less than ten years old, with underfloor heating in the living rooms and earthquake-proof foundations, the windows were only single-glazed, and misted with condensation by morning. There are several hundred apartments in the block, so despite the lack of heating in the spare bedroom, being surrounded on all sides kept it tolerably warm. There are, however, just four apartments in the block where Mrs M and I live, which makes them oven-like when the temperature outside is in the thirties, and freezer-like even before it dips below zero.
In the bathroom you can defrost beneath a hot shower, and after a summer of saving electricity, I did eventually relent and let Mrs M switch on our heated toilet seat. With the help of an electric blanket and some extremely fluffy duvets, keeping cosy while we're in bed (or in futon, so to speak) isn't much of a problem, although one's pocket of warmth only extends so far, and many is the time I have rolled over in bed, only to roll straight back when my head hits the exposed, ice-rink-like edge of the pillow. For the past couple of months the condensation has been freezing to the inside of our bedroom and living room windows, and unless you light one of the gas rings and leave it running, there's no way of thawing out the kitchen at all. A fluffy cloud of breath hovers in front of my face as I potter about making breakfast - at which point our fridge magnet thermometer is normally at about the five degree mark - there is a pause of several seconds before half-frozen water splutters out of the tap, and it isn't until long after I have left for work that the kitchen becomes fit for human habitation.
While the air conditioner in the living room doubles up as a heater, our secret weapon against the cold is a kotatsu. In the old days, most homes had an irori, an open hearth in the middle of the living room that acted as both cooker and heater. The kotatsu was presumably invented as a replacement for the irori, and consists of a floating tabletop, a frame with four short legs and a downward-pointing heating element at its centre, and two fireproof quilts (well, I assume they're fireproof...), one of which is laid on the floor beneath the kotatsu, and one of which is sandwiched between the frame and the tabletop. Kotatsu would be a big hit abroad if it wasn't for the fact they force you to sit on the floor the whole time. For example, it's very difficult to wedge your feet beneath a coffee table when you're on a sofa or in an armchair, and customising the average dining table wouldn't work either, as most of the heat would escape between the legs of the average dining chair.
Mrs M suffers from poor circulation, and the kotatsu was probably the home comfort that she missed the most when we were in the UK. While our living room in London was warmed by a radiator, the floor remained resolutely cold, and just draping a blanket over her legs didn't seem to help matters, so that we developed a rather eccentric routine whereby I would roll up my shirt and she would warm her feet on my stomach as we settled down to watch TV on winter evenings.
Still, however tough things get in Ibaraki, I should be thankful that I'm not living in Hokkaido, on the Japan Sea coast, or in the mountains, where most houses have rows of planks nailed to the windows to keep them from caving in beneath the weight of huge snow drifts. To give you an example, back in 2008 I went for a weekend of snowboarding in Nagano - where that particular year they had more than ten metres of snowfall - and spent two nights in what I can say without hesitation is the coldest place I have ever stayed. The owners were living elsewhere at the time and renting it to a friend of mine for next to nothing. It was a decent sized, two-storey detached house, and in order to save money my friend restricted himself to using just one room. Once we had turned off the heater and turned out the lights, the temperature plummeted, and by the early hours I was fully clothed beneath my sleeping bag, duvet and blankets: as well as a woolly hat and gloves, if my memory serves me correctly I think I even put my shoes on. An already fitful night's sleep was interrupted at about 4am when an elderly neighbour began screaming for help after falling on the icy pavement outside (I can only assume that, like K-sensei, he had popped out to check the thermometer), and when I ventured into the bathroom in the morning, a large icicle was protruding from the bath tap. It took several minutes of massaging the shower hose before any hot water emerged, and to be honest, snowboarding through a blizzard for the rest of the day came as a blessed relief. The following night I insisted that we leave the heater on, but by then I was already in the early stages of a cold, and my resistance to winter weather has never been quite the same since.
Anyway, I'll leave you with another photo - taken on Mount Takao near Tokyo - of what are known as shimo-bashira (霜柱 / literally 'frost columns'). Shimo-bashira are formed when the temperature below ground level is above freezing and the temperature at ground level is below freezing, which draws moisture from the ground and sculpts it into these attractively regular geometrical shapes.
Just as I was putting the finishing touches to this post, the Guardian published this article
by the one and only Charlie Brooker, which among other things includes a typically succinct and hilarious description of the majority of content on Japanese TV. So, about a week late and at the risk of being accused of jumping on the bandwagon, here is my own take on the subject (or rather, take two - you can find take one here
).The biggest TV gossip of 2011 had to be the sudden resignation of Shinsuké Hamada, who as well as looking a bit like Jimmy Carr, was found to have links with the yakuza. ('Jimmy Carr Mafia Link Shock!' - now that would be an interesting story. But anyway, I digress.).
Once evidence of his friendship with a minor hoodlum became public, Shinsuké did the honourable thing by jumping before he was pushed, but is unlikely to be welcomed back anytime soon, and as onii-san pointed out, the punters are now a lot less likely to patronise his chain of restaurants for fear of guilt by association.In the manner of post-Angus Deayton Have I Got News For You,
some of Shinsuké's shows have drafted in guest presenters, among them Koji Higashino, who despite my prediction that his career would be cut short after an on-screen character assassination, has become an even more regular fixture on the panel show circuit.Higashino's most notable appearance of 2011 was as a participant in the Sado Island Triathlon, posters for which were all over the place when I was there for my summer holidays. R
ather than the usual 1.5km swim / 40km cycle / 10km run, however, the Sado Triathlon involves a 3.8km swim, a 180km cycle and a full, 42km marathon, and while the swim was reduced to 3km because of an approaching typhoon, there can be no shame in the fact that three of the four participating celebs failed to complete the course. (Incredibly, all three - including Higashino - fell short of their goal not because they collapsed from exhaustion, but because they couldn't keep within the fifteen-and-a-half-hour time limit.)Both Shinsuk
é and Higashino cried in public
last year - Shinsuké at his resignation press conference and Higashino in the lead-up to the triathlon - and the more Japanese TV I watch, the more I find myself blubbing into my remote control. For example, here's the scenario for a recent documentary about guide dogs:Scene 1
- Partially sighted woman in Hokkaido has owned the same guide dog for almost a decade. Dog is due to retire next year. Woman cries.Scene 2 - Ageing
guide dogs limp around special retirement home, older ones lose ability to walk, eventually pass away. Sight of dying dogs enough to reduce grown man to snivelling wreck.Scene 3 - Too young to be trained, new-born puppies are adopted by ordinary families for first year of their lives.
No footage of life in temporary homes. Instead, documentary cuts straight to farewell at end of year and collective crying session.It was at this point, about fifteen minutes in, that I decided to
change channels for fear of being plunged into state of irreversible depression.Speaking of dogs, I had planned to share some footage of another Shinsuk
é, who is quite possibly the cutest animal of all time
, but unfortunately the clip has been withdrawn from YouTube, so you'll have to make do with this slide show from Twitter
instead. (Believe it or not, Shinsuké isn't a puppy - pomeranians apparently retain their cuteness into adulthood.)
The prize for 2011's cutest human being goes to seven-year-old Mana Ashida - aka Mana-chan - who got her big break in a drama series called Marumo No Okité, and has since featured in no less than fifteen different TV commercials, not to mention countless variety shows, chat shows and music shows. The theme tune to Marumo No Okité - sung by Mana-chan with her co-star Fuku Suzuki - is the unfeasibly catchy Maru Maru Mori Mori (I did have a go at translating the lyrics, but gave up when I realised they were almost completely meaningless):
Just as Ahsida and Suzuki do a silly dance in their music video, so Japanese companies are in the habit of including similar dances in their commercials, the most notable example being this combination of five portly blokes, a Beyoncé tune and a new variety of cup ramen:
Despite the ubiquitousness of commercial-length public information films in the weeks and months following the earthquake (when advertisers were reluctant to purchase airtime), the most broadcast commercial of 2011 has to be this one for Choya alcohol-free plum wine, which as well as a silly dance, features a jingle that wouldn't necessarily be annoying if it wasn't for the fact the ad has been shown approximately fifty times a day for the past six months:
Probably the creepiest TV moment of the year was an appearance by Masahiko Kondoh, a veteran of the Johnny's music agency, which is Japan's most successful pop production line. After a brief interview, Kondoh looked on as members of present-day boy bands attempted to sing his hits - many of which were released before they were born - from memory. Most of these fresh-faced young lads had clearly been signed to the Johnny's agency on the basis of their looks rather than their voices, but Kondoh wasn't fussed about whether or not they could hold a tune. Instead, he cut short a performance only if they forgot the lyrics, which resulted in some very awkward moments where the singer apologised and promised not to make the same mistake ever again, and Kondoh tutted and shook his head disapprovingly. The youngsters spent the entire show heaping praise on Kondoh, and looked genuinely terrified as they were waiting for their turn to sing (there was no time to prepare as the songs were chosen at random), and the whole thing played out like a scene from a gangster film in which the godfather summons people to his office for a dressing down. Kondoh's presence was so menacing that it really did feel as if someone was going to end up in Tokyo Bay wearing concrete boots, although as far as I know, everyone involved lived to sing another day.
Last but not least, I was glad to see that Honma Dekka?!
- my favourite TV programme, and one that I've mentioned on this blog before - won a prize for excellence in the TV entertainment category at the Japan Commercial Broadcasting Federation awards.
There's not much point in posting a clip, as Honma Dekka?! is a lot more verbal than it is visual, but just to give you an example of the kind of fascinating facts and figures they come up with, Homaré Sawa - women's World Cup MVP and scorer of the late equaliser that took the Japan vs USA final to a penalty shoot-out - recently appeared as a star guest. In the section of the show known as Jinsei-sohdan
(人生相談 / counselling service), she confessed to having very poor co-ordination, and after much to-ing and fro-ing, the panel of experts came to the intriguing conclusion that this is a good thing for an attacking player - ie. if defenders are in tune with how an opposition player moves, they will more easily be able to intercept her, but if the attacker is less predictable and her movements less regulated, she will more easily be able to find her way through the defence and to a goal-scoring opportunity.
This photo was taken at 5.30am, because, quite frankly, I was a bit anxious about the whole nojuku
thing and hadn't slept very well. For that added touch of surrealism, I had managed to pitch the Snow Peak directly behind Bokushi-dohri
, a shopping street constructed in the Edo style as a kind of living museum, so there was some nice architecture to look at as I cycled off into the sunrise.
Stopping for my usual convenience store breakfast, I met a tall, smartly dressed man in a baseball cap, polo-neck sweater and chinos.
'My son lives near here,' he told me, 'so I come and stay at least a couple of times a year. In the winter I go ski-ing and in the summer I play golf. I'm playing eighteen holes with a friend of mine this morning - he's supposed to be picking me up in a minute.'
'You're probably pretty good, I should imagine.'
'Not bad, although I'm eighty now, so I can only hit the ball about a hundred yards. When you get to my age you don't have the flexibility in your shoulders to get a good swing.'
'What's your best score, then?'
'About seventy-eight, I think, although that was probably twenty or thirty years ago. Nowadays it's more like a hundred.'
Bokushi-dohri is part of the Mikuni-kaidoh (三国街道 / 'Three countries highway'), which has served as a route between Tokyo and Niigata for several centuries, and which I would be following today on my way into Gunma Prefecture. At Echigo-yuzawa the Joh-etsu expressway heads into an eleven-kilometre-long tunnel - the longest road tunnel in Japan - while the Mikuni-kaidoh (aka Route 17) goes from flat to steep in a matter of moments, and stays that way for the next thirty or so kilometres.
After the first few hairpin bends I stopped in front of an isolated two-storey house, where a young man in a blue puffer jacket was starting up his scooter in the front yard. He introduced himself as Fueda-san and asked where I was from.
'England,' I said.
'And what do you do?'
'I work as an ALT.'
'That's what I was doing until April, except I was teaching Japanese at a school in China. I need to find a job so I can save some more money and go back.'
'Are you off to a job interview now?'
'No. It's Hello Work, I'm afraid.'
Hello Work is the Japanese equivalent of a job centre, and from what I can tell, going to one can be a similarly dispiriting experience.
'Do you want to move to China for good?' I asked.
'I want to live in Taiwan eventually. That's where my girlfriend's from - we speak to each other on Skype every couple of days, so I'm trying to improve my Chinese.'
Noticing that my water bottle was empty, Fueda-san told me to re-fill it at a tap next to the garage.
'That's fresh spring water straight from the ground, so it should be ice cold,' he said, and we wished each other luck before he sped off down the hill.
Route 17 was lined with ski-slopes and high-rise hotels, which because this was off-season were practically empty, so for most of the morning I had the road to myself. When I stopped in a layby for another drink (it wasn't until I had downed a bottle-full that I noticed a sign above the washroom sink that read Nomémasen! / Undrinkable!), it was quiet enough that a family of monkeys emerged from the forest to scamper across the road.
Although in case you're under the impression this was a David Attenborough-style close encounter, here is the original, un-cropped photo:
I reached the Mikuni Pass at about midday, where the view was one of the lushest and most tree-filled I had ever seen (with so much natural forestation, I should imagine this is a good place to see the autumn colours).
Combined with an early start, the
climb had completely wiped me out, and with the Konsei Pass on my itinerary for the following day, I decided that another night of nojuku
was out of the question. The only thing for it was to break out my Emergency Cash Card, find a cheap hotel and get a decent night's sleep. Mrs M wouldn't be too happy when she found out that the trip had gone over-budget, but in the interests of a) my health and b) starting work again on 1st September, I withdrew another 10,000 yen from a post office ATM and braced myself for a stern talking to when Mrs M next checked our bank balance.The first hotel I tried
in Numata City was fully booked, but as well as having vacancies, the second - the Sasaya - was a fair bit cheaper and a lot more characterful.
The woman behind reception was dividing her time between watching TV and babysitting her grandson, and when I asked where I could leave the Rock Spring, she told me to bring it through the main doors and park it among a collection of bikes and prams next to the drinks machine (neglecting to take your shoes off as you enter a building is considered to be bad manners in Japan, so wheeling a bicycle across a pile carpet felt positively criminal).After checking in I went straight to the communal baths, where the sauna was mysteriously chilly
.'This isn't working, is it?' I said to a fellow bather.'It's working all right,' he said. 'They just set it to a low temperature, that's all. It's always like that.'Most onsen will have a cold bath in which to cool off after your sauna, but that was empty too, so I assumed the owners were either keen practitioners of setsuden, or didn't have enough guests to justify the expense of firing up the sauna.
Despite advertising itself as a wedding venue, the Sasaya was distinctly rough around the edges: the toilet roll holder in my bathroom, for example, was stuck to the wall with gaffer tape, there was a large cigarette burn on the shelf above the sink, and a hand-written notice on the ancient, free-standing air conditioner warned that it would leak if I tried to move it. Not that I needed an air conditioner, as the room itself was almost completely sealed off from the outside world. It was how I imagine being on a space station must feel, as I had no sense of the outside world whatsoever: there were no windows,
it was eerily quiet, and even on a summer's day the temperature remained at a constant 20 degrees.When I arrived back from buying dinner at the local supermarket, an
old man with fly-away white hair was sitting at the reception desk and peering at a newspaper through a magnifying glass. The Sasaya is about as close as you'll get in Japan to Fawlty Towers (not for nothing does it score a whopping 2.62 stars out of 5
on the Rakuten Travel homepage), which made me feel rather at home, and I slept a lot more soundly than I had in the park behind Bokushi-dohri.
It was pouring with rain until about 10 o’clock last Thursday morning, so instead of doing three and a half hours of soccer club, I did an hour and a half. In that hour and a half, though, I sweated off at least a couple of kilos, pulled a muscle in my leg, felt like I was about to have a heart attack, did a spot of gardening and didn’t kick a single football.
We started off, as the soccer club does almost every day, with what I was assured were ten laps of the pitch, but which felt like several more, alternating between a sprint along the sidelines and a jog along the goal lines. I pulled my left quad within seconds of setting off because, oddly, we hadn’t done any stretching beforehand: the students had been stuck indoors studying since 8.30, so perhaps they were eager to get going, and just to make things that little bit more challenging, we all carried a half-litre bottle of water in each hand. By about the third or fourth lap, I was seriously considering giving up, as quite apart from the veritable waterfall of sweat cascading from my brow, I had begun to get a tight feeling in my chest. As the sun poked through the clouds for the first time that morning, I also wondered whether I might be in the early stages of heatstroke.
When I was going through a jogging phase a few years ago, I read that interval training – ie. alternating between jogging and sprinting – is one of the best ways to increase your stamina over long distances. Sadly I was far too lazy to try interval training for myself, and having finally experienced it first hand, my advice to any budding jogger would be to start off with a very small amount of sprinting and build up from there, rather than going straight in with a half-and-half mix of the two.
After a ten-minute drinks break I thought we might get to play some football, but no such luck. (‘When it’s raining heavily,’ explained H-kun, who is the team captain, ‘we do stuff like this. If you play soccer in the rain people end up catching cold.’) The next exercise involved jogging round the pitch in a line as before – still carrying water bottles in our hands – with the last person in the line sprinting to the front and shouting ‘Hai!’ (‘Yes!’), then the new last person doing the same, and so on and so forth. With about fifteen or twenty people in the line, this meant that I was only sprinting for about ten seconds every couple of minutes, but the accumulated physical exertion was beginning to take its toll, and when Y-sensei looked up at the clock on the side of the school building and said, ‘Another seven minutes!’ I couldn’t face any more and stopped for another drinks break – or rather, keeled over at the side of the pitch and wheezed like a forty-a-day smoker for a few minutes, before gulping down another litre of water and waiting for the dizziness to stop.
I managed to re-join the line for the last couple of laps, but by the time we had completed those, even if we had been given the chance to start practicing our dribbling skills or free kick technique, I’m not sure I would have had the energy to join in, so was quite relieved when Y-sensei told us to jog down to the other end of the pitch and round off the training session with some kusa-tori.
As we squatted down, kama
in hand, and began pulling up weeds near the goal line, Y-sensei asked each student in turn what they thought the purpose of kusa-tori was, and gave marks out of a hundred depending on their replies.
‘Three or four years ago,’ said Y-sensei, ‘this pitch was covered in weeds. They were all over the penalty area, which got in the way of us playing properly. Since then we’ve been paying more attention to doing the weeding, and the soccer team has started winning.’
‘The team with the tidiest pitch,’ he continued, ‘is the team that wins.’
Making your school football team do the weeding may seem like a slightly ridiculous thing to do, but it made me think of another point that Malcolm Gladwell makes in The Tipping Point. His theory – based in part on studies of a reduction in New York crime rates in the early nineties – is that a person’s environment has just as big an influence on the likelihood of them committing a crime as their background or their personality. The people running the New York subway system turned around crime levels at least in part by cleaning up graffiti. They also clamped down on fare dodging, which because it was so prevalent and so visible, was influencing normally law-abiding citizens to join in.
On a recent episode of Honma Dekka?! (ホンマでっか？！/ Is That Really True?!) – a TV show that has a panel of academics and experts reveal a variety of interesting new trends, discoveries and inventions to a panel of celebrities – one of the experts cited a study which showed that around the time of large firework displays, just as levels of discarded rubbish increase, so do levels of petty crime. In other words, people’s behaviour degenerates in direct correlation with the cleanliness of the environment in which they find themselves. Surely it is no coincidence that Japanese children, who grow up cleaning their schools and weeding their playing fields, and whose parents and grandparents place such importance on keeping their homes spic and span (and their toilets in particular
), turn into adults who are less likely to commit crimes.
A lot of westerners criticise the Japanese education system for being too regimented – militaristic, even – and more like national service than school. While I am not necessarily in favour of national service, I am beginning to see the benefits of a system that keeps its students fit, healthy and active, gives them regular and multiple goals to work towards (not to mention properly commemorating the reaching of those goals with ceremonies, prizegivings and so on), and teaches them the benefits of using every spare moment to practice what they do until they master it, all without having to fire a gun or drive a tank.
Perhaps things have changed, but when I was a child, unless you happened to go to private school or have parents who could afford to pay for private tuition, the scope for taking part in extra-curricular activities was woefully small. Admittedly there was a teachers’ strike when I was at middle school, but even allowing for that, with the exception of rehearsals for the annual school play, I hardly ever stayed later than 4 o’clock, and certainly never went to school during the holidays. More to the point, I can’t imagine that any member of the current England football team has ever got down on his hands and knees and tended to a football pitch (do they even clean the senior players’ boots any more, as apprentices did in the old days?). If they had, perhaps they might be able to display a little more humility, and devote themselves a little more selflessly to their team.