Back! With a list

25Aug08

I’m finally back from my summer in Hokkaido. I managed to wangle (paid!) study leave from my office, who generally do things by the book but were sympathetic about my co-ALT and me not wanting to sit in the office all summer, and took a month off to study Japanese in Sapporo.

It turned out, as I half expected that it would, that living in a city where there were actual things to do meant I didn’t have much time for internetting. Sorry about that. In the spirit of easing myself gently back into writing (in English, anyway), here is a list, in no particular order, of some things I learnt in Sapporo.

  • Living in a big city is bad for my wallet. We rented bikes, so I was living twenty minutes from Zara, Loft and Tokyu Hands. I’m not a compulsive shopper by any means, but Tokyu Hands has a terrible effect on me. It’s something about the stationery floor, and the thought that perhaps, one day, I might be one of those people who handcrafts birthday cards. And the novelty Rubik’s Cubes.
  • Curfews are ridiculous. The language school arranged dorms, but my friends and I were all split up in different places. The dorm that I and two others were in had good food, free laundry, a sento (communal bathroom) – and a curfew from 11pm to 6:30am. We broke curfew once, on a birthday night out. An hour sitting on the dormitory steps waiting for the padlock on the front door (fire safety regulations, anyone?) to be opened ensured we never did it again. I’m too old for a curfew.
  • It is entirely possible to do karaoke completely sober. For two hours. In mid-afternoon. Five days a week.
  • There is no such thing as too much purikura.
  • The Sapporo Beer Festival – six or eight beer gardens in Odori Park, a thirteen-block-long stretch of clear land in the centre of Sapporo – is a fabulous way to spend a summer afternoon or several. The Suntory garden had five and ten litre kegs. The Kirin garden had six litre beer towers. So that would be the evening too, then.
  • The Kirin beer garden was the party garden. And a group of twenty-odd foreigners will always attract a lot of attention.
  • Drunken Japanese men are very generous with beer money.
  • Drunken Japanese twenty-somethings bring their toddlers to the beer garden. I cannot for one moment fathom how that could ever seem to be a good idea. One woman brought her three year old son over to have his picture taken with the crazy foreigners. I have never seen a more terrified child.
  • The lavender fields of Furano are surprisingly beautiful. Even when filled with tourists.
  • Hokkaido has the climate that I always wished London had. Snow-filled winters and warm (but not humid) summers.
  • Hokkaido in summer is not cool enough for the polar bears in Asahikawa Zoo. They looked miserable.
  • But at least the polar bears, being cute and white and fluffy (at least from a distance), got a large exhibit with attempts at climate-control. The lions and cheetahs had smaller cages. They looked grumpy. The rhino had a tiny concrete enclosure. It looked suicidal. Zoos in Japan can be horrible places.
  • My class in the language school was filled with Russians. I don’t have any Russian friends (not ones that haven’t lived in the UK or USA for most of their lives, anyway). So I learnt much more about life in Russia than about anything to do with Japan. Perhaps that will get its own post, at a later date.
  • Trying to put up rented tents with no instructions is an exercise in futility.
  • Camping, even in summer, gets cold at night. At least I remembered to bring socks. Some of my friends weren’t so well-prepared.
  • Rafting in almost-dry rivers is hard work.
  • If you eat soy biscuits and drink milk, your stomach feels full, and you can lose five kilos. One of our teachers explained that to us, apropos of nothing. I liked that teacher, she was friendly and she explained things well, but none of us were in the class to learn dieting tips. Yep, that’s probably getting its own post too.
  • I have a much higher tolerance for cigarette smoke than I suspected. But my experience – that most of my friends, both here and back in the UK, are non-smokers – is much rarer than I imagined. The non-smokers were definitely in the minority.
  • I have a lot more sympathy for teachers now that I’ve been teaching for a year. There were three other ALTs in my class. We were the only ones responsive or remotely enthusiastic in Monday morning classes – because we know how draining it is to teach classes that aren’t.
  • But, shamefully, it didn’t take much to reduce me to the maturity level of a GCSE student. One teacher in particular didn’t click with our class. We, collectively, decided she wasn’t a great teacher, and I think she picked up on that and got flustered. Forgetting how to write the kanji for her own surname was a particular low point.
  • The ferry from Otaru (near Sapporo) to Maizuru (north of Kyoto) costs fifteen thousand yen during the summer Obon holiday. Flights from Sapporo to Osaka in the same period cost forty thousand. However, after factoring in the bus fare from Maizuru to Osaka, a day shopping, a night out on the town, and an impromptu trip to Nara, in hindsight the flight would have been the cheaper option.
  • Twenty-hour ferry journeys fly by if you have a laptop, DVDs and access to a power socket. I found a little-used corridor with both a socket and a port-hole to provide a little natural light. Score.
  • It is possible to pack more into one day in a big city than I usually do in a week in my rural village.

Oh, and I also learned a little Japanese.

Back to prose on Wednesday, with a little luck.

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