Mihama, Katsuyama and the best cafes along the way

Friday

Sophie: Hey, where should we go this weekend?

Zoya: Err, I don’t know. But whatever we do, I want a lie in and then good coffee.

Sophie: Ok, let’s go to Mihama.

Zoya: Ok, ikimashoo!

This is how an empty weekend turns into one full of adventures in Fukui-ken.  Last weekend was especially reminiscent of our travelling relationship.

Saturday

I pull up outside Zoya’s apartment at the compromised time of 10am.  She runs out with her coffee flask in hand.  ‘Can we stop at a bakery? I need breakfast’.  Two cheese buns later and we are both happy.

We whizz south to Tsuruga.  We see three surfers bobbing on a non-existent swell but having a good time nonetheless.  We drive past what I think is the ugliest city in Fukui, known only for its nuclear power stations which blight the area but are photo-shopped out of tourist brochures.  We bypass the Nuclear Power Information Centre which, I can can imagine could be really interesting about a very serious topic and there  no doubt will be cute rabbits signalling why nuclear power is best for the country.  Japan can turn anything, however boring into something cute and fun, such as the traffic cones here which are in the shape of frogs, rabbits or tigers!

Mikuni Rainbow Line is signalled and we take the 1000 yen toll road.  It is a small price to pay for the scenic drive around lakes and to a view point where you can see five different lakes of varying colours.  On this cloudy day they all looked the same to me, but what was impressive were the steep sea cliffs and black sand beaches which looked impossible to reach.  At the familiar tourist café and souvenir shop a man asked us the usual questions of ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Do you work here?’.  I learnt the hard way to be careful of every syllable, as I accidently told him I was a film (eiga) teacher not an English (eigo) teacher!  I quickly corrected my mistake this time but I’m sure I make similar mistakes everyday and don’t realise it!ImageAfter a lakeside coffee, I took Zoya’s direction to drive around a coastal peninsular which was not on the tourist map.  Willingly, I took the 15 km winding road around the rocky hillside.  Within five minutes of the route I saw a dog on a roof of a traditional house.  ‘What is a dog doing on the roof!’ I thought to myself, before I realised that it was a monkey!  Along this road we came across a whole troop of monkeys in the trees above us and sitting by the roadside.  We pulled up and watched in awe at wildlife I’d only ever seen that close in a zoo.

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Whilst we were watching as the young monkeys played in the trees, my eye caught sight of a bigger creature moving in the forest.  It was a full grown shika stag peering through the trees at us.  We could only see its neck as it was such a steep-sided hillside and I was almost worried it may fall on us. It had a dark, shaggy coat and full length antlers.  This you’ll have to believe, as when I reached for my camera it turned sharply and went back in to the dense forest.  This rare glimpse of the abundance of wildlife in the forests here just adds to the sharp division of built up cities bordered by thickly covered mountains where humans do not venture.  Miyazaki films, such as Princess Mononoko offer a magical portrayal of of animals in the forests being like spirits.

After this excitement we continued driving to the end of Tsunegami peninsular.  We passed fishing villages where freshly caught squid and fish were hanging from clothes, pegs guarded by a small o-baachan (grandmothers) sat outside their houses.  We’d hear the term ‘gaijin’ being said with surprise as they see our long noses, light hair and Zoya’s blue eyes.  Yet the fishermen were too engrossed in their catch to notice us though.

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For lunch, Zoya had found a secluded cafe in the coffee-bible of Fukui-ken magazine.  We worked out the location and headed south to find the little know café which promised us stone-cooked pizza.  When we arrived it was too late for pizza but the five retired ladies which ran the rustic café cooked us up the lunchi setto for a mere 500 yen.  The ladies were dressed in beautiful tie dye aprons and were curious about our whereabouts.  They’d seen the Fukui-ken number plate on my car and asked us where we lived and what we did.  This time I told them straight my job and they praised my broken Japanese as jouzo, even though I can hardly string a sentence together!

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We left, fed and fulfilled and headed back home.

Sunday

I was eager not to waste a single day of the beautiful season which is autumn.  I woke to a sunny morning and for the first time saw snow-capped mountains far in the distance.  ‘Zoya, let’s go somewhere!’.  ‘Oki’ her message read and we packed our bags ready for another road trip.  ‘I need breakfast and coffee this morning,’ said Zoya as she climbed in the front seat.  Now if Zoya hadn’t had her morning coffee, this was a more pressing issue!  So out comes the coffee-bible and low-and-behold she finds a Scandinavian bakery on the way we are headed!  I couldn’t believe there would be such a thing in our prefectural city, but there was and we enjoyed cheesecake, coffee and Scandinavian décor for breakfast.

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Then, we were back on-route to the Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama. It was built 10 years ago, after many dinosaur fossils had been found there,  and it was designed in the shape of a dinosaur egg, so it is easily visible from afar.  For 500 yen we enjoyed giant robotic t-rexs and walking-with-dinosaurs type graphics.  Less exciting, but still fascinating, were exhibitions of nearly complete dinosaur fossils from Japan, China and America.  When you walk out of the egg-shaped building into the fresh air and see the surrounding mountains, it is easy to imagine that dinosaurs roamed this area millions of years ago.

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Our next stop was Echizen daibutsu or ‘giant Buddha’. The 17 meter high Buddha is the tallest in Japan and is an impressive man-made feat.  But from what I know about Buddhism is not about being in awe of a massive statue so I’m not entirely sure if it’s main purpose was to inspire worshippers or something else.  I read that the Buddha was built twenty years ago from money given by a rich businessman who wanted to be thankful of his fortune in business.  However grand new places of worship are, they can never make up for the slowly moulded and worn down floors of old temples, churches or mosques.  Compared to the nearby Eiheji temple where Zen Buddhist monks still live a life of silence and solitude, this place was an amusement ground. Yet still the surrounding area was inspiring and the five-story pagoda gave a great view of the valley.

The valley of Katsuyama was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been.  The sky was blue, the leaves of the trees were golden in the sunlight and the mountains in the distance looked a deep mahogany colour.  There were no sounds apart from children laughing whilst feeding koi fish in the pond.  It was then that I realised that Japan is going to change me.  I know that compared to the simply beauty of the leaves changing colour here and a thousand other differences, other places will seem dull and boring.  It was then that I decided that I’ll stay in Japan for another year.

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Settling in, school life and summer festivals

Once I found out the meaning of the kanji (Chinese characters) on my air con remote, my apartment has been was less like a sauna and a lot more liveable! I’ve had the TV on as much as possible trying to watch the Olympics and now know all the Japanese Olympiads! Whilst writing this I’m staying until 5am to watch the closing ceremony so I’m afraid I have 5 hours to rattle on things I’ve seen and done this week!

My new home: an apartment

Myself and Steven have our own apartments in a large three-storey apartment block. Other new JETs living here which we’ve been hanging out with are Niamh and Alice (both from Ireland) and Zoya (the only JET in Japan from Finland). Lots of other JETs live on their own so we are lucky we can just pop over to see each other. My school, Takefu Junior High School, is only a five minute walk from my apartment so I am really lucky in one sense, but on the other hand this means I have no excuse not to go in to school!

Once the temperature has dropped to a comfortable temperature, even if it’s still sticky, the other JETs and I have been exploring the area. We are surrounded by rice fields which give off a warm, sweet smell and remind me of South-east Asia. The sun goes down incredibly quickly here so there hasn’t been much time to enjoy the scenery. On the way back from our adventures around we often come across huge spiders, frogs and once this red headed centipede which can cause a very nasty bite! At night we can hear the chirping of what seems like hundreds of frogs having a pow-wow in the rice fields! Luckily I’m on the top floor so my apartment is free from unwanted visitors!

Takefu Junior High School

Being part of the school has been the most fascinating aspect of Japan so far, mainly because it is so different from British schools. For example the second time I went in to school I met the kyochosensei  (principle) and kyotosensei (vice-principle). It was here I realised that unlike in the UK when teachers escape for a month’s vacation, school doesn’t stop throughout the hot August vacation. Teachers are expected to continue preparing lessons and most importantly keep school clubs going. Each teacher is either coach or sub-coach for a school club, such as tennis, table tennis, volleyball, baseball, brass band or basketball. This means practising most days and even coming in on Saturdays to run sports practice! Junior high school students all have to participate in one club and it is very important to them. There are inter-prefecture school competitions and teams practice for months leading up to one. Whilst I was making a display board I watched in awe as the girls tennis squad did five laps around the school premises in army-like fashion shouting ‘Takefu! Hai, hai hai!’. And this was before the two hour practice in 30’C heat! Niamh, reported on how a girl had described coming second-place in a brass band contest as ‘motifying’!  These students train to win and anything less is a disappointment.

It is not just the school clubs which surprised me but how the students take responsibility and pride in their school. It is like their school is their second home and their teachers their second parents. On Thursday I got a taste of this when all the students and teachers came back for a half-day of school. The day started with ‘cleaning time’ where six students are assigned to clean a classroom. I introduced myself to the students in the English classroom and unsuccessfully tried to make conversation with them. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) told me that the school motto was ‘Cleaning Quietly’! So for the next ten minutes the students took a white cloth and on their hands and knees wiped the floors, corridors and stairs cleaned of every speck of dust! All without a single word of complaint! It was verging on being spooky! Next, in a very ordered fashion the students made their way to have an assembly in the gigantic gymnasium. I had to introduce myself in front of the 500 students which I admit was nerve wracking but I think I did ok until, it came to the bowing. After I finished I bowed as a way to make it clear I wanted to get off the stage. Then, all of the students were told to stand up and they bowed back to me! This was a very humbling experience but I’m pretty sure I bowed at all the wrong times and got a few sniggers from the kids. To finish the assembly the students and teachers all heartily sang the school song whilst looking towards a large Japanese flag. A very different assembly from the ones I use to go to!

Most of my time at school has been spent in the staff room. All the forty-so members of staff have a desk of their own in a large staff room and every morning starts with a ten minute morning meeting. In one of these meetings I introduced myself in Japanese and then spent the morning making a seating plan so I could remember the teacher’s names and subjects. Most of the teachers spoke enough English for me to understand them but in future I will try to practice my Japanese on them. One saying I am yet to master is ‘Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu’ which means ‘Sorry for leaving before you’ and it is said when leaving for the day. In reply other teachers say ‘you must be very tired’, even if the teachers have worked a 12 hour day! I’m sure I’ll write more on the Japanese work ethic.

Mikuni fireworks 

Since arriving in Fukui I’ve been on two beach trips. Never in my life have I seen so many people on a beach! Each person marks their spot with a matt and that is there square meter for the day. Yesterday we went up the coast to Mikuni to watch their annual fireworks festival. We got their early enough to mark the ‘gaijin territory’ but I declined going in the murky looking water as people complained of a biting fish, jelly fish stings and then we saw a squid in the water! The day was full of surprises: I spotted a pod of dolphins, we got invited in to a Japanese woman’s house for watermelon and we got to see the Fukui-famous Tojimbo cliffs as well. The best part of the day was seeing lots of young couples dressed up in traditional Japanese dress buying festival food together. Girls with flowers in their hair, wearing yukata (summer kimonos) and geta (wooden flip flops). There was such a fantastic atmosphere as we watched the fireworks on the beach full of Japanese fireworks. Probably nothing on being at the Olympics but it was a good substitute!