Or when typhoons strike!
Be warned the top part of this entry is very text heavy (with borderline rants on the topics of typhoons, hermit crab keeping and whaling), but don't worry I won't be offended if you just skip down to the pretty animal pictures at the bottom - to be honest I won't even know you've done it.
Still here? Then let's talk a bit about typhoons.
It seems an almost constant source of surprise for Japanese people to learn that we simply don't have typhoons in the UK. Sure we have strong winds that topple chimneys and send trees crashing through greenhouses (much to the delight of regional news shows who routinely leap on this kind of meteorological calamity). However, we don't have typhoons.
Japan has typhoons, in all the time I've worked here there has never once been a snow day at the school (despite winter weather that would have shut down schools in other countries), but kids have been excused from coming to school due to typhoon warnings a few times; and when I say the kids, I mean the kids - I still had to cycle to work in the torrential rain and then sit there doing nothing all day because there were no kids.
This isn't the only reason I don't like typhoons, it's more the fact that they seem to have something personal against me. Having recently checked one point of my list off things to do while I'm in Japan (with a visit to Kiso valley; see previous entry), I was now determined to set my sights on bigger fish - whales to be exact.
Whale watching has been something I've wanted to do for a long time now, and having looked into it I'd found a couple of good spots in Japan. The nearest place being Kochi Ken on the south coast of Shikoku. So Haru and I booked time off work, hotels and spots on a boat... then watched in dismay as the day drew closer and so did a big typhoon - heading directly for Kochi Ken.
The whale watching company confirmed it wouldn't be possible to go out on the day we booked and cancelled the booking. So we did some quick back peddling - I cancelled my time off work, the timely death of a non-existent relative got us off the hook with the hotel reservation without paying anything. Then, we set about re-planning and booking everything again. The typhoon passed and we were on track - until another typhoon came in on exactly the same course to co-coincide with our new plans....
Well - it wasn't possible to back-out again, so despite the whale watching being cancelled again and leaving us with no real reason to go we went ahead with a trip to Kochi Ken. Luckily, the typhoon didn't really have any visible effect on the main land (it was the waves it was kicking up that got the boat cancelled), and the weather was fine as we made the 6 hour drive down.
I've got quite a soft spot for Japanese road sign graphics, and I often try to snap pictures of the road signs as we zip past. In particular I like the animal crossing warning signs, and Shikoku has some great ones... however, snapping them at speed isn't easy. I really think photographic frustrations such as this were a big drive in me deciding to upgrade my camera recently. I still have quite a bit more to blog about 2012, but when I get to 2013 I assure you that you'll see a leap in the quality of the photography on this blog :-)
The main city of Kochi Ken is also called Kochi, and we spent our first afternoon wandering around the streets and markets. One of the towns most famous points, Hariyama bridge, turned out to be be very small, unimpressive and quite out of place on an otherwise modern street. For me by far the most interesting things was a stall on a street market selling hermit crabs, I'd been thinking about getting some crabs to keep for a while so on the last day we went and bought five to take home.
Now this was about eight months ago, and I regret to say that of that original five only two are still alive. Two died at beginning of winter as I simply wasn't prepared to keep the environment to their liking when the weather changed. Some frenzied research made me realize that I wasn't keeping the atmosphere moist enough for them or providing for all their needs. I improved their diet and water supplies (separate bowls for fresh and salt water). I also got a temperature and humidity gauge, a suitable heater and added some extra plastic sheeting inside the tank lid to control their environmental conditions more. The remaining three really thrived then, until last week when I disturbed one of them while he was buried in the sand moulting, the shock of this caused him to abandon his shell whilst still in a semi-soft state. At the time I noticed this I was just about to leave town for a five day trip, and I totally panicked. Not knowing what to do, and not having time to research the problem, I handled what needn't have been a really serious situation badly and unfortunately when I got back from the trip yesterday that crab had also died; leading to a major guilt trip on my part.
Now, there are a couple of reasons I'm writing about this in detail. Firstly, it's fresh in my mind, and both Haru and I are really sad about loosing another one. However, I've also learnt a lot from these experiences, and have become a better crab owner through continued research. I plan to buy some more crabs from a good pet store in the summer, and improve the tank even more. They are really interesting creatures, we've really enjoyed keeping them, and I hope other potential owners can learn from my mistakes. That's the second reason I'm writing this. Hermit crabs are sold as easy pets for kids, less smelly versions of hamsters. However, if you don't want your pet to suffer and die they actually have very specific needs. You do need to research how to keep them, and to be sure that you can meet those needs before you buy them. Although, I've really done my best to make up for the mistakes I made and to learn from them, I've always been playing catch up - researching problems only when they came up rather than having knowledge in advance and being prepared - I regret that and I realize that it's a direct result of having made an impulse buy from a non-reputable seller. There is even a distinct chance that the crabs I bought are a protected variety that shouldn't have been sold in the first place; another good reason to not buy from places like market stalls. Anyway, I've already talked about this too much, so let's move on. However, if anybody is interested in keeping hermit crabs and has any questions I've be happy to answer them if I can, and point you in the direction of some of the better resources I've found that really helped me.
Back in Kochi Ken, our next stopping point was the castle. Whilst it isn't anything drastically different to the other Japanese castles I've visited, it is a nice example of pre-restoration design work and also quite lucky to be standing intact following heavy bombing of the city in WW2.
"Kōchi was selected as a target by the United States' XXI Bomber Command because of the city's status as a prefectural capital, and the fact that it was a centre for industry and commercial trade. On July 3, 1945 at 6:22 PM (JST) 129 Aircraft took off to bomb Kōchi. 1060 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Kōchi, destroying 48% of the built up areas of the city."
Considering that it's large size and hilltop location it is quite incredible that it wasn't seriously damaged.
This visit was also the closest I got to any whale watching during the trip, as the castle had an exhibition about whales in the main building. However, it wasn't about the more eco-friendly tourist trade building up around the passive observation of them, it was more about the old (and pretty brutal) hunting techniques used to catch the whales.
Japan's relationship with animals is very strange. There is a distinct preference for cute things linked to a disturbing trend towards the anthropomorphising animals. Of course his can be done by dressing animals up and behaviour training, but it's usually done in a more indirect way via the use of comedy sound effects, dubbing and/or subtitles showing the animals 'thoughts' during TV shows to make the their reactions seem more comic and human.
So, while in the UK we get the wonderful documentaries of David Attenborough to educate, inform and delight us, one of Japan's most popular animal themed shows, "Tensai! Shimura Dōbutsuen" (guilty of all the above mentioned tactics) is filmed in front of a live studio audience with the main focus on making animals seem as cute and unthreatening as possible. The bigger eyed, fluffier and more playful the creature the better, of course this is all presented by uninformed variety show celebs, and there is at least one basket of puppies per episode.
In short, animals are presented as objects to be 'Oooed' and 'Aaahred' at, but it's all very surface with very little sense of real connection or responsibility. The result is that Japanese people have a deeply fractured relationship with animals, they'll pay a small fortune for a pedigree dog to carry around in their designer bag, but protest about the opening of an animal shelter near their home (in my town). This disconnect enables these same people to then walk into a zoo or aquarium and comment on how cute, and delicious, certain exhibits look in almost the same breath (Yes, I've heard comments like that several times, mostly in aquariums).
So it shouldn't come as any surprise then that Japanese people simply don't get why whaling is so objectionable to many people, in fact more accurately most Japanese don't even realise it is a controversial point. In my time here whale meat has been served for school lunch twice; meat which, no doubt, arrived via the 'whaling for scientific research' loophole that Japan blatantly exploits. The only reaction from my colleagues was along the lines of 'Oh, whale meat, we don't have that often now do we, I wonder why? We used to have it all the time when I was at school'. I thought about explaining why, and did roughly sketch out how Japan's hunting of whales is mostly 'frowned on' internationally; the main reaction was surprise and defensiveness. Consuming nothing but their own national media they have have almost no idea how Japan's whaling is perceived abroad. Powerful proponents of whaling within Japan have been very sucessful in aligning the issue in the minds of the people with a concept of Japanese identity, so what we might see as anti-whaling attitudes elsewhere are seen more as directly anti-Japanese attacks here. Most Japanese people are not, contrary to what some people might think, anti-whale fanatics. Sadly they are with very little personal thought, accepting, and defending, a policy decided by a few.
Anyway, to counter balance the text heavy top half of this entry, and to prove that Japanese people can also be very nice to animals, let's have some photos from Noichi Zoo. A very nice wildlife park built in the hills outside Kochi where we decided to fill the time that should have been spent whale watching. As I visit a lot of zoos I try to focus my photos on animals or behaviour that I haven't seen too much else where, in Noichi Zoo the highlights were a very nice Lemur island environment that was a pleasure to watch, a really good tropical house and their personalised toilet paper!
So whilst we did get to see a castle and a nice zoo, meaning that the trip was not a complete disaster, I'm not sure that Plan B in Kochi really justified the long road trip needed to get there - damn typhoons!
After we got back things at my school where just gearing up for the annual kayaking trip across the lake, which I'll pass over with just a single photo collage this year as it was my fourth time participating in this event. This year we were blessed with blue skies and calm waters most of the way as you can see.
I did get to try out a fun, new water sport this year though, water bugging on the Seta river. Water bugging is a little like riding down the river on a rubber ring, only with more control. Your 'bug' is more like a horseshoe than a ring, so you can dangle your legs in the water and kick with your fins. You also wear webbed gloves that convert your hands into an extra pair of paddles making it easy to move around.
We got some basic training on the river bank, followed by some exercises in the water before we got to ride down two sets of rapids. After a couple of hours in the water we reached the end of our run, and finally we wrapped it up with some big jumps off the rocks into the water.
Our next trip was a spent island hopping around the inland sea in late September. A trip so epic it's going to make up the next three blog entries to come!