Public Enemy #1: Japan’s Humidity

We’ve just had our first typhoon of the year. Nothing serious, but this entire week has been so bloody humid and wet. This is typical of Japan’s wet season (tsuyu 梅雨) and its the absolutely worst. After living here for four years, I’ve yet to get accustomed to the country’s summer climate. And I don’t think I ever will. From June to September, Japan experiences everything; increasing humidity, heatwaves, tropical storms, typhoons and migrating jellyfish. 

Yesterday was absolute nightmare. The trains were delayed by forty minutes, even though it wasn’t particularly raining hard.  I missed the school bus, which normally gives me a lift up the hill to the school. So I arrived as if I’d just climbed Mt.Fuji and trekked through the Amazon Rainforest ; a sweaty, wet mess. The teacher greeted me with “It’s a bit hot today, right?”, I sarcastically replied with “Ah, no. I’m fine, thanks”.

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My Spring Vacation

Spring vacation has unfortunately ended and it’s time to head back to work. This year’s holiday thankfully didn’t involve the stress of moving apartments or changing schools like last year’s. Instead it took the form of general laziness and “relaxation”, which ended far too quickly.

I headed up to Miyoshi on two separate occasions. Both to visit some of my good friends who had taught me at a “Japanese Evening Class” when I was living there. We’d arranged to go to the Wakunaga Garden in Akitakata on it’s opening day with the hopes of seeing the spring flora. Instead we got a couple of centimetres of snow and freezing temperatures. Typical luck for someone from England. We instead indulged in a Sunday Roast dinner at Cafe Mike and Shirley. The fragrances of lamb cooked with rosemary and pork with sage were glorious. So too were the Yorkshire Puddings and gravy. The lovely owners were celebrating their third year of business, so we got a free slice of cake.  I just wish that their cafe was closer to home, instead of the two hour train ride.

Meanwhile the annual “Cherry Blossom Festivals” across the prefecture were right at the start of April. But with the prolonged winter weather, the blossoms had failed to truly reach their peak. My Instagram feed was awash with pictures of locals sat under sparse branches, a rather depressing sight. And with a three-day spell of rain forecasted for this weekend, it could prove to be a rather disappointing viewing experience this year.

There was plenty of sitting in front of a screen though. I managed to played through the entirety of Horizon: Zero Dawn, a stellar action-adventure/ RPG with an interesting approach to the post-apocalypse genre. And I continued to gain useless experience from shooting WWI-era soldiers in Battlefield 1. Exciting stuff.  I also attempted to binge-watch Netflix’s Iron Fist, but its lack of genuinely interesting characters or really anything of particular note saw me throw in the towel after five episodes. And with Ghost in the Shell’s release here in Japan, I had a look at the two anime series that followed the original 1995 cult classic. Both were entertaining, but lacked the charm and atmosphere that made the original such a classic.

Finally, the last few days were devoted to spring cleaning. There’s always a sense of accomplishment when you sell or throw away a crapload of stuff that you never knew you had. Last year I was astonished at the amount of clutter I had collected over the course of two years. All in all, it was a pretty good spring.

Halloween in Japan

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Halloween has only recently become a cultural phenomenal in Japan. Masses of young adults have started to dress in costume and party the night away, to the confusion of many onlookers. On Saturday night in Hiroshima there were numerous “cosplay” competitions, culminating in a parade through Hondori shopping arcade. Meanwhile at school, I’ve been informing the students on Halloween as a part of “English culture” though no-one seems particularly interested, me included. Like the many people I’ve overheard discussing the meaning behind the festival, I can’t help but feel that it’s completely meaningless and just for corporations’ pockets.

My Halloween memories aren’t of real note. To be brutally honest, my family and I never really celebrated it. As a child, I never went trick or treating because I didn’t see the point. If I wanted sweets I would ask Mum, whose answer would always be “No!”. Anyway, we’d carve a pumpkin, give chocolates to the few children that came knocking on the door and maybe watch a “scary” film on TV. But we never went anywhere near the extent that some Brits and Americans go to. When I went to university we’d hit the bars and clubs in stupid outfits, but that was about it. The common image of Halloween was never of its historical/ religious origins, but of children, sweets, pumpkins and company profit margins.

Here in Japan, it’s suddenly become a recognised event that has prompted stores to put up Halloween decorations amongst the early Christmas ones. Company brands like Pocky, Kit Kat and Starbucks offer “limited edition” goods based on the festival, usually pumpkin related. However the concept of trick or treating has and will likely never catch on, unless it’s in predetermined and organised events. The thought of children knocking on strangers’ doors in a country known for its conservative values and sometimes disturbing attitude towards children, isn’t a reassuring one. Instead, young adults have started to indulge in the enjoyable side of Halloween.

I spoke with one of my teachers about it all. Last year, her family were invited to the Iwakuni US Marine Corps Air Station’s festivities. Her children liked it so much that she’s been drafted into organising a small-scale version for her street. She’s been emailing neighbours, sending letters and instructions to friends in order to coax them into participating. My mother would never do anything like that! When asking other teachers, they seemed to be under the impression that Halloween was just an opportunity for companies to make more money from selling costumes and goods.

Speaking of costumes, Don Quixote, a store in Japan that practically sells everything, is the go-to place to buy Halloween stuff. Walking through their temporary “Halloween Section”, you’ll find the usual fake blood, prop and decorations. But one thing you’ll notice is that most of it is aimed towards an adult audience. The usual outfits are there; Where’s Wally?, Mario and Cinderella. But then you entire racks dedicated to the raunchy, “sexy” versions of innocent Disney characters, nurses, dominatrixes and school girls. It’s all rather uncomfortable and very off-putting.

It’s clear that Japan’s youth uses Halloween as an opportunity to dress up in something fun, and party. But I still don’t get Halloween’s purpose. I understand the historical nature of it all, but it’s current cultural form is one that is bewildering and utterly pointless. If it’s to scare people, then the barrage of news story and stuff online that we watch is far more scarier than the £10 costume someone made. If it’s for the sole purpose of acquiring chocolate, isn’t that the point every holiday (Easter/ Christmas). I guess it’s more for the kids. It’s a time when children can pretend to be their favourite monster and roam the streets causing mischief without feeling out of place. Yet here in Japan, it’s just an excuse to dress like a zombie and drink too much. So for now, I’ll watch John Carpenter’s The Thing or Halloween, gorge on my girlfriend’s homemade pumpkin pie and lay on the couch. Happy Halloween? 

My Summer Holiday in Hindsight

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Hirakubo Lighthouse in Ishigaki

I’m currently sat in the teachers’ office, while the students practice for their sports festival in 30°C heat and 90% humidity. It’s still very much summer over here in Japan even with Daiso (100円 store) and various supermarkets displaying Halloween decorations and autumn colours. I begrudgingly came back to work last Thursday, tired but tanned. And as soon as I reached to open my shoe locker, I was bombarded with questions from my teachers asking me “How was your Summer?”

I wrote a blog post back in July complaining about my “Summer Holiday Blues” while stuffing my face with ice cream and watching crappy Michael Bay films, the epitome of happiness. “Oh the humanity!”. One and a half months of holiday, “Oh, the pain of it all!”. A true punishment from the powers above. But in hindsight, I actually did have a pretty eventful summer holiday in Japan despite my initial outcry;

-Bought a new camera.

-Climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji.

-Went to the beach twice.

-Travelled to Ishigaki in Okinawa.

-Canoed amongst the mangroves.

-Trekked up a waterfall.

And had plenty of ice cream

Of course, I was instructed to give a talk about my “Summer Vacation” to the students.  So I presented a selection of photos that I had taken during my trips with my superb narration. While many were in disbelief over my “professional” photography skills, the frequent phrase uttered was “いいね〜” (“how nice” or “lucky”). Consequently I asked the students, in English, “What did you do during your summer vacation?”. There were a couple of prominent answers; 1) Studying  2) Going to the Fireworks Festival and 3) Nothing.

Unlike many fortunate Brits back home, most Japanese families don’t travel to another country or fly to the beaches along the Costa Del Sol. My father was a solicitor and had the benefit of a large chunk of holiday time, so we would often go abroad during the summer. We flew everywhere from America to Norway, we were very fortunate enough to travel regularly. It’s clear that Japanese people can’t indulge in that luxury. It’s a case that the average office worker struggles to get consecutive days of time off, and is forced to persevere through the excruciating heat and banality. Not even teachers are given the comfort of a real summer holiday. Instead they continue to march to school, fill out paperwork and complete training. Obon is Japan’s real summer vacation during August in which families return to their ancestral relatives’ homes in order to pay their respects to the departed. But with only four or five days off, and living on the other side of the world to Europe or America, many only venture short distances. The lack of time-off is one of my fears of working in a real, Japanese environment.

In regards to homework, I can’t recall it being as brutally intense as it is over here in Japan. In fact at junior high school level, the students are expected to come for a week of lessons halfway through their vacation. Many students actually go to summer schools and cram schools further showcasing adolescent Japan’s stressful education period. I remember writing an essay or two, but nothing that induced the sheer hardship experienced by Japanese students.

So yeah, in the end I did have an enjoyable summer holiday. Sure my exercise regime fell through; hard to imagine when you travel to a region famous for it’s yakiniku barbecue and Blue Seal ice cream brand. And I failed to watch a fireworks display, a quintessential event in Japan during the  summer. But I can’t really complain after hearing the exciting tales of adventure from the students. I’m sure it won’t be long until the “Post-Summer Holiday Blues” will hit, along with the cold weather.

The Summer Holiday Blues

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With the Summer Holiday’s in full swing, I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated and restless. I’m only managing to sleep about 4/5 hours on a “good day”, but I don’t necessarily feel tired. I just feel unmotivated and rather glum. A month ago, you would have heard me saying “Why can’t the summer holidays start sooner?”. But now, dare I say it, I want to go back to work.

Back when I was a kid, the summer holidays were the best. Meeting up with friends, going on family vacations and not having a care about the encroaching school term. But now that I live on the opposite side of the world and have entered “adulthood”, the notion of “wasted time” is becoming more of an anxiety of mine. It may seem shallow for my young self to complain about the luxury of having a month holiday, but I’d guarantee that if you were in the same situation; in 35°C heat, without a car and with all you friends still working, you’d probably feel the same. Mind you, this Summer hasn’t entirely been boring. Back in mid-July, I successfully climbed Mt. Fuji with a couple of friends, and two weeks ago my girlfriend and I drove to Tsunoshima for a day trip. In the eyes of many people, that would seem like a pretty eventful holiday. But with this amount of time off, I feel that I should be doing more.

Currently, there’s a lot going on in my head. From the important; my finances and my future, to the laughably trivial; what to cook for dinner, these have become my “daily worries”. But understand this, I’m a guy that tends to fret and contemplate over everything. I rarely back my choices a hundred percent, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

“Well there’s no use just sitting there doing nothing”, and I wholeheartedly agree. I’m also not an individual who would comfortably spend an entire week stuck in his apartment. Back at university it was so simple; either go to the pub with my friends, go watch a film at the cinema or play video games. Yet here in Japan, it’s a bit more difficult to deal with. It’s not culture shock, it’s not that I miss a can of Heinz Baked Beans (which I do) and it’s certainly not that I miss what’s going on it Britain, except for my family.

I like to travel, see and do things either alone or with friends. Whether that be hiking in the mountains or visiting historical buildings, I like to do stuff. My mother suggested I get a part-time job, or maybe do some tutoring (which I did last year) but I’m hesitant to do so. I’ve recently tried to follow an indoor exercise regime to lose some weight and build some muscle. While it hasn’t proved to be successful in reducing the kilos, I certainly feel more fitter. I used to jog when I got frustrated, but with temperatures reaching the mid 30s in Japan, I’m afraid my brain would melt and pour from my ears. I’m currently sat in my apartment at a temperature of 26°C, while outside its about 34°C. As a Brit, anything above 20°C is deemed too hot, and necessitates t-shirts to be removed in public, not the case in Japan though.

Photography has provided an outlet, and so too has this blog. Like I said in my previous blog post, taking pictures has been genuinely satisfying, and writing about my thoughts and getting them out there has provided something of a mental workout. My girlfriend has been a saving grace, but with her own turmoils and pressures to deal with, I feel guilty when complaining about my insignificant issues. It’s not all doom and gloom though. I’m going on holiday with her in late August, which seems miles away. We’re off to Ishigaki, Okinawa which will be pretty awesome. Let’s just hope that the weather will stay like it has been.

So is this just seasonal depression? Or the heat? Or is it just a symptom of being a miserable Brit? Well who knows, but I hope the rest of my summer vacation, and yours, will be relaxing and eventful.

How do you guys deal with this sort of lull?

My Hobby: Photography

Photography has become an hobby of mine since I arrived in Japan two and a half years ago. I’m still an amateur who has only a basic understanding of aperture and ISO, and I’ve never really touched Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. The constant improvement in smartphone technology has resulted in a society that now has the ability to take good quality photos and video of anything, anywhere. While I still take my trusty iPhone 5c all over, I’ve also decided to carry my mirrorless camera with me at all times.

Before I came to Japan I purchased a Nikon 1 J2, my first real camera. Previously I’d been using my parents’ compact Panasonic to take pictures during our family holidays and day excursions. If I’m being brutally honest, my mother was the main “photographer” of the household while everyone else were the “models”. Yet after purchasing my own, I now understand the attraction and fascination with photography. There’s an overwhelming sense of enjoyment to taking photos of landscapes, events and people. While it’s an obvious medium to record memories throughout our lives, it also a challenge or puzzle to capture both the subject/s, and the emotion or atmosphere felt during the situation. And sometimes, it’s the details you didn’t realise you had recorded that are genuinely fulfilling.

There’s also a satisfaction to showing others your pictures, not simply friends and family but other enthusiasts. I had originally started a Tumblr blog that largely consisted of photographs I’d taken during my two years in Miyoshi, Japan (before I move to my current location). I still regularly update it, but I’ve recently started uploading my photos to 500px, which offers much more of a community feel amongst photographers. It’s been gratifying to read comments and advice from actual professionals about my “work”, which has resulted in my greater interest in the hobby.

In regards to editing photos, I’ll leave that to said professionals. I use iPhoto (seriously) to organise, and occasionally crop, adjust brightness, saturation and add a “classy” filter. But you could call me a “purist” (or lazy), as the notion of altering an image to the point where it’s unrecognisable is something that I take issue with. It’s an untruth. Sure your photograph will look fantastic, but having imperfects removed, relocating the position of the Sun, and adding extra details isn’t part of the purity of looking through the viewfinder and hearing the shutter click. Let the photo speak for itself, not your ability with Photoshop, unless you’re that bad.

I’ve just upgraded my three-year-old Nikon to a Panasonic GX80 (or GX7 Mark II) after spending a month researching and contemplating. I think I’ve made the right decision, and with my new purchase I hope to continue taking photographs and enjoying this creative hobby. 

You can have a look at a selection of my photographs on this blog’s Photograph page

Or you can visit my 500px page here