Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Every place, town, or area in Japan has something that it is famous for, be it a festival, unique food, or any other cultural odd or end. Gunma Prefecture is famous for it's Onsen, or hot springs. The backbone of the Japan Alps that thrusts through the far end of Gunma and the near end of Niigata prefecture are standard tectonic mountains, created by faulting and uplift. On the forefront of those peaks are a series of volcanoes that lend their heat to a ton of hot spring resorts.

One of those onsen towns that is close to Maebashi is Ikaho, perched high on the slopes of Mt. Haruna. Ikaho is a very pretty little town, with its stairs and winding roads dotted with stores, hotels and delicious noodle restaurants. The lifeblood of the town, the spring water and the tourists, share a steep route right through the center of town. The water cascades through old pipes and channels, some with a clear top allowing you to see the iron rich hot water as it flows to the various hotel and public baths.

At the top of the stairs lies a shrine that is a centerpiece of a big festival in September. Reportedly, the festival simply involves carrying large portable shrines up the 300 meters of steep steps, but having had enough trouble hauling my own bulk up those steps, I can't imagine helping carry anything larger than my camera up there!

Walking around the side of the town we passed this delightful little restaurant that sold boiled Oden, tea and onsen eggs, eggs cooked in the hot spring waters. It was a chilly day, and the tea and warm fire was just what the doctor ordered! Just past this spot is the actual spring, and a small outdoor public bath that I am just dying to take a dip in.

Having had so much fun just walking around Ikaho on a chill, cloudy evening I returned a week later when the weather was gloriously clear. We rode a gondola to a small mountaintop park that promised excellent views, and we weren't disappointed. To the north we could see the Nikko Mountains in neighboring Tochigi Prefecture, and to the west we could clearly see the Echigo Mountains of Niigata Prefecture, a view of which is below.

The views were wonderful to me, but it was far from my first fantastic mountain vista. My two compatriots were flatlanders (one from Florida), and these high snow capped peaks were a rare treat indeed for them.

This panorama looks back towards Maebashi, the bulk of which is off screen to the right. The large mountain in the right center is Akagi-san, while the Nikko Mountains, home to the great Nikko shrine that entombs Tokugawa Ieyasu, are seen in the distance behind Akagi.

For being such a close and easy drive, Ikaho is a lot of fun, and I imagine I'll spend another weekend or two up there, especially as I really want to try the actual onsen baths which is why the town is famous in the first place!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lessons End

When I lived in Japan in 2005 I worked for GEOS, an English School that specialized in evening classes for housewives, students, business people, and anyone who wanted to improve their conversational English. Last Wednesday, GEOS filed for bankruptcy protection with outstanding debts of ¥7.5 billion.

Of the 300 plus schools currently in operation, almost 100 will be closed, and the remaining will be taken over by another company, though the GEOS name will remain in use. One of the schools to be shuttered is Kanazawa, where I worked for almost two years.

GEOS was a company on the brink even in 2005. In the 20 months I was at Kanazawa School, we broke even one of those months, and made a profit 0 of those months, so even then the handwriting was on the wall. You can't operate a business at a loss for years upon years, it just doesn't work! Like any line grunts, my co-workers and I had plenty of ideas to improve the bottom line, but who knows if anything would have worked. The English teaching industry is in decline, and has been for the better part of a decade at least. People have learned that obtaining fluency is hard and that maintaining fluency is both time consuming and expensive. The industry hasn't been helped by the global downturn either, after all for the vast majority of students, English lessons are a hobby or something to get a bit ahead in school, not a day to day necessity.

I have mixed feelings about the bankruptcy and the final closing of Kanazawa School. On the one hand, GEOS was poorly run and extremely mercenary in its attitude towards its customers. I actually felt bad when I would succeed in selling some overpriced study aid to my students, and I must think that if an employee regrets a sale then something is deeply wrong with this picture! However, it must be said that GEOS gave me an opportunity like no other. Certainly my life today would be very different if they  hadn't hired me and shipped me off to Kanazawa. I may not have liked the company, or it's overbearing president Kusunoki, but I loved my students, and the experiences I had in Japan. Now, that opportunity to both learn and teach will be even rarer, and I can't help but think that Japan and the world will be poorer for that.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Commuter's Paradise

This is the view that greets me every time I leave my apartment. The other day the sky was clear and blue after a long 36 hours of rain, and the weather was such as to make the drive to work an absolute joy! People who know me know that I am not a 'car person' and don't often use the words driving, work and joy in the same sentence.  In fact, it has been over five years since I had to drive a car to work every day. I've biked to work, walked to work and taken trains to work, but I've always avoided commuting by car.

Now though, I have little choice in the matter. Indeed, my area is so spread out that I've probably been driving more miles per day recently then I have in years. However, a few things have conspired to make me more amenable to a vehicular lifestyle. Despite the occasional run in with the Jomo Electric Railway, the roads in my area are blissfully free of both traffic and stoplights. Indeed, since I'm driving from the (relatively) more urban to towards the rural, and traffic I do see is usually headed the other way.

Driving to work surrounded by such amazing views certainly helps put a smile on my face in the mornings. This is actually a road perpendicular to the one I usually travel on, but I had to pull off to get this shot, as it's rather uncommon to have this clear of a day. You can see the rugged massif of Mt. Haruna on the right, and the conical snow covered Mt. Asama on the left. Both are volcanic in origin, and while Haruna is currently dormant (though not extinct!) Asama is the most active volcano on Honshu. It isn't common to be able to see all the way to Asama, perched as it is on the boarder of Gunma and Nagano prefectures.

 This view is much more typical of my daily drive to work, facing due north towards the much closer Akagi-san. Mt. Akagi dominates the skyline of the whole area, and all four of my schools are nestled in the farming communities that dot the slopes. With the latest city mergers, Maebashi City limits actually extend all the way to the summit of Mt. Akagi, though of course the population peters out long before you get all the way to the top. So there you have it, the key to commuting glee. Throw together some sleeping volcanoes, rice paddies, the occasional cow and a distinct lack of traffic and what more could a latent petrol head desire?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Driving Akagi-San

The fine spring weather continued the next day, and Ryan and I decided to just drive around and explore the area around Ogo. We soon found ourselves on the road up Mt. Akagi (赤城山). Nestled into the slopes, right as the road really starts heading uphill, is Akagi Shrine. Nestled in the pines as it is, the shrine rather reminded me of the vast temple complex of Koya San, though on a far smaller scale.

The road we took to the top was quite a surprise, twisty, narrow, and steep, it reminded me more of a back country track than a proper summit bound road. Still, the mighty Hammond took to the hills like the champ that he is, powering through the curves and giving me a glimpse of WHY roads like that are so much fun to drive!

As we approached the summit caldera we passed out of spring and back into winter! There were few traces of new growth or flowers around Lake Ono, and snow could be seen in dark out of the way pockets. Still, the area was beautiful, and I eagerly anticipate warmer weather, and the promise of hiking trails that dot the area.

Coming down we stopped at a conveniently placed observation tower, but the clear weather was turning, and the view across this end of the Kanto Plain was curtailed. Though, with Akagi-san being in my backyard, I reckon I'll have plenty more opportunities to get the weather right.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Cherry Blossoms of Maebashi

At the height of the Cherry Blossoms last week, Maebashi was graced with perfect spring weather. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and the wind was warm. My new friend Ryan came down from Nagano to pay a visit to our fine city, and local ALT Anna also came down from the mountains for a day in the park.

Adjacent to the Prefectural Office is Maebashi Park, the ancient location of the local castle. What's left isn't very military looking at all, but it does make for a gorgeous city park.

A small river borders one side of the park, and gloriously white cherry blossoms lined both banks, dropping delicate flowers into the deep blue green waters whenever the wind picked up.

The 32 floor Prefectural Office looms over much of Maebashi, its by far the tallest and most modern building in town. Hanami (literally "flower viewing") isn't just about gazing at the beautiful and short lived cherry blossoms, it's also about good food, good friends and good alcohol.

The paths through Maebashi Park were lined with food stalls, selling all manner of amazing festival food. This stall had karage (fried chicken) on offer, and other stalls competed with okonomiyaki, yaki tori, sausages, cucumbers on a stick and more. I always like to say you can judge a country on it's street and festival food, and in that comparison Japan ranks pretty highly!

Of course, we weren't the only ones out and about in the city, much of the population of Maebashi was also enjoying the fine spring weather, excellent food, and crisp refreshing sake, chu-hi and beer. People even made the trek from nearby Takasaki, to make sure the park was filled with revelers!

As the afternoon waned, the day grew a bit more chill, and we decided that we had viewed enough flowers, and drunk enough sake, so we made for the center of town, and the local karaoke box. Later that night, on the way home, Ryan and I came across one of the rivers that cuts through the city had been decorated with lanterns for the season. It really made for a beautiful end to a very beautiful day.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Large Barbarian

As I mentioned before, on paper I live in Maebashi, but the real name of my community is Ogo aka 大胡. If you dissect the characters, it means large barbarian, which is one of the stranger Japanese town names I've come across. (Most are pretty standard, Kanazawa is Golden Marsh, Tokyo is simply Eastern Capital.) This image is a panorama, facing towards the slopes of Mt. Akagi and the town center of Ogo.

This picture was also taken from the second floor of my apartment building, and is facing towards central Maebashi. While we may be surrounded by mountains on three sides, honestly its rare that things are clear enough to really get a view of much beyond the looming mass of Mt. Akagi right by me. Despite the clouds this was one of those days that the other high peaks peeked out to say hello.

One of the fun things about being in Japan is that every town and area has its own unique manhole cover. This is Ogo's and of course a dominant design motif is the mountains. The private Jomo Electric Railway runs quite close to my apartment to Ogo station, which is a pretty major stop on the line. I can tell that because the stop actually has staff, like much of the surroundings the Jomo line has seen more productive days, and many of the stations are now sans staff.  In other transportation related news, I've now put over 500 kilometers on my little Kei Car, and am only working on my second tank of gas. Not bad at all, considering its been up a mountain or two already...

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Day's Work

Well, I finished my first full day of actual work today, and I must say that it felt good. The first day of school was last Wednesday, but I didn't teach as much of the day was spent on welcome ceremonies. My base school that I will be spending three days a week at is a Middle School, or in Japanese a chūgakkō 中学校.  In the Japanese school system elementary school covers six grades, middle school three grades and high school three grades. So I will primarily be teaching middle school first, second and third graders aka ichinensei 一年生, ninensei 二年生 and sannensei 三年生. 

The day started with a welcome ceremony for the second and third graders with a good number of speeches, including a short one from yours truly that had my legs quaking something fierce. I don't know why, I've never really had anxiety speaking before, but one minute of introduction to a hundred Japanese kids had me terrified! That assembly was followed by a far more lavish ceremony for the incoming first graders.

The auditorium was filled with teachers, students, parents, local community leaders and more, and the youngsters paraded down the center of the seating with almost military precision. There followed more speeches, introductions and a rousing rendition of the school song and the national anthem.

However, once the ceremonies were over, my job was done for the week! In all the hubub of getting the new school year started nobody needed any input from the assistant language teacher, so I was left to plan lessons for this week and study the name kanji of the teachers. Doing nothing while appearing to do something is actually very hard work, and yet is also excruciatingly boring.  By Friday I was well on the road around the bend, and only a fantastic weekend saved what little is left of my sanity.

Luckily, today was a much more productive and fun day. I used the lessons I planned last week in four classes, both sannensei classes and both ichinensei classes. Finally making it to the classroom was fantastic, the kids were a lot of fun, full of curiosity and enthusiasm, well except for the girl who slept through part of the class. Simply getting out of the teachers room and DOING something was more than enough to turn my frown upside down, and the whole day passed much more quickly than any day last week. I have four more classes tomorrow, followed by a mere two on Wednesday, though these will be the first actually taught from the textbook rather than introduction lessons drawn from my own life and imagination. Thursday and Friday will bring an entirely new adventure, as I see just what teaching elementary school is like!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

An afternoon's walk

Since I've had a bit of time before the start of classes, which start today, I've made the most of it and done quite a bit of local exploration. Late last week I made it a point to walk all over central Maebashi so I could learn more about the city I now live in.

The Cherry blossoms were just starting to peek out, and i got a few nice shots of their delicate beauty. There has been some talk among the local ALTs of a dedicated Hanami (Cherry Blossom Viewing) party this weekend, so we shall see if the weather holds up.

In addition to a few interesting bars, restaurants, shops, shrines and temples, I found this very beautiful little garden. I hadn't expected to find anything of the sort, so it was a very pleasant surprise. 

I wasn't the only one out wandering the parks on this pretty afternoon, there were a great many families out and about as well. Some of the kids waved at me, the strange foreigner with the large camera, but some were more focused on not falling in the pond!

Monday, April 05, 2010

Welcome to Maebashi 前橋市へようこそ

Classes start this coming Wednesday, so I've had over a week to get settled in my apartment and learn about my area. Maebashi is the capital of Gunma prefecture, and sits at the north-western edge of the Kanto Plain, the broad flat region that encompasses Tokyo and its many suburbs. We are at the gateway to the Japan Alps, and have high mountains on three sides. My Apartment itself sits on the slope of Mt. Akagi, a possibly dormant volcano that's last proven eruption was over 1,000 years ago. Nearby, on the border between Gunma and Nagano prefectures is Mt. Asama, which is still active, and is in fact the most active volcano on the island of Honshu, last erupting a little over a year ago. I kinda hope I get to see a nice big (but harmless) ash cloud, but that's the geology geek in me talking.

Maebashi has a listed population of over 320,000 but that number is a little bit deceptive. There is a tendency in Japan to merge towns and municipalities that are nearby in order to increase the list population. I live in Ōgo, which up until 2004 was its own town, population 17,000. However, Ogo and several other towns nearby were absorbed into Maebashi, and are all governed from the Maebashi City Hall, despite being ten kilometers out of the center of town.

The mergers are a symptom of decline, both of Maebashi and it's suburbs. I've often heard of Japan's rapidly graying population, and of the havoc wrought by the popping of the Japanese Economic Bubble in the early 1990's, but despite two years in the country I had never really seen much first hand evidence for either. After all, Nogoya city and Aichi prefecture was one of the least hit areas of the bubble collapse because of the large manufacturing base (Toyota being a big one). Kanazawa too is a major domestic tourist destination, and is home to several universities, leading to a surplus of younger people living there.

Maebashi has none of these, and is in fact losing the local economic race to the nearby city of Takasaki. Takasaki is now the largest city in Gunma population wise, and is growing economically due to its bullet train stop, and the ease of commuting between it and the rest of the greater Tokyo area. Walking around Ōgo, for every two operating concerns, there is at least one that has been abandoned, like the above Karaoke establishment. There is a distinct gap in the ages as well, between about 17 and 40 as the young people head off to university, and don't come back. While Ōgo is but a shadow of itself, I feel that similar is true of Maebashi, though the economic rot isn't as far gone. The central shopping area still exists, but there are many shopfronts that are permanently shuttered, and with the growth of suburban mega-malls I imagine that Maebashi's shopping district won't be revitalized any time soon.

This isn't to say I'm unhappy to be here. While Maebashi may not offer the culture of Kanazawa or the excitement of big city living like Nagoya, the gorgeous mountains and quaint fields make their own argument for Gunma Prefecture. While Takasaki may be more convenient to Tokyo, this marks the closest I've ever been to such a metropolis, which bodes well for the occasional weekend in the City. With the city being a bit off the tourist beaten path, any pretense of being able to get by in English is gone. In only a week the area has been good for my Japanese, and I can only imagine better things to come for my speaking and reading skills. Even the menu at the local Indian restaurant was entirely in Katakana, with not a roman character to be found!

While I had been afraid of driving in Japan, I find I actually treasure my little Nissan Kei Car. It makes living in such a small and far flung area much easier, and its quite liberating to be able to drive to the places I need to go, rather than depend on the dilapidated local private rail line, which only runs every 30 minutes. I never thought I'd be singing the praises of an automobile over Japanese public transit, but there you have it! I've been under pressure from the local ALT's I trained with to name my car, and so I have. I call it Hammond, after the diminutive but hilarious Richard "Hamster" Hammond of Top Gear.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Tokyo Anime Expo

I'll admit, I was anti-Anime for a very long time. I can't even say that I had a good reason for not liking an entire genre of art, I just didn't like it. Then Spirited Away won the first ever Academy Award for best Animated Film, and I decided to check it out.

The works of Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli blew me away. From Spirited Away to Kiki's Delivery Service to Castle in the Sky these were movies that were not only amazing animated films, but amazing films in every way.

From there I found other famous shows, and started a slow decent into semi-fandom. While I may not live and breathe Anime, the chance to check out an expo devoted to the subject, all in the heart of Tokyo? How could I pass that up?

The lines into the Tokyo Big Sight convention hall were pretty epic, but the Japanese efficiency at crowd control soon manifested, and Zach, Miku, Ryan and I made it in without too much trouble. The hall was filled with exhibitors, all showing off their latest shows. This was actually a bit of a problem for us, as usually shows are released in English well into their run, and anything too new we haven't heard of!

While I'll admit I was expecting a lot more cosplay and a dealers booth well stocked with Evangelion merchandise, I had a lot of fun popping about the Expo. I was surprised to find that some of the most fun I had was actually in the emerging artists areas, seeing not some well established character, but art fresh from a students pen unhindered by the backbreaking workload that can stifle the animators in Japan.