Why Japan? Just… Why?

13 Aug

I have found that on the whole, Japan is a great place to live with regards to customer service. Staff are usually very polite and attentive. However, there are times that are so frustrating, I want to pull my own hair out. In the last two weeks, I’ve been unfortunate enough to experience these moments several times, so here are my three favorites. I can laugh now, but at the time…

Immigration Office:

The Penguin and I needed to update our resident cards for our 4th year so sent off identical forms on the same day. She got her’s a few days before me and we were pleased to note that it was validated for three years. Then this is what happened when I went to get mine.

Immigration Officer – Here’s your new resident card.
Me – (on looking at the card) How come mine is only valid for 1 year?
Immigration Officer – ALT’s only get a 1 year visa.
Me – Well my girlfriend got a 3 year extension on hers.
Immigration Officer – That’s because 1 year visas are only for ALT’s.
Me – Yes, but she IS an ALT.
Immigration Officer – Well then, she got a 1 year extension.
Me – Well, I’ve seen her resident card and it’s valid for 3 years.
Immigration Officer – Yes, because the 1 year visa is only for ALT’s.
Immigration Officer – Well then, her visa is valid for 1 year.
Me – No, you’re not listening… Oh forget it!

Tokyo Restaurant:

We went for a meal at TGIF (as you do) and ordered a cheeseburger and a sliced beef taco thingy. When the food arrived we were given a cheeseburger and a blue cheese and hamburger taco.

Me – Excuse me, what’s this? (pointing at the Taco).
Waiter – That’s a sliced beef taco.
Me – I don’t think it is. It’s a blue cheese and hamburger taco.
Waiter – (comes and looks at it closely) No, it’s a sliced beef taco.
Me – No, it’s not. Look here, at the hamburger inside the taco that I’m pointing at? And the blue cheese here?
Waiter – Huum? Hold on a moment. (He then walked away and returned a few minutes later).
Waiter – No, it’s definitely a sliced beef taco.
Me – No, it’s not. Look at it (he does). Now look at the picture in the menu (he does). Do they look the same to you?
Waiter – Hold on a moment. (he takes the plate away and shows it to another waiter and then to the manager and they discuss it for a few moments. Then he comes back with the same plate.
Waiter – It looks different, but it is definitely the sliced beef taco.
Me – NO! IT’S NOT! Don’t tell me it is a sliced beef taco when I can see quite clearly that it is a blue cheese and hamburger taco.
Waiter – (exasperated and really flustered now) Hold on. (Then he takes it away again, and returns a moment later with a different plate, this one actually DOES have a sliced beef taco on it)
Waiter – This is a sliced beef taco. Sorry.
Me – Wow.

And we didn’t even get a discount!

Of course I saved the best one till last. This one made so mad I could have punched someone in the face.

Ticket office, Ueno station, Tokyo:

After a lovely 3 days in Tokyo we discovered that due to heavy rains, the Shinkansen to Akita had been cancelled. We then had a hell of a time getting our tickets exchanged for a train two days later because our original tickets were only valid until the Friday. They said we had to buy new tickets and only after a long time did they agree to validate our existing tickets for the Sunday.

On Sunday we discovered that the Shinkansen was still cancelled.

Me – We’re trying to go to Akita today.
Ticketing Officer 1 – I’m sorry, there are no trains to Akita today.
Me – so how can we get to Akita today then?
Ticketing Officer 1 – You can take the train to Niigata then change to a local train to Akita.
Me – Ok, well we’ll do that then. Here are our tickets.
Ticketing Officer 1 – Oh, sorry. You can’t use those because they are not valid. You must buy new tickets (then quotes a price more expensive than our original Shinkansen tickets).
Me – Well no, I’m not buying new tickets. I already bought tickets to Akita, I’m holding them in my hand.
Ticketing Officer 1 – Yes but that train is cancelled because of the rain.
Me – Yes, I understand that, but that doesn’t explain why I should have to pay for new tickets.
Ticketing Officer 1 – Because it is raining.
Me – Yes, I understand that it is raining. But why should I pay for 4 tickets?
Ticketing Officer 1 – Because your tickets are not valid.
Me – So take these tickets and give me some that ARE valid then.
Ticketing Officer 1 – No, that’s impossible.
Me – Well then you better get your manager because I’m not buying new tickets, but I am getting on that train.

She then takes us to another ticket officer and spends 5 minutes explaining to that person what the situation is.

Ticketing Officer 2 – You want to travel to Akita today?
Me – Yes, that’s what I explained to the other lady.
Ticketing Officer 2 – Yes, but there are no trains to Akita today because of the rain.
Me – Yes, there trains to Akita today, via Niigata.
Ticketing Officer 2 – Yes, but you need to buy a ticket for that train.
Me – I already bought a ticket so no, I don’t need to buy a new ticket to go to where I have already bought a ticket for.
Ticketing Officer 2 – No, your ticket is not valid, you need to buy a new ticket.
Me – Like I said, you need to exchange this ticket for a valid ticket. This is not my responsibility. You are the train operator. You’ve sold me a ticket from Ueno to Akita. You are obliged to honor that, or give me my money back.
Ticketing Officer 2 – Yes, but it’s because of the rain.
Me – So what? It’s never rained in Japan before? What do you do when it rains? Make everyone buy new tickets?
Ticketing Officer 2 – hold on.

She then gets a 3rd ticket officer and spends 5 minutes explaining the situation.

Ticketing Officer 3 – Sir, there is heavy rain today so the train to Akita was cancelled.
Me – Yes, I understand that. Now you need to give me a new ticket, or give me my money back so I can buy a new ticket.
Ticketing Officer 3 – But your ticket is not valid.
Me – (by this point I think I might actually suffer a brain hemorrhage) Ok, I want your name. I want all three of your names so I know who to mention when I make my complaint about all this.
Ticketing Officer 1 – Why do you need our names?
Me – Because this is completely ridiculous, and I want to know who it was I spoke to today.
Ticketing Officer 2 – We can’t give you our names.
Me – Yes, you can. And your going to.

The 2nd officer then goes to speak to what appears to be a senior officer and spends 5 minutes explaining the situation. Then she disappears into another room. She returns after a moment.

Ticketing Officer 2 – I don’t understand why you want our names.
Me – So that I know who you are later when I need to remember who I spoke to.

Now another officer appears from nowhere and starts to laugh.

Me – What is funny?
Ticketing Officer 4 – What?
Me – What is funny?
Ticketing Officer 4 – Funny?
Me – Yes, why are you laughing?
Ticketing Officer 4 – Laughing? What?
Me – What is funny to you that is making you laugh? (I’m practically shouting by this point)
Ticketing Officer 4 – Why are you angry? It’s just rain?
Me – Ok. You can write your name as well. Right now. All of you. (They wrote their names but they were very angry about doing it).
Me – Thank you. Now either give me my money or give me a new ticket.
Ticketing Officer 3 – We can’t give you a refund here, you have to go to the main ticket office.
Me – Right, you (pointing at Ticketing Officer 1) show me where it is.

We go to the main ticketing office and ticketing officer 1 spends another 5 minutes explaining the situation to yet another ticketing officer.

Ticketing Officer 5 – Ah, this ticket is not valid for today.
Me – Yes, so give me the money for it and I’ll buy a new ticket.
Ticketing Officer 5 – Ok, I’ll give you a refund. (Then she quotes a price ¥3000 less than what I payed for the ticket in the first place).
Me – No, that’s less than what I payed for that ticket.
Ticketing Officer 5 – Yes, because this ticket was only valid until Friday.
Me – I don’t care when it was valid until. I want a full refund since you are forcing me to buy yet another ticket.
Ticketing Officer 5 – Ok ok. Buy a new ticket first and then we’ll work out the refund.
Me – No! You give me a full refund and then I’ll buy a new ticket.
Ticketing Officer 2 – (after a quick word to Ticketing Officer 5) There is no time. The train is leaving now. You’ll have to just use your original ticket.
Me – Are you fucking serious!? After ALL that, your saying we have to just go using the tickets we already have?
Ticketing Officer 2 – There’s no time!

She leads us back to the ticket barrier that we first tried to enter and says something to the barrier operator who pushed a button and a small slip of paper pops out. She hands it to us and says show that at Akita, then ushers us through the barrier 45 minutes after we first spoke to her.

We made it onto the train as the doors where closing. When we arrived in Akita 6 hours later, I was dreading the situation that was likely to unfold. When we got to the ticket barrier, the ticket officer looked at our original (apparently invalid) tickets, said “is this all you have?” and then “It’s ok, have a nice day”. And that was it. God bless you Akita!

Now why the hell couldn’t the cretinous idiots at Ueno get their shit together? Well, the problem as I see it is three fold. Firstly, it seems that lower level workers in Japan are given zero authority over anything. They can’t even wipe their own noses without first asking a senior worker for permission.

Secondly, people here prefer to lie about a mistake rather than admit to the mistake. I guess it’s all to do with “saving face”. So taking the waiter as an example, it was preferable for him to lie about the taco (even though he and I both knew he was lying) than to admit that he had brought us the wrong order. I think in the UK, if such a thing had happened, you would probably get an apology from the manager and I would imagine a free drink or some such; some small courtesy. But here, you get a quick “sumimasen” from the waiter and then the whole thing is swept under the carpet.

And lastly, and most importantly, Japan’s bureaucracy relies on everybody doing the same thing at the same time in the same order. Workers learn how to follow the playbook, but not how to deal with flash problems. This means that when something out of the ordinary happens, they can’t think for themselves about how to deal with it. And even if they did come up with a solution, they couldn’t do anything about it anyway without first going through several layers of authority and internal bureaucracy.

When this sort of thing happens to me at the train station it’s annoying, but ultimately it’s not the end of the world. But take the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power station and we have a different situation entirely. The same stupid systems that prevented me from getting the right taco also prevented the crews struggling to contain the nuclear meltdown from doing just that. The result was the worst nuclear disaster in Japan’s history.

But, since this is not something that is going to change anytime soon, I guess I’ll just shut up.


Step it up Japan!

28 May

On Tuesday, a Japanese government panel on education made the recommendation that English language education should be a compulsory subject for all children at elementary school from the 3rd grade onwards.

Since 2011, elementary school children have received 1 hour a week of “foreign language activities” in their 5th and 6th grades (the last two years of elementary school). These activities involve songs and games using English, though I hear tell that some other languages do sneak in there from time to time. Although this is a step up from the previous curriculum, it’s still a long way off being adequate. Presently, the majority of elementary school teachers who are teaching the “foreign language activities” classes, speak next to no English whatsoever.

The government panel has finally recognized that this is too little, too late, and are trying to make moves to improve the situation. As well as making English an official subject from 3rd grade onwards, another recommendation is that schools should hire actual English language teachers.

Seems bloody obvious to me, but if you want children to learn English, you need people who can actually speak English to teach it. And yet, even at the junior high school level, I still encounter English teachers who cannot speak English. The result of course, is that English language ability amongst Japanese children is very very low. Well, not just children actually, Japanese society in general has a very low level of English ability.

That said though, I do see light at the end of the tunnel. April was the start of the new school year and with it came a new batch of 1st grade students. These are the students who first started “foreign language activities” in 2011 and you can see the difference. They arrived at JHS already able to count in English, write the alphabet, tell you their own name and age, sing the days of the week and the months of the year, prime colours and simple instructions like stand up and sit down. Compare that to some 16 year old 3rd grade students who still cannot answer the question “how old are you?”

It is with the new 1st grade that I am now teaching my own classes. In English. Without Japanese translations. What I am finding is that they might not understand everything I am saying, but they are able to work it out for themselves. I’ve not yet encountered a situation where they all sat dumbfounded, unable to proceed with the lesson from total confusion. They listen to what I say, they seem to actually think about it, and then they get on with it. At the end of the lesson when I check if they understood, they all have.

Yet dumbfounded is precisely the result I get when I try to replicate such lessons with the 2nd or 3rd grade. As soon as I begin to speak, you see them all just switch off and stare into space. When I’m done speaking, they look at the JTE and wait for the Japanese translation. They behave that way because they have been allowed to behave that way by an education system that provides no incentive or motivation for them. There are exams, but students don’t actually need to pass them. And the exam is purely written; no oral testing whatsoever. They simply move from one year to the next until they leave at age 16. There is no homework. There is no course work. There are no exchange programs. If they sleep in class, there is no system in place for remedial action.

In short, students who want to be lazy are allowed (actively encouraged) to be lazy. The result is 16 years olds unable to have even the most simple conversation in English (sometimes unable to say or even recognize their own name written in English). And that is a big problem for Japan. It’s 2013 and their ecconomy has been in a slump since the 90’s. Their population now contains more people over the age of 60 than there are people of working age. Their birth rate is so low, that their population is now shrinking. In todays global community, Japan has lost it’s competitiveness. One way to get it back is to increase it’s interactions with the rest of the world and since the rest of the world are all learning English, it’s about time Japan stepped up it’s game.

It is clear that the younger these kids start with English, the better chance they have of being able to actually speak it one day. They need to start young but then they need to keep at it. It would be shameful if the progress that I can see being made in the new 1st graders was erased by an antiquated education system that allows students to just give up and sleep their way through school.

Japan is still a long way off bringing English language education up to scratch, but with Tuesday’s announcement, maybe they are finally moving in the right direction. Only time will tell. Ganbatte Japan! 

Three years in and finally teaching!

27 May

Yikes! Over 7 months since my last blog update! Shameful.

Well, it’s almost summer again here and I’m starting to feel the inevitable rolling heat coming in. Soon I wont be able to step foot outside the apartment without drowning in my own perspiration. For now however, we are in the joyous time of “spring” which lasts about a week. The days are warm, if a little muggy, and the nights are cool enough to warrant the wearing of a sweater. It’s perfect, but sadly it won’t last.

So, a lot has been happening here since my last update. The Penguin and I took a trip to Okinawa for Christmas and New Years; I moved into a new apartment with said Penguin; my mother got sick prompting an unscheduled 6 week trip to England; a JET friend of ours left Japan early for good; and I started planning and teaching my own classes.

I’ll cover the trip to Okinawa in a separate entry, since I don’t want this turning into a thesis. As I mentioned above, The Penguin and I moved into a new apartment together in the new year and I can honestly say it was the most stressful experience I’ve had in Japan so far. (the moving I mean, not the living with the Penguin) Japan is, even at the best of times, a bureaucratic nightmare. When it comes to housing, JET’s usually live in apartments or houses that are rented by their BOE’s on their behalf. However, some ALTs choose to move out of these BOE apartments and into their own. As far as I’m aware, in my city at least, the only reason anyone has done this previously was in order to live with their Japanese spouse/partner.

All well and good. However, in our case, neither The Penguin or I are Japanese and this meant that an already long winded and complicated process was made infinitely worse. I won’t go into all the gory details now, but suffice to say that I was relieved (if a little shell shocked) when the process was complete.Now that we are in the new apartment and the PTSD has subsided, we love it. It’s newly renovated, close to the station and shops, close to our schools and close to restaurants. I only wish we’d moved sooner!

Just after moving in, I decided to take a short trip to England for a couple of weeks at the end of April. With the flights booked and paid up, I got word from England that my mother was very sick. Though the doctor didn’t expressly say that she was going to die, he did say, “If it were me, I’d come back from Japan right now.”

Virgin Atlantic, being the huge bastards that they are, refused to allow me to make any changes to the flights I’d already bought, so I ended up having to buy a new flight to London. So, off I went to spend a few weeks sitting in the hospital and driving up and down the country. But the good news is that my mother made a quite miraculous recovery.

Virgin then very kindly cancelled my return flight to Japan, saying that since I’d flown in on a different flight to the original one they wouldn’t let me change, they automatically cancelled the return flight. Circumstances be damned, they made me buy yet another flight to get back to Japan. So, thank you very much Virgin Atlantic, may you file for bankruptcy any day now.

Just before I left for England, another UK JET here told me he was heading back home because his father had passed away. Then, while I was in the UK, a JET friend of mine received word that her father was also very sick and she decided to terminate her contract early and return home. She was gone by the time I came back to Japan so I was unable to see her off, which was sad.

But all of this has had quite an affect on my way of thinking about Japan and the JET Program. You could say that things have shifted into perspective a little. What I’ve realised, is that there are many things that I cannot change about life in Japan and about being an ALT. Although I may wish they would change, they aren’t going to. I’ve also realised that getting annoyed by these things only annoys me. It doesn’t affect the people or institutions that are annoying me in the slightest. So really, what is the point in getting annoyed at all? Seems like I’m stating the obvious, but it’s taken almost 3 years to really understand that simple truth and to accept it. We can’t change other people, but we can change how we feel about other people. To quote my sister, “some people are just rubbish”. How true is that? Some people really are just completely rubbish. But hey, what can you do about that? Nothing. Except agree with yourself that you’re not going to let their rubbishiness (yes, that’s a real word) piss you off any more.

And honestly, it works. I’ve been back at school for a few weeks now and all the things that used to wind me up and piss me off… well they’re still here. But I don’t get pissed off anymore. For example, last week all the teachers in the staff room disappeared, vanished into thin air if you will. I had no idea where they were or for what purpose until a few days later when I got an email from the BOE asking if we’d all enjoyed the welcoming ceremony for new students. Well, before I would have been really pissed by the fact that no one in my school thought to tell me what was happening, thus missing the ceremony. But now? Now I just thought, “Well, that wasn’t unexpected was it?” and went about my business.

And finally, my last piece of news is that I’m planning and teaching my own classes now. I decided to throw Japanese etiquette to the wind and be very western. I basically demanded that I stop being the moron who stands in the corner and start doing what I’ve felt I was supposed to be doing all along. Teaching English. So far, after 3 weeks, I’m really enjoying it, especially with the new 1st grade students.

The problem with the older students is that they are used to seeing me standing around in the classroom with nothing to do. So now, when I walk in and start teaching them, they freak out a little. Not so with the 1st graders, who have just accepted right away that I’m teaching them and they just go along with it. But all told, it is a much better situation at work now than it has been at any point in the last 3 years. Hard work and very tiring, but actually, remarkably, very rewarding.

So, we have about 2 months now until summer break. Between now and then we have the big 3 day sports meeting, ALT conference, cool biz and the start of the summer festival season. I will attempt to be a little better with my update from now on. If not, feel free to damn me to hell.


Summer is over… Winter is coming

9 Oct

The changing of the seasons in Akita is an interesting event. Summer here is hot and sticky and lasts for exactly 3.2 of your earth years. By around the middle of September, the inhabitants of Akita spend their days collecting stray cats, which will be used as live sacrifices to the climate Gods in the evening. After much praying and plenty of “imitation” cat fur handbags making their way into the shops, the climate Gods will come forth and provide salvation.

The precise cycle for the changing of the seasons is very exact, the only thing that varies is when it might happen. This time it happened on a Wednesday. On the Monday it was hot. Hot as balls. Hotter than any place in any country has any right to be. On the Tuesday, I found myself saying, “Oh wow, I think Autumn is finally here” when I made it to the letter box and back without fainting from dehydration. On the Wednesday it was cold. Cold as hell. Colder than an eskimo’s outhouse. So cold that people are out in the streets, screaming into the heavens for the climate Gods to show mercy and turn the heat back up just a notch. Unfortunately, the Gods are not listening, since they all just bought new iPad3’s and have been engaged in an intense ‘Draw Something HD’ competition.

By coincidence, the average climate God ‘Draw Something’ tournament lasts precisely as long as Autumn in Akita does, which is 7 days. At that time, they will recharge their iPads and make the change to winter while they’re at it. This shift is easy to miss if you’re dead or in a coma, but for the vertically mobile among us, one night you go to sleep and everything is normal. The next morning you wake up and find that you are buried under 40 tons of snow and can’t get out of the house for the next 3 weeks. The Gods, their hard work done, will now hibernate for the rest of winter, which, if my calculations are correct, lasts for roughly 3792 of your earth days.

And it’s not just the weather that’s changing. There have been a number of interesting developments in the lives of ALTs in our city. The first one is so unbelievably outrageous, I’m surprised the computer I’m typing on doesn’t explode with rage. If you are reading this sitting down, then please, remain seated. If you’re standing, then you’re either a weirdo who stands in front of their PC, or your on an iPad, in which case I hear there is an intense Draw Something tournement going on right now. Do not miss it!

So, to cut to the chase, our BOE (Board of Education) made an astounding revelation to the ALTs. According to “The Man”, whenever one of us leaves the JET Programme and vacates our apartment, said apartment must be professionally cleaned… At the ALTs expense.
Please let that sink in for a few moments.

In other words, we, the ALTs, must spend our hard earned money, even though we can barely afford to feed and clothe ourselves, on cleaning up OUR OWN MESS! Which of course means that the new ALT who will replace us will be forced to move into a professionally cleaned apartment, instead of the dirty, dusty, junk filled hobbles that we delightfully took up residence in. Well as you can imagine, the ALTs here were not pleased. Not pleased at all. Angry you might say in fact at the mere motion of providing a better first impression for new ALTs. After all, we’re not new ALTs so who cares about anyone else? I mean, can you believe the bold faced cheek of it all?

To be fair, not all the ALTs reacted that way. Not all of them are selfish, egotistical, narcissists, but I was frankly amazed at the ferocity with which some ALTs fought with the BOE about the decision. They did agree that new ALTs have a right to move into a clean apartment, but disagreed they they should be the people to pay for it. It seems they failed to make the connection that the mess in their apartments was their mess. Their main argument was that the cost of professional cleaning was prohibitively expensive. I worked out that for an ALT who lives here for three years, the cost of the cleaning is equal to 0.2% of their total earnings in that time. 0.2%! I didn’t think it was physically possible, but when I realised the sheer petty mindedness of those ALTs I felt even sicker than usual when looking at them.

The other big change is that from this week teachers cannot bring their own computers to school. This means desktop PCs, laptops, netbooks; even portable hard drives and data sticks are banned. This applies to ALL teachers, Japanese and ALTs. The precise reasons for this I wont go into, but the purpose is to reduce the risk of “sensitive” student information leaving the school and “potentially” going missing.

Now, the fact that as an ALT I’m never given any information about anything, ever, let alone “sensitive” student information, makes the inclusion of ALTs in the ban just absurd. I can only speak for myself, but I’d say about 99% of what I produce for my classes I made on my laptop. Only now they want me to use a “computer” that the BOE is going to dig out of storage for me. I say “computer” because I’m pretty sure all the one’s I’ve seen floating around the BOE and my school are the exact same one’s used in Mission Control for the Apollo 11 moon landing. God only knows what a state the thing they produce for me is going to be in.

Really though, what ever they find for me is going to be completely useless since it will have a Japanese operating system and I won’t be able to take it to class to show videos and presentations like I do with my laptop. But, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. For some reason, and I’m not going to ask, cell phones and tablets are still permitted to be brought to school. So, I now have a nice iPad 3, which is particularly nice since I only recently convinced myself that I shouldn’t buy one since I didn’t really need it. Well HA! Take that rationality! You can suck it in 2048×1536 HD!

Oh baby!

And now, if you’ll please excuse me, I have a game of Draw Something to get back to. Have a happy autumn!


…Part 2

22 Sep

…We also decided to take a day trip to a place called Otaru. It is known locally as ‘the Venice of Japan’ due to it’s decorative canal. Once used to transport goods from the factories lining the canal, it is now used to ferry tourists from shop-shop-restaurant-shop. As far as canals go, it’s actually quite pretty, but it’s along about 200m long. As with anything that claims to be an imitation of something great, you should not come to Otaru expecting Venice. What you can find in great abundance though is glassware shops and museums. I’m not actually sure if Otaru always had a history of glass-working, or if this was something that sprung up in the wake of the whole, “we’re the Venice of Japan” business. Either way, Venetian (possibly Taiwanese) glassware can be bought by the bucketload, if that’s what you’re into.

Otaru’s famous canal

Inside a Venetian glassware museum

All joking aside though, Otaru is a very nice place to visit and we found ourselves wishing we were spending at least one night there. We took a ‘ferry’ a shourt ride up the coast to visit the Otaru aquarium. We had low expectations, having never heard of the place until just moments earlier, but it turned out to be pretty amazing. It is huge and has tons of animals and fish in there. We still hadn’t seen everything when the ‘please bugger off now’ music began to play. So we waved goodbye to the dolphins and caught the bus back to town.

We had planned to find a nice little authentic restaurant for a crab dinner, but our western food cravings won out in the end. Since it’s my favourite fast food joint, and since we don’t have one in Akita, we ended up at Burger King! It was glorious. Guiltily full, we took the train back to Sapporo.

A tiny puffer!

Found Nimo!

For our last full day in Hokkaido, we decided that we needed to get some more culture into our systems. And by ‘culture’ I mean chocolate, and by ‘systems’ I mean tummies. In the morning, we took the bus to the Ishiya Chocolate Factory!

Even if you don’t like chocolate (what on earth is wrong with you!?) it’s a really fun place to visit. The whole place is like some kind of crazy old English, French renaissance, fairytale dream world. Predictably, the place if teaming with children, but don’t let that put you off!

Pretty stingers

Our first stop was a ‘tour’ of the factory; more of a self-guided wonder really. Other than all the history stuff and VAST amounts of chocolate memorabilia, it’s actually a working factory. You can watch the worker through these giant glass windows, which I’m sure they were all delighted about when Willy Wonka laid out his latest PR drive.

No chocolate factory tour would be complete without a car trunk-load of free samples… Which we didn’t get. We got one… Yes, ONE chocolate biscuit each. It was however, the yummiest chocolate biscuit ever made and I’m sure it was for the workers’ safety that only one was given per person to prevent riots.

Hungry and with the ‘tour’ finished, we headed over to the gift shop, inside a mock tudor building. In here, the Penguin tried her flippers at making some sugary bears. As you can see, they turned out pretty nice, until we ate them later that night. As we were leaving, an animatronic show was marking the hour with robotic animals, fairytale characters, music and bubbles! Ishiya Chocolate Factory is completely crazy, but it’s also a lot of fun. So, typically Japanese then.

Old English style chocolate factory

Oompa Loompas at work

Our last night in Hokkaido was the highlight for me. For the Penguin, it was a test of nerves and willpower. Now, anyone who’s been to Japan will know that they like their meat here. Though sadly, not all meat was created equal for most people and there is only one place to go when you want lamb: Hokkaido. Lamb, despite being the fattiest, smelliest, most unhealthy meat, is also my favourite. In Akita, you can’t buy it anywhere. The Penguin on the other hand, hates it. Now when I say hate, I mean she loathes it to the very pits of hell from whence it spawned. If she were marooned on a dessert island with no food but lamb, she would probably chop off her own feet and eat them. Once all her appendages were gone, she’d then happily starve to death before ever eating any lamb. I once ordered a lamb curry by mistake (a happy mistake I might add) at an Indian restaurant in Tokyo. When it arrived, she knew even before it was placed on the table. I avoided death on this occasion since it had been an accident, but I learned that day to never underestimate her hatred of lamb.

So, it was with this in mind that we headed over to the Sapporo Bier Garten for some yummy Genghis Khan, which means lamb. Lots of lamb. A metric shit-ton of lamb. So much lamb in fact, that you are advised to leave your good clothes at home and where you are given a plastic bag upon entrance, into which you place you bags and other valuable belongings and seal them up tight to protect them from the smell.

And so it starts…

WOW! Good job Penguin, these look yummy…

To me, walking into that huge, smoky, noisy lamb filled beer hall is one of those great moments that I’ll never forget. For the Penguin, it must have been like walking through the very gates of Oblivion. It’s probably a memory she’ll take with her to the grave, for all the wrong reasons.

Uuuuum… YUM.

Luckily, beside lamb and a small selection of non-lamb foodstuffs, they also sell vast amounts of Sapporo Classic. The waitress looked at us like we were insane when I tried to explain that the Penguin didn’t eat lamb, then disappeared and never returned. She left us in the hands of a young man who looked at me like I was mentally ill when I asked for my sake to be tsumaranai (boring) instead of tsumetai (cold). It’s terrible what several pints of beer will do to your ability to formulate words. But by God, the lamb was good!

Delicious juicy lamb!!

Genghis Khan really refers to the method of cooking as much as the meat. There is a gas burner on your table with a convex shaped iron griddle on top. First, you rub a chunk of lamb fat all over the griddle while it gets nice and smoky. Next, you spread a layer of onions, cabbage, peppers etc over the grill. On top of that you place your strips of lamb. I quickly finished all my strips and wanted more so orderup up three large lamb chops as well. For some reason, the Penguin seemed to have lost some of her appetite, so I finished off her meal as well.

With the food and the beer gone, the Penguin produced a small bottle of mouthwash from her handbag and instructed me to go to the washroom and use it if I expected to talk to her again that evening. She’s crafty! Once back at the hotel room it was ‘suggested’ that I visit the onsen to soak and sweat out the smell from my skin. Back in the room, plastic bags and car air-fresheners were provided for my clothes. She leaves nothing to chance that one. I presume that she ritualistically burned the clothes she was wearing, followed by a chemical skin peel. At least I know she loves me!

Good Beer/Good Times

The next day we did some shopping in the morning then took our night ferry back to Akita. This ride was much less comfortable than the way out however. To start with, the boat was completely packed, which meant finding two empty floor mets next to each other was impossible. The boat also rocked and swayed so much that doing anything other than sitting perfectly still threatened to induce vomiting. It was then, with concern that I asked Penguin, “Are you ok?” To which she turned to me, with the eye of someone without a soul, and said “Well, every time I look at you, I feel sick.” Bloody charming!

Had the people around us spoken English, they would probably have given us a wide berth, fearing the unfolding domestic on deck. Somehow, we made it back to Akita in one piece and vomit free!

I really enjoyed our trip to Hokkaido and Sapporo in particular, is a great city. It’s clean and roomy, but very convenient at the same time. I also found that people understood me better there than in Akita. Probably because Sapporo has a larger gaijin population than Akita, though saying that, we hardly saw other foreigners there. I would definitely visit again, and in fact plan to do just then next February for the Snow Festival. Bring on the snow, ice sculptures, beer and grilled lamb! I’m already ready for you!

Some friendly seagulls.