Monday, 3 October 2011

Grabbing a Bite?

The ladies in one of my classes have, for some time, been inviting me to grab a coffee with them after class. Unfortunately I usually have another class starting shortly after we finish, so I have been unable to join them. The class is now having a short break, and the ladies decided that instead of coffee we would meet for lunch at the time the class is usually scheduled at. As I said to them, I'm not sure that this level of organisation could really be termed as "grabbing a bite"!
We met in the French restaurant on the 14th floor of the Kure Hankyu Hotel. Here we are from left to right: Yoshiko, Yumi, Takako, me, Toshie, Akiko, and Kuniko.

Lunch for me is almost always a sandwich at home, so this really was a rare treat. Apart from eating a proper meal at lunchtime, I also found myself a bit disorientated by my surroundings. Everything felt so western, that when the staff spoke to me I wasn't sure whether I should reply in Japanese, or try out my very rusty French! And, of course, the ladies were keeping up some really interesting conversation in English.

And lunch? Very artistic and very good.

Whenever we go abroad, my wife takes out the camera and photographs whatever we are eating... My turn, and although the camera can't as yet give you a taste of the food, you can at least see what I mean by "artistic". This was the starter, and you'll forgive me if I can't remember the French name. It was, if I am correct, a kind of nut pate. This was followed by a very tasty corn soup - no photo... it was corn soup!

I started getting confused again when the main course arrived. Roast beef... surely that is a quintessential English dish? Anyway, it was very good, although being from the other side of the Channel, I would have preferred to have seen a potato or two and some Yorkshire puddings!

I do enjoy sweets, but I don't often get as far as dessert, as I much prefer savoury food. Having said that, I really enjoyed this small cranberry tart. I'm afraid I had to ask what the fig was, and was surprised to hear that Hiroshima is quite well-known for them. The ladies were then quite surprised when I opted for coffee to finish and not tea! As much as I like tea - a must in the mornings - it has to be coffee after lunch, doesn't it?

I think we all had a good time, and when the class starts again next week, I shall be the first to suggest that we do it again.

Thank you ladies!

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Chu/Shikoku Open Squash Tournament

It doesn't seem like too long ago since I wrote about cottage pie, but here we are and the summer is drawing to a close. This also means that another eagerly awaited annual trip has come and gone. Yes, another squash tournament, but this time a little closer to home - the Chu/Shikoku Open in Kurashiki - and this time with Kayo and the children.

This tournament is a favourite because of the venue - great courts, great showers, and a wonderful place for the children to play - and a hotel I have stayed at so often that I'm definitely a regular. This picture was taken in the adventure playground - Tadashi and I on the "ferry", and Muscat Stadium, the venue, in the background. We've always done this tournament as "a family", and until this year I think Kayo has had a harder job looking after the children than I have had playing squash!
This year, though, because they are older, they pretty much just got on with things themselves. There seemed to be no end of other children to play with, and they had a great time. Here is Aimi "risking" a ducking on whatever this kind of slide is called.

The format of the tournament is actually a little different to the other regional events I go to, inasmuch as I play in both the Open event and the Masters event. The Masters is a handicap tournament for players over 30 - I just qualify! My targets for this tournament were to reach the main draw of the Open event, then hopefully beat Taro Sakamaki (remember him from the Kyushu Open?) which would put me in the Best 16 round, AND to win the Masters.

Greg and Richard also entered the Open. Greg with an eye on playing and improving his result of last year against the three times and current All Japan champion, Yuta Fukui, in one semi-final, and Richard, I think, hoping to have a good time and make it to the other semi-final.

Neither Greg or Richard had to qualify for the main draw as their rankings are high enough to ensure they were seeded. For me, there was a nice warm-up early on Friday afternoon, and then later on the qualifying final against one of the rapidly improving Hiroshima Shudo University students, Horino. He is very fast around the court, and I had to be very patient to finally win through 2:1 (the qualifying rounds and the Masters are both best of three games matches). I'm usually nervous early in tournaments, but I'm glad to say that I felt I played OK, and kept the nerves under control.

On to Saturday, then, and a much better, if rather tempestuous (on my part) match with Taro. I'm afraid that I had a couple of quite loud outbursts directed at the referee. In point of fact I think the frustration I show is actually because of how I am playing, but I think I would look even more ridiculous shouting at myself! Having seen the match again on video, I rather reluctantly have to agree with Greg and Richard when they pointed out that when I was ranting, I looked less like John McEnroe and more like Basil Fawlty! Ah, well, best just put a stop to that silliness... The match ended in a 3:1 loss, but I really felt as if I lost it rather than Taro winning it. Next time!

Greg and Richard both progressed smoothly to the quarter-finals which, along with the Masters, took place on Sunday. Richard played very well against Japan's number 6, Kimihiko Sano, and was actually 2 games to love ahead. Sano then increased the pace of the game a little, and put Richard under a lot more pressure. I think the match could have gone either way, but sadly Richard had to bow out with a 3:2 loss. Greg meantime was getting ready for his big encounter with Fukui. Although I haven't seen all of the match yet - I was getting ready for my own match - from what I saw of it Greg certainly gave Fukui more to think about this year. He wasn't able to win a game, but if he can spend more time practicing with players nearer his own level (than me!), I'm sure he will do even better next time.

As for me, after a very close semi-final I made it to the final of the Masters where I played against Masahiko Hasunaka, a practice partner from Hiroshima. The handicap system meant that he had to give me 2 points in each game, but as he played one less match than me that day, I didn't feel too bad about that. This is an "action" shot from the final, and that's me in green almost looking like I know what I am doing! Again, it was a very close match, but I'm delighted to say that I clinched it 2:1 in the end.

Greg, Richard and I just after the Masters final. If you think I look tired, you should have seen the other guy!

Receiving my prize from the other finalist, Masahiko Hasunaka, who also happens to be the chairman of the Japan Squash Association Chugoku-Shikoku Branch.

The "real" winners. Yuta Fukui in red with the trophy, and Greg doubtless thinking about their next encounter...

After the prize-giving.

Final photo before heading for home. This time with Sachi, a good friend, and former Japan number one.

I'm still pretty much elated after the success of the weekend, but as Greg pointed out, there is a lot of training and practising to do before we head off to Wakayama for the Kansai Open which begins on September 17th. I can't in all honesty say I'm looking forward to the training, but I can't wait for the tournament!

If you are interested in seeing the full results of the Chu/Shikoku tournament you will find them here

Friday, 8 July 2011

An Unseasonal Cottage Pie

Last week we were rather unexpectedly invited to address the Kure Film Circle. Their film this month is "Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont" which is set in London, and they wanted a British person to come and talk to them about Britain, and also answer any questions they might have. "Oh, and by the way, please could you cook something typically British and bring it along to the small party we are having after your talk?"!

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not much of a cook, unless it is Christmas and Jamie Oliver is helping, or if I can be bothered to make a lasagne - my absolute favourite. The problem was compounded by the Film Circle saying that they didn't have an oven, something that is not that unusual in Japan.

So... something in one dish, which has a chance of staying hot for three hours (I cannot abide cold food if it is meant to be hot) and will be deemed passably edible.

And here is the solution - a cottage pie.

The weather is moving towards sweltering in Japan, so this is not really the ideal food. I would prefer to eat this on a cold winter's day, but my culinary skills meant my options were limited!

Dead easy to make if you want to try. This is how I make mine.

First brown some minced beef, then add some chopped garlic, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Add some coarsely chopped onions, carrots and mushrooms, and pour in some beef stock (consomme if you don't have any), and leave to bubble away for around about an hour.

While you are waiting, peel and chop up some potatoes, put them in some lightly-salted water, bring to the boil and then simmer for 20 minutes. When they are ready, drain off the water, then add some milk, butter and more of that black pepper, and mash them until smooth.

Put the meat and vegetables into an ovenproof dish, and then put the mashed potatoes on top. Smooth out the potato with a fork to get those lines, put some dabs of butter on the top and then put in the oven at about 190 degrees for 25 minutes. The potato will turn crispy and golden.

That's it - easy!

You'll notice I haven't given the amounts of any of the ingredients. That is because I think this is very much a "personal taste" dish, so you need to find the taste you like. My mother, for example, doesn't like mushrooms so she doesn't use them. I saw one recipe that included a tin of tomatoes - good heavens! What a terrible idea! But each to his own, I suppose.

Back to the Film Circle, and how to keep it hot for three hours... Again, easy as it turned out - a couple of sheets of tin foil, a towel, and an old biscuit tin, and it was still piping hot when we finally got around to eating it. I THINK it was well received!

Monday, 20 June 2011

Fathers' Day

Oh, goodness... even the title of this blog has had me checking for the spelling. Despite what Wikipedia has to say about it, I'm sticking with the apostrophe where it is, thank you very much!

So quite the lie-in yesterday. I think it was about 8 o'clock when I got up. Although Kayo gets up early with the children through the week, it comes round to me to get up at the weekend - usually around 6:30...ouch! I don't mind so much on Saturday, as I often head off to the squash courts quite early anyway, but it is a rare treat on a Sunday. It did cross my mind to ask the children to stay with their grandparents on Saturday night, ensuring the lie-in, but then thought that having NO children was hardly the right way to go about celebrating Fathers' Day...

So here we are caught in the middle of the rainy season, and for sure it was a "Cat in the Hat" kind of day, sitting around not doing too much, however my presents were a highlight.
First I should tell you about some gardening Aimi and I have been doing. Come Christmas (especially) there is one vegetable that I miss, and have been unable to buy in Japan, namely, runner beans. My mum came up trumps this year and sent me some seeds, and here is the result thus far. Aimi helped me plant them although when I told her how quickly and tall they would grow she was initially concerned about attracting giants... Anyway, they certainly seem to be coming along OK, and I'll keep you posted when we start picking them. The T-shirt I am wearing, also shown here,
is Aimi's picture of herself with the beans, and they are obviously much bigger than her. This is the latest in a growing line of quite unique shirts that I have been given by my children, and they are all terrific.

My other present was a couple of cans of "draft" Guinness to have with dinner. A welcome change from the ice-cold fizzy lager (bleugh!) that is the norm here. Obviously Kayo had arranged for there to be two cans so that I would share them with her, which, much to my surprise, I did!
Here is the back of the shirt as drawn by Tadashi. It is, apparently, and I am no expert, a Dragonball character. I suppose I should take more of an interest... In the background, the computer is displaying the ball-by-ball update of the third cricket test match between England and Sri Lanka. If I could, I would sit up and follow the cricket until close of play at around 2:30 in the morning Japan-time, but work and early-rising children don't allow it.

Oh, the joys of fatherhood!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Kyushu Open Squash Tournament

Since living in Japan, what used to be something of a passing interest has become more of an obsession - namely, squash. At the weekend I made what is an annual trip to Fukuoka, where I once again played in the Kyushu Open. If truth be known, I am far too old to have any hope of playing at the top level in Japan (arguably the best player in Japan is only 23!), but I love the game, and even though I have been playing on and off since I was 14, I think I am still improving, and I still have goals to fulfil.

So on Friday, Greg and I set off to Fukuoka on the kodama - the slowest of the shinkansen, which stops at all the stations en route. This was a money-saving measure as there was quite a big discount for buying our tickets together. Here I am at Hakata station in Fukuoka. Am I very small, or is the station very big?! (A brief break here for a bowl of Hakata ramen - a must for any visitor)

Greg, in fact, wasn't scheduled to play until Saturday, but we rather fancied the idea of arriving in plenty of time, and warming up on one of the courts at the tournament venue which has an idiosyncracy that can cause problems if you aren't used to it.

As much as I enjoy the squash, a big part of the weekend is meeting up with friends. Once we arrived at the sports club we hooked up with Richard who works in Tokyo, and Joakim who is based in Seoul at the moment - he was able to arrange a business trip to coincide with the tournament. The banter for the whole weekend was terrific!

Richard, Greg and I warmed up for an hour and a half, before checking into the conveniently situated hotel next door to the sports club, and having a bite to eat. Richard, Joakim and I then got ready for our first matches in the evening. Sadly Joakim had a very tough first match and lost. The only consolation was that the guy who beat him went on to have a very successful tournament (...until he played Greg in the Best 16 round!) Richard had no problem, and I was pleased with the way I played, and we advanced to the Best 32 round on Saturday morning. I finished in the Best 64 last year, so this was already an improvement, and my first goal for the weekend.
Interestingly on Saturday I played against the same player who beat me last year (Taro Sakamaki), so I was eager to have another shot at him. I thought I gave him a much better game this year, but unfortunately lost again. Nothing to do now but watch and chat!

Rchard kept winning until he came up against on of Japan's top juniors, Hayate Gunji, in the Best 8 round. He enjoyed his match, but Hayate prevailed. Greg meanwhile was marching on unhindered to the final on Sunday afternoon, where he triumphed over Hayate. (Here he is with his winner's medal!)

We had so much time to kill before our train home that I half-jokingly suggested to Greg that we have a game. He was all for it, so, much to the disbelief of the tournament organisers, we went back on court for almost an hour and did some practice routines, joined by Kazuko Michishita, one of the top ladies players in Japan. We got so involved that we ended up having to run for our train! The journey back allowed for some relaxing reflection on an enjoyable and, for Greg, very successful weekend.

If you are interested in learning more about the tournament, and seeing the full results, please follow this link - it's in Japanese!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Azaleas at Ondo Bridge

Slightly later than I expected, but here, as promised in my last blog, are the famous azaleas at Ondo Bridge - the cause of many a traffic jam in and around Golden Week! On the far side of the bridge you can just about see the "multi-storey car park" approach road. As much as I like this bridge, I am looking forward to the convenience of the new one.
It will also mean that we won't have to plan alternative routes to get home when the azaleas are in bloom - the tailback from the bridge often stretches the three miles back to where we live. Hopefully we didn't add too much to the traffic congestion this day, as Kayo and I took advantage of some time without the children and went on my bike - the only way to travel at this time of year!
I've had this bike for over twelve years now and we made quite a few memorable trips on it before the children came along - Shimane, Tottori, Kobe, Shikoku... Having said that, I don't think Kayo has quite forgiven me for classing a bike trip to Kyushu and the the Oita Squash Open as our honeymoon... Apparently I still owe her one! There's just no pleasing some people...

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The new Ondo Bridge

Not far from where we live is the Ondo Bridge, most notable, perhaps, for its multi-storey car park-like approach roads, and the fabulous azaleas that can be seen in full bloom in a week or two - I'll do my best to post a picture if we can beat the traffic and find a good vantage point!

As of today there is a new bridge which should eventually alleviate the traffic problem that the original bridge sometimes suffers from. The bridge won't be open for another couple of years, but today we got up (quite!) early to watch what I think is the largest floating crane in Japan lower the centre span of the bridge in place.

Fortunately one of my students lives within sight of the bridge, and we were able to park at her place and have a perfect view of what was going on.

I think work began at 5:30 this morning, and we watched the crane being hauled back to the dock at around 3 o'clock this afternoon. What struck me as the most extraordinary thing about the whole operation was the apparent pinpoint accuracy with which the crane was able to position the bridge. It looked like a tremendous team effort.

Now we are looking forward to the bridge opening. The new bridge will take us to a hot spring that we regularly go to, and the old one (visible in the background of the photograph) to the swimming pool... Cool!

Many thanks to my student, Hiromi, and her family for a great afternoon at their barbecue, from where we were able to watch the end of what I suppose is quite a historic event.

Monday, 11 April 2011

bus or bath?

One of my students told me that he had a bad back after playing basketball. At the end of the class we had this conversation:

Paul: You should go home and have a bath.

Student: No, I came by car.

I think what he heard was, "You should go home by bus". Of course, we laughed about it, but it does show how important pronunciation is to your listening skills.

So, here is a challenge:

How many pronunciation differences are there between "bus" and "bath"? And what are they?







Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Pronunciation IS Important

I am always impressed by anyone who tries to communicate in a language that is not their own. In Japan most of the people I meet have to, or have had to, study English. The focus at school is very much on memorising pointless vocabulary and passing exams. Students are seldom required to produce any English.

It seems a shame to me that despite how much effort is expended in studying, so many people have difficulty communicating in English. It may well be that they have studied the grammar that a native English speaker is using, but because their listening skills are not very good, conversations often break down before they have started.

I firmly believe that good pronunciation will improve your listening and thus improve your ability to communicate.




Monday, 28 March 2011

Coffee morning at Paul's

This seems a little after the event, but the disaster in the Tohoku area later in the same day has overshadowed everything that we are doing. However, I thought I should just report that the people who came had a good time chatting, and I think they enjoyed all the goodies! We had a very short "class" on pronunciation and how to spell out words in English. Please look out for news of the next coffee morning at

Thursday, 17 March 2011

British Red Cross Donations

I'm not really sure how to start this... six days after we sat for hours watching the initial horror of the earthquakes and the tsunami that followed. Now, of course, the situation seems to be even more precarious, if that were possible, because of what is happening at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Even though we haven't been directly affected by what has happened, people all over Japan, as you can doubtless imagine, are very subdued. The general feeling seems to be, "We want to help", but not many of us can drop what we are doing and physically go and help. Donations are being asked for, and are flooding in. My impression is that Japanese people are overwhelmed by the depth of feeling and generosity of people from all around the world.

Just in case you want to help, but don't know how, here is a link to the British Red Cross, where it is very easy to make a donation.

For those of you not in the UK, I'm sure you will be able to find the Red Cross link for your country.

On a more personal note, many thanks to everyone who has called or sent messages asking if we are OK. We are, and I'm sure we will be.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

From my website

A very belated “Happy New Year”, and my apologies for not writing for so long. I hope that you all enjoyed whatever you did over Christmas and New Year, and the start of 2011 has been good to you.

I hope you followed Kayo’s blog about her time in Scotland – see link below. If you did, you have already read about my 97-hour marathon from Kure to Dunfermline. I’m trying to forget it!

Our journey back was perfect except for one small hiccup. Unfortunately we couldn’t fly from Edinburgh to London Heathrow together, but our shuttle flights with different airlines were close enough that we could check in at the same time.

Our suitcases were packed with our winter clothes and lots of Christmas presents we had been given, and were right on the weight allowance. Because of that our hand luggage was probably too heavy for Kayo and the children to manage easily. I helped them carry their hand luggage to their departure gate (gate 6), and boarded my plane, which was leaving slightly earlier from gate 11. Being a helpful sort of person I offered to take the computer with me, so Kayo wouldn’t have to carry it.

My seat was right at the back of the plane, and after sitting down, I took out my telephone to switch it off before the flight. I was a little surprised to see that I had missed a call from Kayo who, after all, I had only left some five minutes before. I called her back to find that she had slipped her and the children’s passports and boarding passes into the computer bag… which was now in the overhead locker above me!

I quickly reported this to a flight attendant who was in the attendants’ area at the back of the plane. She picked up the phone and spoke to the attendant manning the door at the front of the plane, and another attendant took the passports and boarding passes and rushed the length of the plane through the last few passengers who were still finding their seats. The passports and boarding passes were handed out of the plane, and in the same instant the door closed and we started moving away from the gate. Oh goodness, what a panic!

The flight attendant tried to assure me that everything would be OK, but it was only on arriving at Heathrow, and meeting up with Kayo and the children again that I knew for sure that their passports had reached them in time.

Tadashi, in particular, suffered some travel sickness on the way home, but our door-to-door journey of 22 hours was a considerable improvement on the outward leg of my trip.

For Kayo’s version of this little drama, please check her blog -


Welcome - 15 years after...

9th March 1996, Paul arrives in Japan. Fifteen years later, I am still here! Welcome to my new blog. I'm not sure what shape it is going to take, yet, but hopefully that will take care of itself...and I look forward to hearing from anyone who wishes to comment.