Sunday, 1 June 2008

What's been on at the movies: Part one in an irregular (and short) series

All work and no play would make for a very dull Belated Birthday Girl, and of course that was never going to happen, so amongst the onsen trips and other sightseeing, I've been a frequent visitor to a couple of Sapporo's multiplex cinemas (I feel slightly ashamed that I've not investigated any smaller, arthouse ones, but the multiplexes are very convenient, and there's generally been something on at one or other of them with enough interest for me). Besides, as long as I make sure that plenty of the films I go to see are Japanese, I can legitimately think of it as part of the study trip. So here's a round up with short reviews of the Japanese films I've seen so far (plus one non-Japanese, but I feel justified including it, as you'll see).

Ashita e no Yuigon - 明日への遺言 

The story of a war crimes trial of a World War II Japanese General who ordered the executions of some captured US airmen, I thought this might be a serious and interesting film. However, it turned out to be quite bad in many ways. The basis of the General's defence was that that the airmen were in fact executed for war crimes themselves (because indiscriminate aerial bombardment was against the laws of war). This might well be a historically accurate account of the defence, but made this a far less interesting film than one which had actually been addressing in a thoughtful way war crimes by Japanese from a Japanese perspective. But as well as the subject being less interesting than I had hoped for, there were many flaws in the script, acting and direction. The dialogue delivery (in English: about half the film was in English) of the American characters was laborious; the Japanese general was depicted as a man of integrity who won the admiration of all sides, taken so far as to strain credulity; and the use of sentimental music whenever the accuseds' family members were involved was particularly cheesy.

Kurosagi: the Movie - 映画クロサギ 

I believe Kurosagi started out as a manga, and then a TV series was made, and then this movie. As such, it was the first of the Japanese films I've seen here which was an adaptation/spin-off, but not the last, as you'll see below. Kurosagi is a con-man, who cons other con-men, out of some desire for revenge for the deaths of his family members due to an earlier con. Or something. The film was quite fun, and stylish, the acting decent, and I remember that I enjoyed it well enough. But it was sometimes difficult for me to follow (just down to the limits of my Japanese, I'm sure!), and I was a bit shaky about quite a lot of the details, and to be honest not much has stuck in the memory. Maybe one to revisit if a cheap Hong-Kong subtitled DVD ever comes along.

Mongol - モンゴル (international site here)

This is my slight cheat. Mongol is not a Japanese film, although the lead character is played by a Japanese actor. The dialogue is, in fact, in Mongolian (with tiny amounts of Chinese). But as I don't speak Mongolian, my experience of this film was through the Japanese subtitles, so I feel justified in including it here. Anyway. Mongol is the story of Ghengis Khan's early years, with Asano Tadanobu as Temudjin (as he was known before he became known as Genghis Khan). It is a very episodic movie, starting in Temudjin's childhood, and going on to show key events which made Temudjin into (or showed the ways he was becoming) the great Mongol warrior and leader we all know and love. The landscapes and scenery where it was shot (Khazakstan, China and Russia) are absolutely stunning, and there are some decent battles, although shot in the slightly cranked style which seems fashionable these days. Asano is fine as Tamudjin, but the film is stolen completely by Honglei Sun as Jamukha whenever he is on screen (he deservedly won Best Supporting Actor at the Asian Film Awards for his performance). The use of voiceover and sparing, measured dialogue, meant I could actually follow the subtitles pretty well. I felt the dialogue was occasionally somewhat didactic in telling us how "different" Tamudjin was to other Mongols, but it might come across differently if you can understand all the subtitles. Anyway, it is gorgeous to look at, and definitely worth seeing: this one does actually have a wide international release.

Sushi Prince Goes to New York - 銀幕版 スシ王子!ニューヨークへ行く

Another spin-off, of the TV series “Sushi Prince” スシ王子. The story of how the Sushi Prince, erm, goes to New York, and there saves sushi from evil corrupting forces, in spite of a morbid fear of fish eyes, this looked fun from the trailer. Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment, being nowhere near as funny as I'd hoped. I know that comedy is one of the most difficult things to get in a language you are not fluent in, but there was quite a bit of dialogue in English, and that was all painfully unfunny, too, so I don't think it's just me not getting it. And as you'll see from the next film, I don't always have that trouble. Also, it looked from the trailer that it would be a good mix of comedy and action, but as well as the comedy not being funny, it was very light on the action, and what there was, was also pretty poor. So sadly, this one failed to meet my expectations.

Shaolin Girl - 少林少女 

In complete contrast to Sushi Prince, Shaolin Girl was very good fun indeed, and easily lived up to its trailer. Exec produced by Stephen Chow, and with a couple of Stephen Chow/Wong Jing regulars in the supporting cast, this is a kind-of official Japanese member of the Shaolin Soccer family. And directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro, who has made several other films which I own on DVD and have enjoyed (Space Travelers, Bayside Shakedown I & II, Udon). Not as much silliness as I remember from Shaolin Soccer et al, although some of what silliness there was was provided by the Stephen Chow/Wong Jing alums, but very funny, and with seriously good action sequences. It was kind-of "Shaolin Lacrosse" with evil men in suits, with a Kill Bill-meets-Game of Death-inspired finale. Although I could make some specific criticisms, I won't as they'd be Spoilerific (I certainly hope there's a subtitled DVD, if not an international release, so I hope people reading this outside Japan will have a chance to see it for themselves), but also because they are minor gripes in something as fun as this was. Mongol may have been an objectively better film, but this was certainly the one I'd enjoyed most (although there have since been a couple almost able to rival it).

Partners: the Movie - 相棒ー劇場版

Another spin-off from a TV series (Aibou ("Partners") - 相棒). This was a well enough made and entertaining cop action thriller, but the Japanese was a lot harder to understand than most of the other films I've seen, and so I missed a lot of the details, and in this sort of film, the details matter. The basic story was about someone systematically killing people of a death list which they put on a web site, and involved a lot of cat and mouse police work, and a fair bit of running around the streets of Tokyo (and not just by the runners in the road race which was being targeted). And chess. Anyway, it looks like I may get the chance to see what I missed, if I decide I want to.

The Last Princess - 隠し砦の三悪人 

The first remake of the films I've seen (but not the last – are you seeing a pattern here...?). This is a remake of Kurosawa's classic The Hidden Fortress: the Japanese title of both films is the same, but they have chosen to highlight different aspects in the international titles. It was very good fun. Although there was a lot of Japanese I couldn't understand, there was more than enough that I could to make it worthwhile, and also the overall story was easy enough to follow. If you've seen Hidden Fortress (or, for that matter, Star Wars) you'll be familiar with the basics, where a princess and general cross the empire with the help of a couple of yokels. There was plenty of humour and excitement, and plenty of decent action in it, too. I must go back some time to see Hidden Fortress again, to work out how much came directly from that, and how much came by way of Star Wars: definitely more than a touch of Darth Vader about the main baddie in this version! If they have chosen to borrow back from Star Wars, too, personally I think that's quite neat. Also nice to note that they kept in fancy scene transitions as an homage to both. Japanese cinema releases often have a nice shiny picture pamphlet for the film on sale, and I enjoyed this one enough to buy the pamphlet, and picked up the one for Shaolin Girl while I was at it.

After School - アフタースクール 

Kenji Uchida's After School was another very good film, although I had completely misunderstood the sort of film it was from the trailer - and it was all the better for it. I'd somehow decided it was some sort of TV spin-off about old school friends and relationships, but not only was it one of the very few completely original screenplays I've seen so far – Uchida's first since he won a writer's award in 2005 at Cannes with his previous film, Unmei ja nai Hito ("A Stranger of Mine") - the story was nothing like I'd imagined, involving (amongst other things) detectives, yakuza, and corruption. A private detective is hired to try to find missing businessman Kimura (whose heavily pregnant wife gives birth the day he goes missing) and ends up hooking up with a schoolteacher friend of Kimura's to try to find him. The search soon leads to the discovery of yakuza connections - and the detective has yakuza problems of his own... I know there are plenty of details I missed, but it's a very clever – and often very funny - film, and I caught enough of the dialogue to get what was going on and enjoy it a great deal. I have no idea if there is any possibility of an international release, or even a subtitled DVD, but if the chance comes to see this, I would certainly recommend it. And I think you'll enjoy it more if you don't find out too much more about it in advance, either.

Yama no Anata – Tokuichi no Koi 山のあなた 徳市の恋 

Another remake, this time of an even older film than Hidden Fortress. Yama no Anata is a remake of the 1938 film Anma to Onna (“The Masseurs and a Woman”). The story of some blind masseurs, and in particular one named Toku (aside: I have just realised that all the masseurs in the film had the “surname” of Ichi: just like a more famous cinematic blind masseur I can think of), who spend half the year at a hot spring resort by the sea, and half at a mountain one. The film takes place one year at the mountain resort, when a woman from Tokyo comes to stay, and shows the effect she was on those around her, especially Toku. Nicely shot and good use of sound design, gentle and very old-fashioned: I suspect it is a very straight remake, so much that you wonder why they bothered, to some extent (although I've not seen the original, but this felt like it could have been made 70 years ago). One interesting fact I'd missed, but which Spank the Monkey pointed out to me. This is not the first film by this director which I've seen: in 1998, Ishii Katsuhito wrote and directed his first film, the rather fun manga adaptation Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna (“Shark Skin Man, Peach Hip Girl”), starring Asano Tadanobu. Well, to call this a change of pace would be an understatement (although he's done a few other things in the intervening years, so I can't say whether either is typical of his work or not, or whether he's just a very varied director). Anyway, call me shallow, but that was more my sort of thing.

So, from what I've been seeing, it would seem that the current state of Japanese cinema is mostly spin-offs and remakes (although this might be an unfair assessment: I've only been seeing a subset of what's been on release, after all), but some of those have been pretty darned good, so I don't want that to sound dismissive. I have at least three other films already or soon to be on release which I intend to watch before I'm done (none of which I believe are remakes or spin-offs, although one is an adaptation), so keep watching the blog for probably one more filmy update, if you're interested. And if anyone wishes to comment on any of these, or other current or recent Japanese releases, feel free (though please: absolutely no Spoilers!).

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Places to eat in Sapporo: Part one in an irregular series

As mentioned before, the dormitory provides breakfast and dinner six days a week (excluding holidays). I've also mentioned that I have been known to pick up lunch at a convenience store. But of course, I've also eaten at other places, too, and some of them are definitely worth mentioning. I hope to put more up about other places I have yet to eat at later on, but there are a few I've been to over the past weeks which I'd want to recommend. I'm going to start here with ones in the Maruyama Koen area, as that is where both the school and the dormitory are, and so is where I need to find my weekday lunches (and the occasional evening meal).

The web links given range from mentions on restaurant directory websites to other people's blog entries to official websites of the restaurants themselves, and the detail in them varies accordingly.

First, starting with lunch options.

The next block down from Exit 5 of Maruyama Koen subway station is a terrific “Omusubi parlour” called Nigi Maru. I have eaten the soba lunches there a few times, and they are delicious, and cheap, too (starting at 500 yen for a basic wake soba, and with a set lunch option around 700 yen). The soba are made with sesame seeds (“goma soba”) which makes them especially tasty. They do udon too, but I haven't tried them (personal taste only: if offered the choice between soba and udon, I'll almost always go for soba). The only thing I have found slightly disconcerting is that every time I've eaten there, they seem to be playing multiple versions of “Amazing Grace” in the background. But more recently, I've been buying the omusubi to take away and eat at school. Omusubi are rice balls. What the difference is between omusubi and onigiri (if any) I have no idea (if anyone knows the answer, feel free to comment below). Whatever the case, the ones from this shop are excellent. The rice is freshly made, so the omusubi are still warm. And the fillings are delicious: I'd highly recommend the crab mayo. Starting at only 170 yen each for the regular size, a couple of these makes a cheap and tasty lunch. Open daily from 10:00 to 17:00.

Further from the station, and fairly near to the school, is Sato coffee. This is a slightly pricey option for what you get, and only for a snacky lunch, but the coffee and the toast are excellent. They do cakes, too, but I always have the regular coffee and cheese on toast for 900 yen. Unlike most of the toast I've eaten in Japan, Sato's is made with particularly good bread: slightly darker and heavier, and with an excellent flavour and texture. The cheese is also decent, and the black pepper ground over the top finishes it off nicely. The coffee is good, too, and the owner (Sato, I presume) is happy to chat if the shop isn't busy. The atmosphere is very pleasant, too, with cool Jazzy music in the background. A cup of coffee is 500 yen, which is a little expensive, but it is good coffee, and it's worth splashing out for a nice cup of coffee in nice surroundings once in a while. Open 11:00-21:00 closed Tuesdays

On the way from the station to the school is a friendly Spanish place called El Cid. The woman who runs front of house has a Spanish father and a Japanese mother. I think the mother does the cooking (or at least some of it). The lunchtime options are mostly spaghetti (which I tend to think of almost as Japanese cooking, given its ubiquity), but in the evenings Tapas and paella are served, too (although the paellas are for a minimum of two people). On my first visit, I had tuna and aubergine spaghetti, which was very nicely seasoned. Lunch from 12:00 to 15:00, dinner from 17:30 to 22:30, closed Tuesdays.

A couple of other excellent options are a little further away again. The first is a rather lovely modern Japanese place called Toh-Toh. It serves terrific set lunches, with a weekly special at only 945 yen. It is the kind of restaurant which has a “concept”, being healthy, original Japanese cuisine. But don't let that put you off. The restaurant design is cool and modern, but with a traditional heart. And so is the food. On my first visit, the weekly special was a prawn burger (as pictured at the top of this page). The name wouldn't sound anything much, but the meal itself was wonderful, with the tasty “burger” accompanied by excellent rice, salad and miso soup: I have a theory that you can tell how good a Japanese restaurant is by the quality of its miso soup, and by that theory, this would be a very good restaurant indeed. I have yet to try this one in the evening, but it could well be worth a visit (although the prices will inevitably be higher). Open for lunch 11:30-14:00, for dinner 17:30-24:00, closed Thursdays.

Last of the lunch options for now, a rather excellent curry restaurant named Mirch. This falls somewhere between being an Indian curry restaurant and a Japanese one. You can choose how hot you want your curry (a feature which seems to be common in Sapporo – home of the “soup curry”, which you may hear more about on a later occasion), and the flavourings are richer and closer to Indian curry than is normal in Japan. Also, you can choose to eat naan bread, rather than rice, with your meal, but if you do have rice, it is definitely Japanese rice, not Indian (I don't believe I've ever come across Basmati in Japan!). On my first visit, I had the special of scallop and mushroom curry, and it was very good indeed. The scallops were plump and tasty, and the curry itself (which I has at a heat setting of 5 out of 7) was delicious. Open 11:30-22:00, closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

A few places I've had evening meals in around the Maruyama Koen are also deserve particular mention.

The first is a spaghetti restaurant called Don Pasta (by the way, while trying to find web references for Don Pasta, I hit this blog which looks like it covers – in Japanese – a lot of Maruyama eateries). This is a friendly little place, which seems to be run by a family, with the husband cooking the sauces, and everyone else chipping in with cooking the spaghetti, preparing the ingredients, serving and washing up and the like (of course, they might not be related at all, but it certainly felt like they were a family). Downstairs, where I ate, is a counter only, and there are tables upstairs. The cooking is done directly in front of the counter, so personally I think that's more fun, particularly if you are dining alone. Anyway. The spaghetti is very good. On my first visit, I had a crab special, which was delicious, but other diners' meals also looked good. And the prices are perfectly reasonable for an evening meal, with pasta dishes start around the 1000 yen mark (the seafood ones I've had came in at 1380 yen). There is also a separate, cheaper, weekday lunch menu (plain spaghetti starting at 500 yen, or vegetables in tomato sauce, for example, at 815 yen). There is no menu on display from the street, but it is definitely worth going inside and getting some very tasty spaghetti (the espresso afterwards was excellent, too). Open 11:00-21:30, closed Mondays.

Next, another friendly little place, this time specialising in pizzas. Unlike all the other Maruyama restaurants mentioned here, I didn't actually just find piacere on my walks around the area: it was actually a recommendation from poroco's Sapporo 10-ku Gourmet Guide (さっぽろ10区グルメガイド) which I bought early on in my visit (and I think may be the only restaurant so far which I have visited from the guide!). The pizzas are freshly made, with a nice thin base, although the small size is, indeed, a little small. If you are in the mood for a pizza, this place is worth a look. Open 11:30-20:00 (22:00 Fridays and Saturdays), closed Mondays.

Finally for the Maruyama Koen area (at least, for now), a rather splendid and stylish Italian called Caäo ((face) – in Japanese). I'd walked past and peered into this place a few times before I finally went in, mainly to check it would have something I would want to eat. The specials are written on a blackboard visible from the street, but there is a regular menu, too, and in the end the spaghetti vongole I chose was from that menu. The food is delicious and beautifully presented, and the glass of wine I had to accompany it (French, probably chardonnay: I can't tell you any more, because I didn't see the bottle) was excellent too (they have a more extensive selection available by the bottle). I sat at the counter, but there are also tables. It's not the cheapest of options, but then again, not that expensive, really, particularly for an evening meal: mains start around the 1000 yen mark, and my spaghetti vongole and a glass of decent wine came to 1800 yen. Evenings only, from 6:00pm to 3:00am, and closed on Sundays.

That's all for now. I hope to post further comments about restaurants in other parts of Sapporo (and possibly other places in Hokkaido), but that should whet your appetite.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

How to help get your 5 a day in Japan

Much as I like Japanese cuisine (well, the parts of it which don't include meat), it has to be said that it is a bit light on vegetables, aside from bits of side salad which appear with many meals, particularly breakfast. And fruit is notoriously expensive in Japan, too. Back home, I get a couple of my 5 a day regularly from Innocent Smoothies – I make no apologies for giving them free publicity, because they are extremely yummy, as well as being good for you. Anyway, Innocent don't have a foothold in Japan, so, particularly bearing in mind I'm not a fan of salad at any time of day, but especially not at breakfast time, how was I to get more fruit and vegetables into my diet?

The answer was these juices from Kagome.

They are no Innocent, it has to be said, and some of the combinations are perhaps a little strange. But you have to give them credit for getting large numbers of different fruits and vegetables into the carton. And they are 100% fruit & veg, unlike many of the cartons in the supermarkets here. So I'm going to give them a bit of free publicity, too.

Here are the ones I have had, with lists of ingredients, and brief comments.

1. 5 fruits and 13 vegetables - “Purple

That's apple, black grapes, green grapes, blackcurrant, lemon, carrots, purple carrots, purple sweet potato, red cabbage, beetroot, broccoli, kale, spinach, asparagus, green pepper, red pepper, a green leafy vegetable which I haven't got a translation for but which might be a pak-choi, and pumpkin.

This one was very pleasant and got me started on the whole thing. Actually, before I'd tried this one, I did have one with just grape juice and blackcurrant. But once I'd had this one, and realised there were a bunch of these things out there, I started on my project to try as many as I could.

2. 10 vegetables and 9 fruits - “Red

Tomato, red pepper, beetroot, shiso, parsley, spinach, kale, watercress, asparagus, lettuce, apple, lemon, raspberry, cranberry, strawberry, pomegranate, acerola, grape, grapefruit.

(Although technically tomato is a fruit, of course, as I suppose red pepper would be. And whether shiso, parley and watercress are vegetables or herbs could be a matter of interpretation...)

There was a slight smell and after-taste of tomato, which made this a little strange at first, but otherwise this wasn't too bad. Not that I have a problem with tomato juice per se, but as the predominant taste was sweet and fruity, rather than savoury and vegetably, it was slightly jarring.

3. 18 vegetables and 5 fruits - “Yellow

Yellow carrot, carrot, pumpkin, yellow pepper, maize, onion, cabbage, aubergine, asparagus, celery, Chinese cabbage, daikon radish, kale, lettuce, watercress, spinach, parsley, beetroot, some kind of angelica which seems to be specific to Japan (known as Ashitaba in Japanese, and which Wikipedia gives as Angelica keiske), apple, mango, banana, lemon, passionfruit.

This was in fact very tasty. I was a little concerned in advance by the presence of onion in the list of ingredients, but there was no hint of that on either the nose or the palate. The nose was, in fact, dominated by mango, although there was certainly more to it than just the mango, and the taste was similarly complex, with the passionfruit lingering most.

4. 21 vegetables and 3 fruits - “Original

Carrots, spinach, asparagus, red pepper, the one I think might be a pak-choi, watercress, pumpkin, purple cabbage, broccoli, something called petit vert (another Japanese veg, cross between kale and cabbage), beetroot, red shiso, celery, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, kale, parsley, aubergine, onion, daikon radish, cabbage, apple, orange, lemon.

Certainly a citrus-y taste to this one, with something somehow reminiscent of sherbet to it. Apart from the general citus taste, no other fruit of vegetable predominates.

As far as I can tell, that's all the fruit and vegetable ones which Kagome make. There is an all vegetable one, but I'm not so keen on that as an idea, so I probably won't have that one. And there are cheap imitations, too. But unless anyone knows of any fruit and vegetable ones I've missed – and you can let me know by leaving a comment if you do – I think that's my lot. Personally, I'll probably be alternating between “yellow” and “purple”, given the chance.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

A public information announcement for Smokers

Just a short one. Something most people know about Japan is that there are vending machines for all sorts of things. Everywhere. From soft drinks to alcohol, flowers to rice, hot food to cigarettes, and some rather more infamous ones (which personally I've never seen). Of course, having vending machines for such things as alcohol and cigarettes does mean anyone can buy from them. Well, from today, 1st May, for cigarettes, that is no longer true here in Hokkaido. Because today an age verification system known as “Taspo” - essentially an identity card for use when buying cigarettes from vending machines - is introduced: I imagine the name “Taspo” comes from a contraction of the Japanese for tobacco and passport.

The system was initially trialled in parts of Kyushu, and has now been introduced in the rest of Kyushu, Shikoku, Western and Northern Honshu and Hokkaido. The plan is to roll it out to the whole of Japan by July. The “Taspo” card is a contactless “smart-card”, which can also optionally be loaded up with cash for use when buying cigarettes. To get a “Taspo” card, you have to register by producing relevant documentary evidence of identity: name, address, and date of birth (minimum smoking age in Japan is 20). Note that only documents issued in Japan are valid for this purpose. So foreign residents with valid residency or registration documentation will be able to get one, but, from my understanding, tourists and others on short-term visas who have not registered will not. So they'll presumably just have to go into the shop to buy their cigarettes from now on.

As a non-smoker, I'm not affected by this at all. But I thought it a very Japanese solution to the problem of under-age smoking, rather than just getting rid if the machines – there haven't been cigarette vending machines in the UK for a very long time (although this Japan Times article mentions that the same solution to the problem has also been introduced in Germany) - so I thought it worth mentioning here. Full details on the system, registration process, and how to use the cards, can be found here.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Spring in (and around) Sapporo

Spring is definitely starting properly, now. The sakura are starting to bloom already, considerably earlier than usual - the earliest for 23 years, or so I heard on the weather report - and other flowers are in bloom, too. I thought I'd take the opportunity to put up some of the photos I've been taking, and to point you in the direction of a few websites which give information on when and where the sakura are blooming. This is going to be a photo-heavy post, by the way.

Spring in Hokkaido comes later than in most of Japan, so if you are in, or going to, other parts of Japan, you'll have missed much of it, and certainly much of the sakura. But in Hokkaido, spring is now getting fully underway, and as mentioned, the sakura are blooming early. The recent warm weather has contributed, and it's about to cool down again, so that might help prolong them. But they'll probably be past in a couple of weeks or so, so I thought I should get a few things up now.

First, some recent pictures.

The first signs of spring in Sapporo: ha-zakura in central Sapporo, and another flowering tree in Odori Koen.

Sakura beginning to open, and some wild flowers, Jozankei onsen.

Magnolia on the route to school.

Sakura in bloom (and some in bud, just to show it's not all past just yet), outside the JLI and in Maruyama Koen.

As for general information about sakura, here are a few useful websites. The first couple are in English, and then the rest are in Japanese only.

The first website I would look at, which gives predictions for the progress of the sakura, is the Japan Meteorological Agency

As you might guess, there is a lot more on this site than just sakura (and depending on what time of year you are looking, you may not even see the sakura news: the 2008 page is here at time of writing). This is an excellent site for all sorts of weather and related information, including typhoon, earthquake and volcano warnings, as well as more normal weather forecasts and satellite images. But it doesn't go down to an very detailed level, in terms of location, and doesn't seem to be updated with actuals, to show how they fitted the predictions. have a summary of predicted or actual blooming dates (depending on whether the blooming had already happened or not at the time they were writing) in a selection of cities across Japan, with best viewing dates. There is a lot of useful information, including some historical dates for the blooming in the selected cities, if you follow through the links on the main page.

The remaining sites are in Japanese only, but have more detailed information.

Another site which has more detailed information, kept up to date, is the Yahoo Japan weather site. Although this is selective, for the places it does choose, it is very detailed, including dates when the sakura are expected to be at their best (見ごろ予想) in each location (although I believe this might be a typical date, rather than a specific one based on current observations), and an easy to understand pictorial representation of the current state of blooming.

Our friends at goo, who do us so proud for the Sumo, also have a sakura watch. Again, detailed information, including the expected best viewing dates: as the dates on this site actually quote the year, and are earlier than the Yahoo dates, this seems possibly more likely to be based on actual observations, although I can't be sure.

Obviously, in future years, these sites may move their pages around, but are probably good places to expect to find something. And if you are particularly interested in sakura, bear in mind that they are most fickle, and prone to disappear quickly if there is wind or rain, so keep a close eye on what's happening. You'll find plenty of information on other sites about good and famous sakura places, so I won't give a list here.

But the general thing is that spring in Japan, and certainly, from this year's experience, in Hokkaido, can be a wonderful time. I hope to enjoy the rest of it in the coming weeks, and to take in more sakura, other flowers, onsen, and other delights of spring which Hokkaido has to offer.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Dormitory Life

I thought it might be worth a brief post about life here in the Dormitory Maruyama, both to help with the decision of whether it's for you, and to let you know some things which might be worth knowing if you do come here. Some of these things may or may not apply to other dormitories: they each have their own facilities and rules, so I can only state with certainty what to expect at the Dormitory Maruyama, even though some of these things will certainly apply at other dorms.

Just to clear something up before I go any further, which was something I know friends of mine were confused by when I first told them I would be staying at a dormitory. A “dormitory” (in Japanese) is roughly what I would know as a “hall of residence”. It is not a “dormitory” in the English sense of communal sleeping quarters. We each have our own room (there are single and double rooms at this dormitory). It is single sex, and there is an 11pm curfew at mine.

There is a dining room (食堂) where breakfast and an evening meal are served Monday through Saturday, but not on Sundays or holidays. There are also basic kitchen facilities (gas hobs, microwave, toasters) and equipment in the dining hall, which students can use to prepare their own meals, on Sundays and holidays, or lunchtimes. By “basic equipment”, I mean a few pots and pans and cooking utensils. But be aware that there are no plates, chopsticks, knives, forks, spoons, etc. for students' use: you have to get your own. Still, if you go to a 100 yen shop, you can get all these pretty cheaply (105 yen each item, in fact: the extra 5 yen is sales tax!). Not a big deal, but the information I received didn't mention this (under “what to bring” it only listed “a pair of slippers or sandals, towels, soap, laundry soap, toilet paper etc.” and didn't mention cutlery or crockery – and in fact the dorm has slippers and does supply toilet paper in the toilets).

I previously mentioned the international telephone and internet access in the room, the latter which you have to apply for. You can also have a television in your room, (which gets a few basic channels: no BS2 or Space Shower TV here!). There is also extra charge for bedding. All of this information, and costs and the like, is included in what I was sent by the school. I won't repeat everything here which is easily ascertained from the school or from the dormitory website itself. You can choose between dormitories with and without private bathrooms. As a fan of the Japanese bath, I didn't feel the need for my own, inferior, bath, so I was happy to go for one without. The shared bath here at the Dormitory Maruyama is very nice indeed. For those less keen on the Japanese shared bath experience, there are showers, which you can use at any time. But really, the bath here is very nice!

As I have certain eating peculiarities (i.e. I don't eat meat) I always expected meals occasionally to be slightly difficult for me, but as I didn't want to make a fuss, I didn't mention my preferences in advance to the dorm (although I did to the school, when they arranged homestay for me). But the fact that I don't eat meat did come up when I asked for a particular dish without the meat, and since then they have in fact been quite accommodating, giving me fish or eggs and the like instead of the meat dishes. I imagine an actual vegetarian would have more difficulty (as indeed they would eating in Japan in general), but if you don't eat meat but do eat fish, certainly I'd advise you to let them know in advance, and they'll prepare special meals for you when necessary.

Apart from the dining hall, there isn't really a communal area, so most socialising tends to be done over the breakfast and evening meals. As there are several of us here from the JLI, we tend to eat together. But most dormitory residents are Japanese. Many are students at vocational colleges (専門学校), but there are even a few high school students here. We've become friendly with a couple of the Japanese vocational students.

I think that covers most things which you won't find in the information from the JLI or on the dorm website. As ever, if anyone who has stayed at this, or any other, dorm, wants to add anything, they can make comments.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

JLI Sapporo


My arrival was timed to be able to attend the orientation for students starting the JLI in April. They have these orientations quarterly, and are largely aimed at the long-term course students, who can only start in April, July, October or January. As a short-term course student can start any time, if you are not starting at one of these times of the year, there won't be an orientation. But as I was, I decided to get here in time for it.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the orientation, but in fact it mostly consisted of them giving us some bits of written information about school rules, school calendar and the like, and emphasising strongly that we shouldn't skip classes. If you do, and your attendance falls below 90%, you won't get your certificate. And lateness for classes adds up to count as absences, so you have to be on time. And having your mobile phone go off in class counts as an absence. And so on and so forth. Those were the main messages. How they did this was that they split us into various classrooms (mine was only students staying 90 days or less), and within each, they split the room into 3 areas for English, Korean and Chinese. The school officials made the announcements at the front in Japanese, and in each of the 3 areas a translation was given by a more senior student. The only other thing to note was that even though my room was only people staying less than 90 days, they announced things about the foreigner registration. You don't need that if you are staying less than 90 days on the tourist visa. That was what I understood, and I checked at the end of the orientation with them, and they confirmed I was correct. So if you're staying in Japan less than 90 days total, don't let that confuse you.

The final thing that day was the interview, for those of us who had not yet had one. This was where they tested you to decide which class the students would go in. The placement interviews were divided into different levels, based on the information the applicants sent in advance in a level check sheet, and then in the interview itself (in my level, anyway), each student was given a passage to read, and then asked questions about it. Based on what I've seen, from the class I was placed in, and the classes other people in my interview room were placed in, they seem to get it about right.

There are 11 classes, and Class 1 (1組) is the most advanced level, and Class 11 (11組) is beginner level. Whether there are always 11 classes, and whether any of the classes are the same level as each other, I don't know. I just know that, for example, I am in Class 4, and a friend I have made in Class 2 is using the same text book as I am, but starting at a later chapter, and people in Class 7, for example, are using less advanced textbooks, etc.

Lessons Begin

Having now completed the first (albeit short, as we started on the Tuesday) week, and also in that time completed the first chapter of our textbook, I've got a reasonable idea now of how classes work at the JLI and what sort of thing anyone coming here should expect. Although some of this is specific to my class, much of it will in general apply whichever level you are at.

The classes at the JLI are broken down into four 45 minute lessons a day, with a 15 minute break in the middle and two 5 minute breaks between the other lessons. One teacher gives the lessons before the 15 minute break, and another gives the ones after. So, for example, on the first day, the class began with Ichikawa Sensei giving us the syllabus, explaining something about how the classes would work for those newbies of us, and then going through the Kanji and starting on the grammar. And then after the break, a second teacher, Takeda Sensei, came in and took over. Takeda Sensei got us to fill in a sheet with our names, interests in things Japanese, and what we wanted to get from studying at the JLI. She then continued from where Ichikawa Sensei left off, but using a rather different style and method. A lot is down to personal style, and each teacher will be different. I've found the same thing with teachers at SOAS – but there, the teacher is taking the whole course, not just a part of it. It seemed a little odd to change teacher – and teaching method – part way through. But I guess it makes it more interesting, and as different students will respond to different methods, I guess it might be better for a class as a whole, too.

We had a total of 5 different teachers over the 4 days of the first week (so, that was Ichikawa Sensei, Takeda Sensei, Fujiwara Sensei, Kumamoto Sensei, and Ikeda Sensei). I have been told that the pattern of teachers each week will be the same, so, taking the first day as an example, each Tuesday we will have Ichikawa Sensei in the morning and Takeda Sensei in the afternoon. Takeda Sensei also announced that she is our “home room teacher” (a bit like a form tutor, or something), although we don't physically have a “home room” at the JLI, as they do at some other schools.

In my class, most of the students are doing longer courses – 1 year or more – and so this is just another term for them. My class is quite large (currently 18 students – although over the first few days there's been a bit of shuffling around as students get transferred to make sure they are in the best class for them), but at least one is larger, and the others are not a lot smaller, so I suspect that's not atypical. There is quite a varied mix of nationalities in the class: there are several Russians, several Hong Kong Chinese, a handful of Koreans, a few Italians, one Taiwanese, one American, and one English (that would be me). It's possible there are a couple of others. But as I'd hoped, there aren't a lot of Anglophones about, and even though in the breaks quite a few people are speaking in their native tongues, that mostly means I'm hearing Russian and Cantonese, rather than English. The same is true of the other JLI students I've met at the dorm, and seems again to be fairly typical of JLI classes. So I think that aspect of my choice of Sapporo, not hearing too much English spoken, is going to work out just fine.

Classes are either morning, starting at 9am, or afternoon, starting at 1pm (and, as they repeatedly made clear at the orientation, you are expected to be there for when the class starts). My classes are on afternoons. That actually is slightly less of a benefit than I might have thought. Firstly, I have to be up in time for breakfast at the dorm anyway, so I can't have much of a lie-in. And secondly, the 1pm start means I have to have lunch a little early. On the first day, that meant I had a small lunch bought at a local Seicomart convenience store, and then it was a long gap before dinner (although the dorm serves dinner from 6pm, that seems too early to me, and besides, the friends I've been eating with here are mostly in a morning class, so would have a later lunch, and we had dinner together around 7.30pm that first day). Although a bit of exploration has found some lunch options nearby which are open early enough to eat and be at the school for around 12:45. I may write something about them another time, if I decide to do a foody post later.

On the first day, there were 8 of us who were new, and so had to be given the text books and have explanations of how it all works. For my particular class, we are using Chuu-kyuu kara manabu (中級から学ぶ) from Kenkyusha (ISBN978-4-327-38443-2) and 200 Essential Japanese Expressions: A Guide to Correct Usage and Sentence Patterns (どんなとき、どうつかう日本語表現文型200) from ALC Press (ISBN978-4-7574-0174-7). Actually, I'm very familiar with the latter, as I already have a copy at home which I bought several years ago. I can highly recommend it: I've previously used it for self-study and to complement other text books on previous courses. It's particularly useful for clarifying subtle differences between similar expressions. But I didn't bring it with me from home, so it's not redundant being given another copy (although whether it's worth lugging home with me is another matter: if I can find someone here who can put it to use, I might pass it on before I leave).

By the way, there's a follow on book with 500 expressions which is also very good, though definitely a step above (the 200 expressions book has English explanations, but the 500 expressions one does not). I've already got that, too, although I haven't really made extensive use of it yet.

And talking about textbooks I'm very familiar with, some of the less advanced classes are using the Minna no Nihongo (みんなの日本語) books, which are used at SOAS for beginner through to lower-intermediate levels, and seem to be widely used, from my discussions with other students from various countries.

Anyway. The level of my course is aimed around about the Japanese Janguage Proficiency Test (JLPT) level 2 – which suits me fine, as I failed (or “didn't pass” -「不合格しまた」- as the result sheet nicely put it) that last year, and plan to take it again this year. So although it's not exactly a stretch, and I've previously studied (often more than once!) most of the Kanji and grammar we're covering, I don't know it all as well as I should or would like. Besides, for me personally, my main aim in coming to Japan to study is to improve my recall and retrieval of the Japanese I supposedly already know, and make myself a more confident, fluid communicator. So frankly, it suits me fine to be in a class which is maybe a little on the easy side (I was rather worried I was going to be in a class which was too difficult, from the interview I'd had at the orientation, so I'm somewhat relieved).

The syllabus for each lesson follows a similar pattern. So that we do Kanji and grammar, then the main text, with comprehension, then speaking and listening practice. For the main text for the chapter, first, we listen to it on CD without following in the book, then the teacher reads it in short sentences or phrases, getting the class to repeat it each time all together, then we read it over on our own, then we each take turns in reading a sentence or two until we'd read the text out again twice. After that, we go though it in great detail, to make us understand it as well as we'd need for the JLPT exam. We then answer questions on the text, to ensure we've understood it, and finally there is a precis exercise. There's not a lot of scope for interactivity in this part of the lesson, but in my current class, people seem a little on the quiet side, anyway. After that, the speaking practice was a little freer, with a bit of a game played to help us introduce ourselves to our classmates. I imagine this section will be the most interactive and least rigid. Then finally there is the listening practice, including dictation.

There is homework set on the Kanji and grammar, and there may be more on other sections, although it seemed a little light last week (of course, as we have a syllabus, less homework just means more time to prepare for class, though). Aside from the sort of thing covered so far, the syllabus also has separate grammar lessons, where we will be using the 200 Essential Japanese Expressions book, and there is a test: I don't know how frequent or infrequent tests will be, but there is only one in April.

Although it's early days, I think this probably gives a flavour of what to expect at the JLI. The pattern of the syllabus itself would seem to be fairly formal, although there is room for some variance according the the individual teachers' styles. Anyone looking for more conversational and interactive classes might prefer another school, based on this first week (but I will let you know if my impression of that changes as the course progresses). Again, I think it suits me fairly well, although I would like there to be more actual conversation in the class, and more scope for my spoken Japanese to be corrected: it's all very well having conversations with classmates, but as we're all learning, we'll all be making mistakes, and I would actually like to know the correct way to say things.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Arrival and preparation

One minor drawback of choosing Sapporo is that there are no direct flights from London. So that means changing, most likely at either Osaka or Tokyo. For Tokyo connections, it's important to remember that Tokyo has two airports: Haneda, which actually is in Tokyo, and which handles most domestic flights, and Narita, which actually is quite a long way from Tokyo (unsurprisingly, it's at Narita, which is in Chiba prefecture), and which handles most international flights. So if you're flying into Narita, and you want to avoid a long trip across town (well, into and across town), it's best to make sure your domestic flight is from Narita also, not from Haneda. For Sapporo, that seems to limit it to ANA domestic flights: JAL's seem all to go from Narita (but best to check for yourself, depending on your destination, and in case any of that changes).

When I was looking into flights, there seemed to be a very promising Virgin Atlantic connecting with an ANA flight to Sapporo from Narita. But as I'm by nature a bit of a pessimist, I didn't want to book my flights until I had my final confirmation of acceptance on the course in my hand, and by the time I'd got that, that Virgin-ANA-via-Narita option had disappeared (and in fact the flights which were available were considerably more expensive!). On closer examination, it seemed that it was the ANA flight which was now full. My guess is that in the time between my original investigations and my booking, the internal flight had become available for domestic booking (this happens two months in advance), and so it had become full with domestic passengers. So here's my first tip from this: if you can book your flight more than two months in advance, I suspect you'll get better options on connecting flights.

I didn't want to do the Narita-Haneda change, so that left me really with Osaka (Kansai International). Actually, some flights also connect at Nagoya, but either the flight times or the prices or both didn't suit me for those. So I flew JAL to Kansai, and JAL domestic from Kansai to Sapporo, New Chitose (but on the return, we'll be flying ANA domestic into Narita, and then JAL again from there). My connection at Kansai was 1 hr 15 minutes. My inbound was about on time, but even so, this is cutting it a bit fine, particularly as recent immigration procedure changes mean you are fingerprinted and photographed on your way into the country (same as you are entering the US). I joined the line (an unusual bout of optimism made me think Japanese immigration might be so efficient that the queue would move quickly) and waited patiently (and nervously) for some 20 minutes before deciding there was little chance of me getting through in the next 15 minutes or so, and I didn't feel comfortable cutting it any finer than that. So I got the attention of an immigration official, and got myself hurried through. And so my next tip from this is: either make sure your connection has a good couple of hours, or else get yourself hurried through straight away (if you don't speak any Japanese, I'm sure pointing at your boarding card and looking flustered will do the trick!).

Anyway, it was all pretty much plain sailing (or flying and taxi-ing) from there, and so I found myself delivered at the Dormitory Maruyama. The rooms are basic, but fine, with modern LAN phones in them, so you can make international calls direct (I haven't asked what the charges are, though: I'll wait until I get a bill!). The one minor disappointment when I arrived was that I had to apply for an internet connection: there isn't just a network you can plug into. They give you a form to complete, and theoretically you'll get an e-mail account with it, but until it's been processed, you won't be able to use the internet, and that will take a day or two. Unfortunately, I was so tired when I arrived that I couldn't understand the process, and why they were asking me to apply for an e-mail account when all I wanted to do was use the web, so I didn't fill it in straight away. And then there was confusion over where my LAN cable would plug in, as the only LAN socket on the wall is used by the phone (the answer is that there's a LAN socket labelled “PC” on the back of the phone itself – my thanks to Spank for suggesting I look there!). It took me a few days (including the weekend) and a bit of chasing by the nice people working at the dorm to get mine sorted. But if you fill the application in straight away, you should get it the next working day. Just don't expect to be able to Skype or e-mail someone the minute you get in to let them know you've arrived. But, as I said, there is international dialling direct from the rooms, and also there are two PCs at the JLI which students can use for free (obviously, only in school hours). And there's always internet cafes such as i-cafe. Anyway, that's why my first post from Japan has taken this long to do (and I didn't write anything else after my first post before I left because I had to spend my time getting ready to come here!).