Friday, 23 November 2007

Powder Snow

Snow in Birmingham, snow in Sapporo… does the world get anymore beautiful? Now that it has started snowing here it seems to be doing it fairly regularly, but not in any great quantity. People tell me that it’ll keep settling and melting for another few weeks before it really sticks around before Christmas, but we still get days like today when there was a full scale blizzard, with stinging winds whipping big, arcing, curves of snow into the air. It snowed heavily on and off all day, and walking home in it was just… awesome. This post - pretty much an excuse for pictures of snow really.

I’m getting the hang of this powder snow business too. Hokkaido is super-popular for winter sports because it has dry, powder snow, not wet snow. I imagine it has ‘bitchin’ powder snow if you’re that way inclined. Anyway, I thought I could guess what that was like, but now that it’s started falling it’s actually dryer and more… powdery than I expected. It gets blown around by the wind a lot and it accumulates in corners like beautiful… white… dust? Sand? Once a layer of it has settled it acts more like the snow I know, but a bit lighter.

I promise, I won’t spend the entire winter clogging up facebook with posts about snow. I swear. But I’m pretty sure I’ve got to buy a camera now.

Here’s some of that beautiful serendipity that just kicks you in the teeth: one night this week Tara and I decided to head a couple of stops south for dinner at a tiny, wonderful Mexican restaurant. The whole place is basically a bar with some stools around it, and it’s run single handedly by the woman that owns the place, who speaks pretty good English and who we chat with when we eat there. So - we’re all freezing cold, but stoked for hot Mexican food, we get up to get off the train, the doors open and we’re face to face with the lady who runs the Mexican restaurant we’re aiming for. We were all: “Oh hi! How are YOU?” on the outside, while inside we wanted to grab her by here shoulders and march her back to work. Instead we were left on the platform trying to formulate new dinner plans.

There are plenty of places like that here, so tiny as to be handled by one person cooking and serving everything – but you always have to be prepared to wait for a lo-o-ong time. And since they’re such small scale operations they just close at random sometimes.

Some of my kids this week took great pleasure in showing me the spikes on their shoes. Since this city is going to be evolving into an ice-rink pretty soon you can get shoes with little spike things that you can flip out for traction. For kids these get built into trainers, like those trainers with the built in wheels but for junior mountaineers instead. It may not be easy to find any in my size, but I’m going to try coz I covet, I covet, I covet.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

First Snow

On Thursday we got our first little blast of snow here in Sapporo, and of course I was disproportionately happy. Snow! Oh man, I love snow. People here love to ask me: "Do you like snow?" and are quick to follow it with a "Ah, you won't in a couple of months!" but to hell with that. No matter how deep, how slippy, how bone-chilling, how many fingers and toes I lose... snow is snow, and I love snow.

Yeah! Snow!

So it didn't last very long anyway, it snowed a bit on Thursday, stuck around until Friday, but mostly disappeared in some mild weather and torrential rain on Saturday. But tonight we came out of an izakaya in the middle of the city to find that it had started up again, and there's a nice dusting all over the place now.

Snow! On Thursday morning.

Along with the snow the temperature nose dived this week, which meant that I had to try and figure out my heater. Luckily my heater is a) easy to use and b) awesome, so I've been toasty warm this week. But unluckily my heater is a) easy to use and b) awesome, so I'm probably going to run up a comically large gas bill this winter. It has a thick glass plate on the front that I can see the flames through. I love my heater. I love snow.

Last weekend I hit a homebase-esque furniture store for those lamps that I KNEW would make my appartment that much better than the harsh neon ring I had to live with. Turns out the store is about three minutes from my
door and that it had everything that I've been needing for my appartment for so long (decent rubbish bin, lamps, kitchen stuff). Such success meant that I could easily gloss over the fact that I didn't really do anything else.

This Saturday night we went out for a fun, sprawling, ill-thought-out night on the town, but before that we were in Sapporo station and we found a small iron bathtub full of milk, in an iron cage. In itself this was a somewhat disquieting find, but it signified a sort of low key art fest today that we immediately resolved to attend, hangover or no!

Turns out the bathtub wasn't quite as pointless as it had looked in Sapporo station, it was meant to have a projector above it projecting a film onto the rippling milk, and it looked quite cool when we found a bigger one today. The arts fest, called Arts! Meet! Mart! was in an abandoned school in the centre of Sapporo, and it filled their big sports hall with local arts and artists, selling their wares or just performing. I went with Tara and Akira, who is a school teacher and thus could explain that the school was empty because of that population doughnut that means no families live in the centre of cities anymore. Hence no catchment, hence no pupils. Included are pictures of a crowd watching a performance by a guy in a shed who stuck prepared adhesive shapes onto a background, while a vintage movie projector played over him and ambient guitar noise twanged away; SCIENTISTS in welding masks and their art robot that mostly just talked; and Tara and Akira posing with Terebi-to San, one of Sapporo's mascots, a personified TV Tower, with the personality of a slightly grumpy father (hence the moustache). They both signed disclaimers, so they may end up on a poster, TV or a weird website for tourist mascot fetishists.

There was plenty of fun stuff, and after that there was coffee, running into other friends, nabe, ramen and snow. I declare Sunday a rousing success!

Sadly, although this guy's art was fun, it was almost impossible to actually watch what he was doing clearly, so I didn't bother to include any pictures of his "Art-Shed". The crowd was fun to look at, although that woman in the middle has clearly "made" me.

Art-Scientists in motion.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Japanese Rocks! : Number Girl, Zazen Boys and Toddle!

So finally I thought I’d write about some of the Japanese music I’ve been listening to since I’ve been in Japan. And what better way to do that than to start with some bands that I was listening to before I came to Japan? It’s like recycled MENTAL content kids, but it’s all you’re going to get for now.

Number Girl were a turn-of-the-century indie-rock band from Fukuoka Japan that started really poppy, and ended pretty dubby and experimental. They’re one of those great bands where you can hear them pushing forward on each album, never sounding quite the same. Their first two records are heavily indebted to all those eighties indie-rock godheads, The Pixies, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Jesus and Mary Chain and so on... They even have a song called Pixiesdu, which is just gratuitous frankly. Even so, they’re great albums, and it gets even better when the sound starts spreading out, the rhythms get more syncopated and the reverb goes absolutely mental on their later albums.

I’ve posted a video of them playing Omoide In My Head, which is off their first album, but which turned into a set closer for their entire career. I hate long songs, but this one I love. I’m going to learn it for karaoke! Yes! They look super geeky too! Yes! They have a woman in the band (Tabuchi Hisako, first names last remember!) who plays LEAD not BASS! Yes! This is “Rock” and the location? Japan!

After Number Girl broke up, the lead singer and songwriter Mukai Shutoku formed Zazen Boys, a band that sort of picks up where Number Girl left off. I like Zazen Boys, and I admire them enormously because frankly they really don’t sound like anyone else, but I have a hard time loving them. Mukai really tries to distill out the dynamics of rock music with Zazen Boys, so half the time it’s enormously spacious, echoing, brooding music; and the other half it’s tense, pounding riffs, played in demented time signatures with ferocious intensity. That side of Zazen Boys has some of the best stop-start, tension-and-release rock music ever.

So Mukai Shutoku formed Zazen Boys, developing the percussive, dynamic side of Number Girl, and Tabuchi Hisako formed Toddle a couple of years ago, developing the melodic indie-rock side (she also joined another band as an additional guitarist, Bloodthirsty Butchers, who… I’ve only heard one album by, and I want to check out some of their more recent stuff after she joined, coz what I heard wasn’t great). I like toddle more than Zazen Boys, but there’s not so much to say about them. It’s great indie-rock that combines really loud, fast guitars with melodies of longing and dreaming. Unsurprisingly, that’s my sort of music.

Stay tuned! Next time Japanese Pops! : Shiina Ringo and Tokyo Jihen

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Fieldnotes Buckshot

Ah... um, I'm still hunting for equilibrium at work, and I'm still being a do-er when it comes to too much stuff, so my head's still somewhat wonky. But mostly in a good way. Here are some scenes from the last few weeks.

I went to see a couple of my students in a sort of community wind orchestra. The orchestra were surprisingly good, and they were really great, and it was an awesome way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I also got to see the inside of the fancy, fancy concert hall here. It was very nice, and outside the leaves were turning strikingly beautiful colours, and there was another car boot sale in the park. I bought a badge from one couple and they gave me something that Tara had been looking at for free, because people are REALLY nice here in Sapporo. She had been looking at a programme for an all female Versaille-themed dance spectacular that I found faintly disturbing.

Later we caught a tram, then a cable-car, then a minibus to get to the top of Mount Moiwa, the largest mountain near Sapporo with the best view. We had some kinda pie-in-the-sky hope of catching the Autumn Leaves Spectacular on the way up, but it wasn't too vivid because night was setting in. Hokkaido is a leafy island and people get very excited about the leaves changing colour. To be honest, from everything I've seen it look gorgeous, and I like leaves too, so their excitement is just fine with me. By the time we got to the top it was night and at night, on top of a mountain, with winter setting in... things get pretty cold. We could only stay outside for a few minutes at a time before running back into the lavishly stocked gift emporium to charge ourselves with warmth.

Sapporo has buses, a limited local rail service, three underground lines and ONE tram (or streetcar if you will) line. The route is particularly peverse, it starts just south of the centre of Sapporo and carves an enormous loop to the South and West of the city, before terminating maybe three blocks south of where it starts. If you went from one end to the other it would be perhaps a forty five minute journey to cover a distance that would take five minutes on foot.

Today makes two weekends in a row that I have caught the tram and had a huge American style hamburger. Today we went back to Yonoji + Jr. Kitchen, whose motto is something like "The cafe where the black labrador sleeps" (because they have a black lab in the corner) and whose burgers I think I mentioned on here before as being deluxxxe killer burgers. Today my burger was cryptically named F40, and was basically two separate burgers, connected by the thin conceit of there being one enormous bun cut in half. It was FANTASTIC, but frankly two meals worth of food.

I also ate jerk chicken this week that was exactly the right side of "unbearably hot". Every mouthful was a delight that was swiftly followed by horrifying pain that would slowly fade to mere numbness. It was great too.

My semi-falied mission for today was to buy some "lighting solutions". My appartment is still feeling much too cold and austere for my liking, and part of the problem is the terrible standard Japanese apaato ceiling light; a stark, white double neon ring. Following some slightly sketchy directions I set off North from Asabu (which, remember, is the most Northen stop on the underground) into the wasteland of suburban sprawl and retail developments, looking for second-hand shops. In the end I found the shops, and saw plenty of interesting places, like the used car lot of dormobiles below, but couldn't find a lamp that I could easily transport back to Asabu (the only one I liked was an ugly 1970s-ish standard metal thing that weighed a ton). I visited a junk shop in which almost everything looked to be broken, from the lamps, to the pachinko machines, to the speakers, to a whole basket full of non-functioning egg timers. I stopped in at book-off and off-house (the "...-off" brand is a huge chain of second hand stores) where there was a one-day sale that necessitated half of the staff be running around the store constantly shouting about the sale, the price reductions, some of their amazing products and how they were in the sale, and subject to the afforementioned price reductions... it wasn't a very relaxing place to shop. The teens out on the corner holding the "Sale Today" (in Japanese of course) cards weren't having much fun either.

Eventually I ended up buying a super-cute little floor-or-whatever lamp, that seems to be just great for now, from that monolith of retail Don. Kihote. Now that Halloween's over by the way, the Christmas departments are starting to bloom. How's it looking over there?

Into The Mouth Of Madness

Originally posted on Facebook on Sunday 28th October 2007:

Here in Japan, Halloween just won't stop.

A Halloween/Birthday bash - Tara, dressed as a horse that in turn is disguised as a bear, and with fairy wings on her back.

That little twanging sound? That was your sanity snapping like a twig.

Then: the sight of Spider-Man, holding a TESCO bag, kissing a horse, on the corner of a busy intersection.

Goodbye terra firma, the clouds have a nice padded room waiting for me.

Let's Pizza Party

Originally posted on Facebook on Monday October 22nd:



A hundred times yes. A thousand... no, a MILLION times YES.

Let's pizza party.

Palaces of Joy

Orginially posted on Facebook on Wednesday October 17th:

It probably would have been good to write about these super-plus-fun adventures in Japan when they first happened over a week ago, but I immediately tumbled into a week of deranged overtime, working nine to five down at the Tax Office Training School teaching English to young tax officers, then going back to my school in the evening to teach some regular classes. It sapped my strength all right, but it was actually a pretty good experience. The rest of my October is probably going to be pretty similar, so I’m girding my loins and settling in baby.

Anyway, we heard talk of a market... a GOLDEN market, held only twice a year. A temple to used goods, a bazaar of tat! Sapporo Golden Market!

We had to check it out, so, suitably hungover we made our way through the subway system, out into the wilds at the end of the Toho line, past the parched earth of unturned fields to the Tsudome, and the promised Golden Market, which was - yes, basically a giant indoor car boot sale. This was kind of what we expected / were hoping for and I certainly felt that I should attend at least in honour of Bunny, who probably would have turned up a shedload more stuff than I could. But then, I was feeling pretty lousy. I got a David Lynch documentary on DVD and a Pez dispenser of the Aardvark from The Ant and The Aardvark that used to be on The Pink Panther Show. I defy you to have done better after karaoke until 5am the night before.

The sight that greets you upon finally entering Golden Market. Next Golden Market is 27th & 28th April 2008 kids! There was a stage beneath that sign, and I was later asked by one of my students who happened to work part time at Golden Market: "Did you see any of the show?" I said I hadn't and he seemed happy. "Don't worry," he said "it was unimpressive."

But the size, as you can probably appreciate from the photo, was really something. And the setting was quite striking, the springy astroturf and the huge arching dome made for quite a weird shopping experience. Most of the junk was just pure trash, but there were a few stalls from actual retailers selling off damaged crap, ex-rental CDs and videos, some geek stalls selling trading cards and action figures, some craft stalls, and proper mini stores from three of the major mobile phone companies, which was very odd.

Some of the funniest stores were the little hipster clear outs. There were plenty of young, trendy things who just rolled up to Golden Market with a huge suitcase full of clothes and a poorly made cardboard sign with prices on. They found a spot I guess, settled down on the floor, flung their cases open… and waited. They were mostly in groups of three, mostly girls and one group certainly seemed to be more interested in trying on each others clothes than selling anything.

After that we had coffee, and I ate THE MOST AMAZINGLY PRESENTED SERVING OF WAFFLES AND ICE CREAM EVER. It took about half an hour to arrive, but when it did, it took the form of a meticulously crafted ice cream snow man with a cone for a hat, sitting on two waffles, with eyes and syrup and everything. I didn’t get a picture for some retarded reason, but believe me, it was a thing of beauty. Two girls who were the only other customers in the shop at the time had to come over and marvel at it. And then we demolished it in short order.

And after THAT we met some other folks and went for further fun at a veritable palace of the stuff: Leisure Sports, or Rejya Supo, as the katakana name goes. Leisure Sports is just a wonderful place, and not too expensive: you sign in and pay 70 yen (40p?) for every ten minutes you’re there. And for this princely sum you can wander around a cornucopia of amusements and healthy entertainments and play anything for free. There’s a small five a side pitch, remote controlled cars, a bucking bull ride, baseball nets, badminton courts, basketball courts, a climbing wall, a (frankly intense) assault course, pugel sticks, trampolines, an internet café and comic library, loads of other sporty things, some sort of chill out zone, and endless slot and arcade machines that are locked on so you can use them for free. I believe that the one-armed bandits, coin pushers and so on were powered by Leisure Sports tokens that were free for the taking and worthless, but I’m not sure about that. Either way we found some truly awe-inspiring games: a dog walking simulator where you had to power a treadmill in order to walk the dog, but in order to do so you have to attack it at a running speed that makes playing the actual game impossible (the dog then runs ahead, almost gets hit by a car and cowers trembling on the ground, traumatized); some wii-esque sword games, and most phenomenal/pathetic of all an arcade game called Tokyo Bus Guide where you drive a bus down the road and pick up passengers. At least it had a replica giant bus steering wheel.

And then there was the Halloween party, at least one picture of which has shown up in the inimitable Tara Smith's Facebook collection, so you should be able to find that if you want to see what I would look like as the shittest member of Kiss.

Chris and Jon in a battle to the soft, spongy death. Incedently Jon was undefeated champion of the pugel stick 'log'. But he's a tall, healthy, American fellow - he was my tip from the start.

Why yes, my Halloween costume was better than yours.

Originally posted on Facebook October 14th 2007

We had our work Halloween Party tonight, which is pretty early I know but we... that is... actually I have no clue why we had it today. It was fun anyway!

Anyway, witness the fitness: a handmade skeleton outfit. That's some fine quality card there, a bargain sweat suit from Don Kihote, skeleton work gloves from Loft and a couple of hours of hard work. I got most of it and put it together today, and Yes there was black and white face-paint too. I didn't take a photo of myself, but I'm hoping that enough were taken by others that one will eventually make its way onto my hard drive.

Happy Spooktoberfest, ya Halloweenies!