First Post

My name is Mike, and this is my new blog chronicling my adventures on (well, if i get on) the JET programme! This is a cultural exchange programme where people from many countries travel to Japan to help teach languages there, many of those people keep blogs about their experiences, so why be any different?

Unusually I have decided to start my blog in May 2010… when i’m not even on the programme yet and can’t even begin the process of application for around four months! If I get on it I won’t actually leave for over a year either. But perhaps a chronicle of the application process will be helpful to somebody else who wants to apply in future (they can learn from my mistakes!).

I have also been to Japan on holiday before and plan to go again. This blog is going to be picture-heavy! So at least you can see some nice mountains, shrines, neon-filled streets &c &c.

Why Japan? Well, honestly, no reason. I had also in the past planned on applying for BUNAC, which is a programme where people from Britain (originally, but now from many other countries) help out in American summer camps.  However after going to Japan I fell in love with the out and out “otherness” of the country. And of course having to learn a new language, one that the FBI put in a class of it’s own for learning difficulty, just adds to the challenge (and potential for funny anecdotes – in the USA the best I could do would be say Pavement and mean Sidewalk).

One thing I’m not is one of those Otaku nuts who thinks anything Japanese is instantly good. To be honest a lot of their cartoons bore me, apart from the excellent Porco Rosso and Steamboy. I do admire thier comics mind you – published on cheap paper, weekly, in black and white, the way comics should be! I also run a blog dedicated to old British comics: (warning: very old British comics… and nothing by Alan Overrated)

The “cultural exchange” part of JET also interests me. Billy Bunter and Sexton Blake have gone unknown in the land of the rising sun for too long!  (though I do have a 1910 issue of The Boys’ Friend with a letter from a Japanese reader).

And so, on to todays actual entry: on Saturday I did the first and most important part of JET application – got a form to apply for a passport! Won’t be getting far without that. My old one was got in 2000 for a trip to Disneyland in France, and then unused again until 2009 when I went to Japan. I’m going again in July but it expires in December, so I better be on the safe side.


But that’s boring… so here’s some highlights from my first visit. (Told you it would be picture heavy!)


A fountain in Ueno Park, Tokyo. In the background the national museum can just be seen.


The national museum, it has three main buildings – this “Japanese style” one, to the left a “British Empire” style one (built in 1904 when Japan was a close ally of Britain) and on the right a more modern one. The pond is surprisingly koi carp and turtle free!


Senso-Ji, a famous and “touristy” shrine in Tokyo. This is actually the mere entrance gate!! The shrine itself was being repaired (they are primarily wood so often need repair and may at times be totally rebuilt!) and was encased in a huge white cube. It was still enterable though. I beleive a “shrine” has a god inside, and a “temple” does not (or the other way around!). Both kinds may be either huge or tiny (families often have a small one in thier house).


The headquarters of Asahi beer company, which looks like a huge pint! This was taken from a boat which travels from the district of Asakusa up to Tokyo bay.


Tokyo tower and another large shrine/temple. Before I went I assumed that the really big ones were maybe only found in certain cities, and certianly only one to a city – like the great cathedrals of England such as Ely or Lincoln. However they are all over the place! Often in surprisingly spacious and tranquil grounds, even though just on the other side of the trees lie the city streets of one of the most overcrowded countries in the world.


Up the tower, the view is beautiful! On clear days Mount Fuji can be seen, but this was far from a clear day! Almost the whole time I was there it felt like you could drink the air. Still this did make for some amazing sunsets… almost as good as those in the fens!


The imposing bulk of the Tokyo-Edo museum. Look up “Brutalism” in a dictionary and you’ll see a picture of this, right under the picture of a badly-modified Volvo 240 parked outside a Canadian school, anyway. The inside is wonderful, though – lots of models of the old city including some full-size reproductions of houses, and a large model of the “original” “tokyo tower” which was built from bricks and which collapsed in an earthquake. When i went there was also a large Ukyo-e exhibition on underneath the museum which was very interesting.


Just across from the museum is the Sumo stadium! I didn’t take in that particular spectacle on this visit (except on the TV).


The “otaku paradise” that is Akihabara. A motley assortment of overcrowded shops rammed with anime and videogames, plus various electronic component retailers awash with the sort of stuff that you used to see in the back of Tandy in the 90’s – LED’s, circuit boards, processors etc etc. Well worth a visit just to say you’ve seen it, but if you’re claustrophobic avoid the shops!


Kawasaki Shrine – another large shrine located in the district of Kawasaki (surprise surprise). This one has very large grounds and various other buildings (the larger shrine and temple sites all do – tall pagodas, places for hanging small pieces of paper with prayers on, ‘walls’ of lanterns, statues and smaller shrines). This one isn’t nearly as touristey as Senso Ji, so I wasn’t constantly in the way of other people’s cameras!


 Oh and there was also a pond there with many turtles.


More neon overcrowding…


And another peaceful park… this one is not the grounds of a temple but you’d still be forgiven for thinking it was out in the countryside and not actually surrounded on all sides by car-filled streets. Weirdness: I saw an AVANTIME near here! Those are rare enough in Britain and France is only next door. In fact if i remember a 2005 issue of Practical Classics well enough they only sold about 600 of them in the world! (Though that may have been 600 in Britain). Why yes, such a weird car is already a ‘classic’!


That icon of Japan, the Bullet train! (whisper the fact the German ICE is faster). I rode on one from Tokyo to a town called Utsonomiya… which has some very Parisian looking grand fancy lamp posts near the station, however i didn’t see those that closely as i had to get a bus to go to Nikko national park.


The town of Nikko includes one of the oldest railway stations in Japan. While the interior does have some modern features like the automatic ticket machines, it has also preserved the original room layout and wooden benches. It’s a shame Britain’s stations can’t do the same! Almost all of them are Victorian but only the vaguest hints of the hefty wooden doors and fancy ironwork remain.


Going further into the national park, the bus started to go up a seemingly endless, ear-popping switchback with some breathtaking (mostly due to fear!) views. Unfortunately I was too slow with the camera most of the time, but this pictures pretty good. It was taken through the front window of the bus!


Kegon Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan and the subject of various ukyo-e paintings. How the artists clambered to a suitable viewing place without the modern platform, tunnel and lift is another matter!


After driving up the endless switchback for so long the bus pulled up in a decent-sized town! Just nestling up amongst the clouds matter-of-factly. Even more mind boggling was the presence of a gigantic lake at such a high altitude… with boat trips on it! There’s even pedalos! You can sail a pedal-powered boat at a higher altitude than those cadet planes which buzz around Cambridge will achieve!


Back down the switchback of fear. The trip down was even more scary than the trip up! The imperturbable tour guide kept up her commentary the whole way as the bus made seemingly impossible turns, only just missing battle-scarred barriers. (oh yeah, the roads were one-way which made it a bit less worrying!).


  Back at more sensible (and sunny) altitudes we visited a very famous temple called Toshogu. This is a temple which is actually very old and is not regularly rebuilt and painted (though some of the buildings were undergoing some restoration work while I visited). There are many buildings on the site with symbolic carvings. This is the gate into the main area, it’s called the “one hundred days gate” because you could look at it for a hundred days and still see new details you missed before!


Yet another narrow neon-filled street. Shortly after this pic was taken i had the best damned curry ever. Japanese Curry is supposed to be different from “Indian” curry (though what Britons know as “Indian” curry was invented in Britain) but… isn’t, to a great degree. Still I have to find the restaurant when I go again. I’ll know it when I see it, the whole front was made up of pictures of the food!

More recent edit: Erm, actually the “best damned curry ever” was not actually curry but Gyudon. Ahem.


The inevitable comedy English. Unfortunately the shop was about to close and the “bargain box” out the front didn’t have anything that was my size.


In Ueno park again, another temple, this is in the centre of a huge lake almost entirely filled with giant leafy plants. I felt sorry for the fish and turtles, trapped in thier small enclaves. The temple is on an ‘island’ which is reached by two large causeways… in fact the lake may even be two seperate lakes!


A funfair seen from a very tall building called the “Landmark tower” (I believe it’s the tallest building in Tokyo which is “solid”, the Tokyo Tower is taller but is mostly framework with two observation decks). The views were wonderful at night.


In the 1990’s Mini-mania again swept through Britain and also took hold in Japan… in Japan classic cars are virtually nonexistent due to the strict MOT, so it was a surprise to see a True Mini! Unlike Britain there are several “imitation” classic cars around, including a small car which seems a little like what I consider to be the real “New Mini”, the Perodua Kelisa, with mini-like additions including a ‘chrome’ grille and bumpers… with overriders! There’s also the Mitsouka View-T, which is essentially a Nissan Micra with the front and back made to look like a Jaguar Mk2. The old version of this car looked pretty awkward because of the square roofline of the Micra, but the current version is a lot better looking – and surprisingly common in Japan!


I went to a town on the east coast of Chiba, where there are two large Buddhist statues carved into the rocks on the cliffs above – as well as many small scattered statues. The best way to reach the paths that lead to these statues is by a very Where Eagles Dare – style cable car! The views are beautiful too. Unfortunatley it doesn’t run at sunset, but there is also a (long) path to walk down. I may go again and watch the sun set over the sea from the station at the top.


The first of the big statues, a large relief carved into the wall. It puts me in mind of the “Buddha to road safety” from Top Gear… which was also in eastern Chiba and required a climb up millions of steps. Same one? (if it is they lied about the road safety bit anyway XD).

Modern edit: Actually it is the same one, and yes they did lie about it being dedicated to road safety XD. Also I feel sorry for the two who had to run up the stairs, there’s like 10,000! No wonder they lost the race.


And now a pic from the Download festival as yet another giant rock god takes to the stage…

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