The New Bristol Office!

I started work at InsideJapan one year and five days ago (how time has flown!), and I remember in my and Natasha’s induction week, we were told that we would be moving offices very soon. Due to events this year, we didn’t move quite as soon as we had imagined, but I am delighted to say that last weekend we moved into our shiny new office! It feels like such a journey, from when Al and Simon were going to look at offices, to being told that we had a new  ‘tea solution’ to be revealed  (it is a boiling water tap – how posh!) and being shown around whilst it was still being fitted out, to where we are sat now. We are so excited about the new office so I wanted to bring you on a guided tour.

When you first walk into the office, there is a client seating area. There much more space for welcoming clients in this office, so please do come and see us! On the window sill is the newest member of the IJT team, Neko-chan, who came back from Japan with Alastair a few weeks ago. He’ll be visiting lots of places across the UK in the coming months, so watch this space!

This is the main office area, with a beautiful Japanese maple tree on the feature wall. This is getting us in the mood for all the autumn trips we have coming up! The seat in the foreground is David’s…he is always getting nagged for not tucking his chair in!

At the other end of the office, The directors their own office at the end of the room. And you can see we are all enjoying ice-creams in the beautiful weather we’ve had this week!

If you have seen our brochure or our business cards, these images on the windows to the staff room and  the meeting rooms might be familiar

Finally, we have no less than three balconies in our penthouse office; with views such as this one

I’m sure you can see why we are so pleased with our new office. A huge thank you to Al and Simon for sorting it all out for us. If you’re ever in Bristol, please stop by! We might even make you a brew with the hot water tap…

6 months on – Part 3: Kadonowaki elementary school

The tunnel that cuts through the mountain to the coastal area of Ishinomaki is around 500 metres long; a short distance yet one that divides two different worlds. On the west side, is the city, largely charmless in its proliferation of concrete buildings and prefabricated houses, roadside diners and over-head electricity cables. A first time visitor might describe it as shabby, or depressed, or “in need of investment”. In short it is like much of the rest of urban Japan outside of the shiny glass skyscrapers of the major metropolises. Dotted across the landscape is the occasional half fallen down building, perhaps you might think the victim of decades of neglect and lack of the funds or inclination to repair.

Crossing to the east side is a journey into the surreal. I try and imagine what an unknowing visitor would make of this vast open space, where unnatural mountains of twisted metal and concrete rubble rise up from a wasteland that stretches as far as the ocean in one direction and the tree covered hillsides in the other. Shells of buildings, their timbers splintered and roofs torn from their anchoring walls appear at intervals along the road; eerie, ghostlike scars on the skyline.

Half destroyed building

The Ishinomaki landscape is dotted with these barely standing shells of buildings

Piles of scrap cars

This image of scrap cars piled up was taken from the overhead road that crosses Ishinomaki and is still standing following the tsunami

This is my first look at the destruction wrought on 11th March. It is impressive, awe inspiring and horrific. I am struck by the emptiness of the landscape – what is not here is far more disturbing to me than what remains. No houses, no offices, no trees, no gardens, no washing lines, no cars, no convenience stores, no shops and of course, no people. It is a holocaust, but one wrought by the power of the earth and the ocean not the misguided hand of man and an atomic bomb – the only other scene of destruction that seems to anyway parallel this.

This view of the effects of the tsunami on Ishinomaki is very different to the television pictures that immediately followed in the aftermath of the earthquake. The clean up operation has been in full swing for 5 months now and vast amounts have been accomplished: The sea of debris has been maneuvered by force of muscle and a small army of ‘Komatsu’ heavy plant machinery – Japan’s answer to the JCB digger – into enormous piles, something like a Japanese ‘gomi’ (rubbish/trash) day for giants.

Komatsu diggers get to work in Ishinomaki

Komatsu diggers working in Ishinomaki

Just a few short months ago, in this coastal area stood thousands of houses; now there are row upon row of neat, concrete rectangles that were the platforms on which the prefabricated housing that forms the bulk of modern Japanese homes, were built.  In fact it seems an almost tidy picture of destruction. The powerful late summer sun beats down from a clear blue sky, baking the exposed foundations. It makes me wonder whether late afternoon on 11th March was a bright sunny day, befitting of the end of winter and the start of spring. It seems a rather inane thought yet this town was swept away on a perfectly normal day, just like any other.

The next scheduled stop of my visit to Ishinomaki is the Kadonowaki elementary school. All Japanese schools look pretty much the same: three or four stories of concrete, with evenly spaced windows stretching across a frontage of perhaps 100 metres. A dirt playing field sits in front or behind for baseball, softball, football and other sports. Here though, the windows are black holes. No light emanates from within; no glass remains and the exterior walls of the building are charred black from the fires that raged here for three days following the onslaught of the waves.

Kado no Maki elementary school

The charred shell of Kado no Maki elementary school

The school is located as far from the ocean as you can be in this area of Ishinomaki, built up against the hillside. This place was a designated emergency zone, where students and local residents alike convene at the time of a major earthquake. The sports field provides an ideal space, free from the dangers of falling debris – one of the biggest risks when an earthquake strikes. On this occasion the presence of mind of the teaching staff took the children to mountain behind the school. We were taken up the hillside to behind the building where the children and staff took shelter. Our informative driver-guide, Kikuta-san pointed out where later in the day, locals who had fled to the upper floors of the school had smashed the windows to escape to the hillside behind and up to higher ground.

As the last point of resistance before the land rises, the school building took the full force of the 10 metre wall of water, thick with debris and as witnessed on television screens across the world, cars; hundreds of them picked up and swept away. As metal crashed into and crumpled against the concrete structure the tanks of gasoline ignited and the building was gutted by fire.

We are informed that no students who were present at school when the earthquake struck died. It is a welcome and seemingly remarkable piece of news. However, tragically, amongst those young children who were at home sick or had left early for the day, several perished in the tsunami. Those locals unable to climb to the top of the school, primarily the elderly and disabled, were also taken by the waves. This is a sobering tale and casts me back to the adorable elementary school children I taught when working as an ALT in Toyota-city over ten years ago. The reality is that thousands of children lost their lives on 11th March. It is heartbreaking.

I find it hard to comprehend lives thrust from afternoon lessons, cleaning time, P.E. class into the heart of a disaster biblical in scale. I wonder how these kids must feel. What do they think about now? Some have lost a parent, or both parents. Most are now housed with their families in temporary accommodation, porta-cabins that offer many conveniences of modern living but in a tiny space perhaps smaller than my bedroom at home.

Teddy Bear memorial at Kado no Maki

These children's toys were left by the school swimming pool

There is little time to stand and contemplate. I are beckoned to the car and my macabre tour continues as we drive half a mile or so towards the ocean.

Sunflowers at Kado no Maki Elementary

Sunflowers have been widely planted across the affected region as they are known to be effective in absorbing radiation from the soil although Ishinomaki has not really been affected in this way

A destroyed building

No buildings remain intact in what was once a very crowded urban landscape

6 months on – Part 2: “Jambo”! Kenyan dancing and some very cute kids

I don’t get on well with early mornings. But with jet-lag still erratically winding my body clock, I find little trouble raising my head from the pillow at 5:45am despite a rather inconsistent nights sleep.

The kindergarten in Ishinomaki is small. But then I don’t have many points of reference other than my own playschool from 32 years ago, which from my recollection, was massive! Of course to a 4 year old most things are so I am not sure what to make of this. What is beyond question is that the kids are small, and extremely cute. On the other hand, the class rabbit sat in his box in a corner looks to me unusually large. This Lilliput world is clearly causing me confusion and makes me think that with more and more of my friends bringing mini-me’s into the world I ought to get more accustomed to the world of the small.

When I arrive with Goto-san a few minutes behind schedule (we are delayed due to an erratic “nabi” – the Japanese for sat-nav), the Kenyan delegation are listening to testimony from Satake-sensei, a young female teacher at the school.

Tsunami Eyewitness Testimony

Emma translates the moving testimony of a young kindergarten teacher

It isn’t the physical scars that remain” she is saying. “If you look outside you wouldn’t know what happened here. The clean up took maybe three months. But inside there is a lot of emotional damage and this will take much longer”. She is talking about the children but I think she could just as well be talking about everyone who experienced the disaster. Continue reading

Hitting the target in Takayama

Takayama is a small town in the foothills of the Japan Alps.  Far from the sea and any major cities,  for many foreign visitors, a stay in this remote river town is their only chance to see rural Japan. 

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The day I met the Emperor

I once met the Emperor of Japan! Well, kind of… At least he and his wife rode past me in a car and waved.

My ear... and the Emperor of Japan

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Trip Feedback through Haiku Poetry

As with all of the InsideJapan Tour leaders, Steve Parker brings his own skills, knowledge and expertise to a group tour of Japan. A trip across Japan with Steve never fails to be inspiring, but our man has been bringing out the poetic side of travellers….after a couple of drinks of course. Here’s his latest from the Japan Unmasked tour;

Having just completed a Japan Unmasked tour with 6 fantastic people from the UK, Switzerland and Australia, I would like to introduce some of their Haiku poems, written on the last night of the tour, as a reflection of their adventures in Japan. This is a tradition on my tours and serves as a poetic form of feedback – a lot more interesting than yes/no answers on a questionnaire!!

The haiku is a traditional 3-line, 17-syllable poem, structured 5-7-5. Classic haiku invoke images of nature but with my groups’, anything goes as long as it’s tasteful: a single memory, an emotion, a shared experience, a head turning encounter…here are a few of those written in the haiku style, starting with one I made earlier including syllable count…

1             2           3 4            5
We traipsed Tokyo’s streets

1                   2    34       5     6      7
Drenched in neon enchantment

1    2       3   4      5
Inside Japan tours

Archery first then…
Healing hands did soothe the mind
Takayama tunes

I lost my Ipod
Steve spent days hunting it down
I didn’t lose it!!!!!!

Water – omizu
Care for more green tea vicar?
There’s plenty for all!

Coffee in a can?
Our shared perpectives enjoyed
Revolving car parks!!

So many photos
The changing light through the trees
My stomach is full!

Those deer on the bend
Did you see them huddled close?
Shame – Shannon missed them!

Ikea? Rubbish!
No one does interiors.
Like dear Toyoko

Buddhist monks chanting
A peaceful serenity
Floating on air – free

Red, amber then blue?
Orange shrines or are they red?
Japanese colours

Haiku is testing
But creative engines run
After hot sake

A long way from home
Fun, laughter and crazy pics
Always stay in touch

We have always considered Japan a country of inspiration and a trip with InsideJapan obviously inspires the poetic side that you never knew you had.  Great trip, great haiku!…hmmm…I can feel a haiku coming on. Watch this space….

Tokyo Game Show – Gamer 2

I always knew something was wrong with me.

During childhood already, classmates would laugh at me because my pastimes were somewhat different from a “normal” boy. When I reached teenage years, mom and dad couldn’t deny anymore when they saw the sort of friends I used to bring back home. I traveled the world and the seven seas but it is in Japan that everything became clear. Eventually, last Saturday I took a giant leap in my life and came out of the closet. Yes, I must admit… I am geek!

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