Saturday, November 10, 2012

Now in the Eiken club.

It has been a lot time since I made a post on this blog. I appologise for this. I've been caught up in working on content for my online art folio and I have been putting my blog off.

I started sketching in earnest back in late July and since then I've created about 15 works (trying to complete works at a pace of one a week). Also since starting this routine I've found my skill drawing perception has been steadily getting better and better. Some of my works are even beginning to take on the effect of black and white photographs.

On the physical side of things I've been keeping up my regular exercise (jogging three days a week and going to the gym once a week). My weight has plateaued at 62kg's but my arms, chest and waist are getting firmer. My sternum is like a hard board now which I think is a good thing because it was like a pillow before. :p Winter is coming on a pace so I think my outdoor physical activity will start to lapse. I'll probably put on a bit of weight but I know the trick to losing it now when summer comes around again.

Anyway, I want to get around to the topic I wanted to talk about. You might be wondering why I called this post 'The Eiken Club'. Eiken is an abbreviation of 英語 (Eigo meaning English) and 検定 (Kentei meaning examination). It's an English oral test so students can get a proficiency mark to travel overseas or get into the university or high school they want. hundreds of thousands of Japanese students take this test twice a year when it is offered. It's well known by everyone as 'THE' English test. There are hundreds of text books to prepare for it. DS games, computer software, CD roms and other material all dedicated to passing Eiken. Needless to say the Japanese place a lot of stock in this test.
For foreign teachers who are struggling to get work at decent paying cram schools or finding it hard to gather private students you would think that it would be a lucrative racket to get involved in but for some reason there are very very few foreigners certified as Eiken examiners. In fact most Eiken examiners (probably 99%) are Japanese teachers, tutors, principals and others involved in Education.
I don't know the exact reason why there are so few native teachers involved in one of Japanese biggest English examinations but I think the reason might have to be with the fact that it's quite an exclusive club. You cannot 'apply' to be an Eiken examiner. You have to be referred by someone who already is an Eiken examiner. Considering a lot of foreigners in Japan have a limited number of Japanese friends (many of which are probably not involved in teaching) they have no chance of getting a foot in.
Luckily in my case I knew someone already involved in Eiken and was referred onto STEP (the institute which runs Eiken) by him. I completeed the online training which involves watching a how to video. Reading the grading criteria. And other small things. In total it took maybe 3 hours and a couple if minutes after I got my first examining gig at a high school not far from me.
Today I went along to the test site and sat as an examiner for Eiken for the first time. There were about 15 other examiners at the test site but I was the only non-Japanese examiner there. The other examiners turned out to all be English teachers at local high schools and had a good grasp of English (still accented with a few odd phrase choices mind you).

In total I tested about 40 students and the time went by quite quickly. My only complaint was having to wear 上履き (Japanese indoor slippers) in a freezing cold classroom. Probably went for a wee 10 times in 3 hours. Lunch was provided which was good. A high end convenience store bento so I couldn't complain about that. Numeration wasn't half bad either :)

All in all it was a good experience and I hope I get another chance to do it. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Day in Takarazuka

Hello all.

Well it’s finally getting cooler now and we can manage without the air-conditioner. We’ve changed to leaving the doors a-jar to let the cool air in so things are getting a lot more comfortable. Given that the air outside is less humid now the prospect of going on a train adventure somewhere does not seem so arduous compared to before. Given this fact I decided to take a train out of town today and explore.

In Japan there is a famous comic book artist named Tezuka Osamu and he’s a bit of a national treasure (you may know one of his characters as Astro Boy) not to mention an illustrative genius. The guy started illustrating full length comic books when he was in high school and was doing a pretty good job drawing in his years leading up to that. Osamu’s comic books range from child orientated stories about Lions and birds to more adult themes like WWII and the Holocaust. Osamu was born in Osaka but brought up in a town a few km west of Osaka called Takarazuka. It was in Takarazuka that a museum dedicated to the artists life was built.

I found out about a special exhibition at the museum running for only September so I decided to go today. The town of Takarazuka has become well known through a certain type of pantomime/ opera that originated in the town. Takarazuka theatre or just ‘Takarazuka’ as it’s called by fans is a pantomime performance featuring all female cast members. So the opposite to Shakespearean theatre you could say. Here are some posters of just some of the upcoming shows.

I really enjoyed wandering around Takarazuka, it had an air of a different class of citizen compared to Osaka. Everything was very elegant, neat and tidy. I can imagine this would be the kind of place that girls go for the day to feel like a princess in their own kingdom. I particularly liked Takarazuka because it fitted my snobbishly high-brow artsy-fartsy sensibilities perfectly (not a pair of crocs in sight!)

The exhibition I went to see was a collection of cels, concept art and scaled models of a popular Japanese Animation named Neon Genesis Evangelion. The exhibition explain the characters. The origins and development of the plot. It’s transition from comic book page to screen and so on. The exhibition was quite strict on where photos could be taken (i.e. cels were not allowed to be photographed) but I took photos of what I could.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Painting the alleys of Osaka.

Hello all

I've been quite busy recently which is why it has taken me some time to get around to this post. The summer heat here in Japan is as hot as ever. It's averaging out at about 33 degrees every day and the humidity is settling in at around 75%. My choices are to either sit in the apartment and sweat in the heat or get out on my bicycle and sweat out there. Well at least on my bicycle I can enjoy the odd breeze here and there so that's what I've been doing recently. At first I wasn't really sure where to cycle to, Osaka being the urban sprawl that it is makes it difficult to choose a singular destination. So, I just decided to follow the train line and see where it took me. Turns out that this was a good decision since all the markets, cafes, restaurants and hubs sit under or beside to train-lines.

My first stop was Tsuruhashi 鶴橋 Station, Osaka's Korean town. If you've seen the movie Blade Runner you'll be able to get a pretty decent image in your mind of what Tsuruhashi looks like. The whole marketplace is under the train tracks so you're in darkness most of the time with only the neon signs to guide you around the subterranean maze. There are lots of food stalls, woks frying vegetables, smoke from the barbequed meat restaurants, secondhand clothing, talismans, decorations, gadgets and much more.

This little stop in Tsuruhashi got me inspired. I've always had an attraction to alleyways and narrow spaces. I think it all stems from my interest in how wide open space is divided and sectioned creating new spaces that are quite intimate. Japan is very good at doing this. You have only to look at a traditional Japanese home to see that they way they use space is a lot different to the rest of the word.

So, this has led me to taking up painting again. I've been riding around town since then documenting various alleys, sketching them up and working with the lighting and tone. Here are four examples of works I have done so far. The hardest part has been achieving realistic perspective. Even now it is still very hit and miss for me. Perspective has always been my weakest area in art so I consider this works to be an exercise in trying to get my thumbing attempts right.

Shinsekai Ebisu-cho Osaka
Ink and watercolour on cartridge paper. 

Hozenji - Dotonburi Osaka
Ink and watercolour on cartridge paper.

Teradacho Ikuno-ku Osaka
Ink and watercolour on cartridge paper. 

Tsuruhashi Osaka
Ink and watercolour on cartridge paper. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A lazy Sunday in Osaka

Hello all.

I hope some people got around to reading my last post about Taiwan. Even two weeks later I'm still buzzing about the trip and wishing I was back there. I guess it's just my post holiday hand over. :p

This weekend we planned on having a quiet couple of days... that is what we planned on. I must say though this has been one of the busiest weekends we've had in a long time. Yesterday my wife signed up for a driving course. She had to submit a lot of documentation and pay the fee which was quite considerable at 320,000円 (Over 3.5 grand). Learning to drive in Japan ain't cheap but Japan produces some of the best defensive drivers in the world despite racial stereotypes that Asians can't drive.

Today we went to 心斎橋 in Namba (the stabbing place I mentioned in an earlier post). We found a small Mexican restaurant hidden on the 8th floor of a daggy looking building. Despite it's odd location and very poor advertising (faded picture menu on a worn billboard outside the building and a hand scribbled sign inside the elevator) we still decided to give it a go. Well the interior was very edgy with grey bagged concrete walls that graffiti scrawled over every inch of the surface. Lots of sombreros, trumpets and old posters handing on the walls gave the place an authentic feel. Given that it was ethnic food in the middle of Osaka the price was quite reasonable. Two taco lunches, a Corona and a margarita coming to 2,700円.

After this lovely meal we came out of the restaurant into the blazing heat. It was so hot in fact that we couldn't continue without stopping in a cafe for a couple of glasses of ice cold green tea. Well I had a cold green tea, my wife had a hot one.

We headed from here over to the main street only to hear large blaring speakers shouting Japanese right wing slogans. As we reached the main road, lo and behold the Black Vans were on parade. The Black Vans are vehicles used by the unofficial Japanese right-wing supporters who stand for things such as "kick all foreigners out of Japan" and "show more respect to the Emperor" etc. Every once in a while these people get in their vans, drive around the city in packs and shout things like "Give back our Islands! Down with Russia! Down with Korea!" etc. 
As soon as we saw the Black Vans approaching my wife grabbed my arm and shoved me behind a phone pole least the drivers assume I'm Russian and..... well, it's Japan so they won't do anything but they might have shouted some moderately nasty things at me. 

After this we went to Softbank phone shop and my wife picked up a couple of cool little gadgets. This one is called a 見守り携帯 which roughly translates to a guardian phone. As you can see there are no number buttons but there is a single circular button in the center and a pull cord. Its a simplified phone designed for children and old people. You simply store the contacts you want to call in the phone. Select them and punch the okay button to call them. In case of emergency you rip the cord and either an alarm will sound or a txt will be automatically sent to your chosen contact or contacts. My wife didn't choose the device for any of these reasons though. She chose it firstly because it was free under her current contract and secondly because it means we can call each other for free any time any number of times using it. 


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

My impression of Taiwan


Hello all,

We want to Taiwan last weekend so I figured I’ll talk about our impressions of Taiwan for this post. There are however two important points I should make. First, unfortunately due to our work schedules our trip was very short (only two days to be precise). So I should begin by making it clear that these impressions were made based on only two days in the country.

The second is since we were part of a tour a lot of what we saw was mitigated to an extent. What I mean is we saw the tourist version of Taiwan. Not by any means a holistic view of Taiwan.

I currently live in Japan so a lot of these impressions I’ll write as comparisons between Japan and Taiwan. The reason I’m going to do this is because:

a - If my impressions are going to have any weight I’ll need some kind of basis for comparison.

b -  Since I live in Japan and Japan is part of asia and has similar climate zone, geography, written language and historical roots to Taiwan I feel it is a far more valid comparison than lets say.... England since the differences will be too vast to really have any meaning. 

As you know Taiwan is officially known as The Republic of China. Taiwan was established in 1949 when statesman Chiang Kai-shek withdrew from mainland China to set up a Nationalist government separate from Communist China. The population of Taiwan is about 23,000,000 (2,000,000 people more than Australia). 


Anyway I won’t get boggled down with history, you can look it up on Wikipedia like I just did. So, what did we think of Taiwan? In a word, great, just great. Sorry a very simplistic analysis there so let me get into more detail. When we arrived Saturday afternoon is was evident that Taiwan was a fair bit hotter than Japan. During the summer months Japan gets to around 34 degrees. Usually it doesn’t get any higher than that. Taiwan being closer to the equator is a fair bit hotter. It was about 37/ 38 degrees while we were there. What surprised me the most however was how little neither my wife nor i noticed this. I guess it was because in Taipei people aren’t stingy about using air-con. Every shop you go into is like a refrigerator. The Japanese on the other hand are very power conscious, especially in recent times with the deactivation of certain nuclear power plants. Also I noticed that Taipei was a fair bit windier than Osaka blowing most of the humidity away. In Osaka city the humidity seems to just sit stagnant over the town for days on end without a breeze. For this reason even though the temperature is not quite so high in Japan you definitely feel it a lot more. 

Money and prices

One Taiwan dollar will get you three hundred Japanese Yen (roughly). This made calculation quite easy for us while over there. Shops and boutiques are not noticeably any cheaper than Japan (clothing, accessories, electronics etc). However we noticed drinks and small foodstuffs in 7/11 were considerably cheaper than in Japan and of course if you visit the markets things are amazingly cheap. Eating out and alcohol was also a lot cheaper in Taipei. Our first night we went out for a Yum Cha kind of meal which was quite substantial with beer and it ran us up only 300 Taiwan dollars each .


You can find Taiwanese food in Japan of course but it’s only when you actually get to Taiwan that you realise how much Taiwanese food in Japan has been changed to meet Japanese tastes. Japanese food is quite light, salty but not so oily. Taiwanese food uses lots of sesame oil and is quite rich. We found ourselves unable to finish most of the food we ordered simply because of how rich and heavy it all was. That being said everything we ate was wonderful. There wasn’t a single dish we tried that we did not like in Taipei. However, I can’t imagine myself eating Taiwanese food everyday... at least the dishes we tried. The combination of the rich oily taste and the heat and humidity would just leave me in a constant half conscious stupor around the clock.


We didn’t get a chance to talk to many people in Taiwan except for a few shop keepers and our tour guide. However a hobby of my wife and I is to observe people and speculate on their personality. From our observations we concluded that in terms of personality the Taiwanese are a lot more casual and laid-back than the Japanese... I guess this goes without saying since there really isn’t another race in the world as restrained as the Japanese. My wife was particularly surprised when she found out from our tour guide how few Taiwanese overwork on the weekend. Weekend overtime is something rooted deeply in the Japanese work ethic. It’s not that people in Japan enjoy working overtime (maybe some do) but they feel a  professional and social obligation to. I guess Taiwan differs greatly to Japan in this respect and puts it more in the same sphere as western countries.

Clothing was something that struck me as very different. In Taiwan is was clear that people were dressed for the weather. Men in jeans and t-shirts, women in shorts and singlets or tee’s. Compare this to Japan where probably about 50% of men are in business attire at all times of the week or in collared shirts with flashy patterns around the arms and skinny jeans. Women dressed in.... god knows what half the time.

Art and Culture

Taiwan has an amazing collection of traditional jade, ivory, coral and other pottery made from precious stones and gems. These are all on displace at the national palace museum in Taipei. Some of the most popular exhibits are a stone carved to look like a piece of pork and a solid piece of jade carved to look like a cabbage with a cricket on top. This differs to a lot of Japanese pottery which is made from clay and ceramics. A lot of Japanese pottery is also less decorative in favor of ‘wabisabi’ beauty found in nature and imperfection.  


Buildings in Taipei have similarities with Japan but also differences. I didn’t notice two many differences between Taiwanese apartment buildings and Japanese apartment buildings. Government buildings in Taipei were always impressive either in design, size or pure oriental decoration.

The traffic in Taipei was a little intimidating. Unlike Japan where you only have cars on the road in Taiwan you have scooters thrown into the mix, lots and lots of scooters. What bicycles are for the Japanese scooters were for the residence of Taipei.

The trains and subways are a little different in Taipei too. Japan uses paper tickets where as Taipei uses these small blue tokens which you scan to enter and deposit to leave. Perhaps an incentive to save paper?

Anyway, to conclude I had a wonderful time in Taipei and given the chance would definitely like to visit again.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Getting back into painting.

Hello all

I realised today that I haven't made a post in some time now and since we are off on a small holiday to Taiwan as of tomorrow I though it would be a good time to make a post before we leave.

I've been spending a lot of time on the computer recently, especially diddling around with illustrator and photoshop. But in all honesty I haven't actually 'painted' anything in some time now. My wife recommended that I just try painting something, anything at all. I figured 'can't hurt' so I chose the view from our balcony as my subject and sketched it up en plein air before painting the rest of the work indoors (it's very hot and humid outside). My painting skill still needs a lot of work but I was quite happy with the composition and perspective. In the past perspective has always been a weak point for me but I think in two or three more works I'll have it down pat. 

I said to my wife's parents that the next painting will be for them. I took a few photos while at their house in Akashi, Hyogo prefecture and I plan on choosing one when I get back from Taiwan and making a start.

I'm thinking of getting a set of oil paints. The problem with working in acrylic is that everything dries flat. Mixing the paints with impasto or gesso either gives it s chalky texture or makes the paint glossy which I don't like. If I had a set of oil paints I'd be able to add a lot more texture, problem is oil paint is expensive and even more so in Japan... I'll need to think about that one  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hello all

Well as I mentioned in my last post it's getting hotter and hotter. Today it was particularly muggy so we went down town to do a little shopping. We ended up going into a popular cafe called Maeda (まえだ) that specializes in traditional Japanese desserts. I asked my wife what kind of people often come here and she replied mostly the elderly since the desserts are softer on the palette than sugary donuts, sundae's, and so on. 

 I've labeled the names of the sweets in the photos but they need an explanation. In both photos there is a skewered dessert called Mitarashi-Dango. Mitarashi is a type of soy sauce that has been sweetened. Dango are soft sticky balls made from rice flour. The dango on their own are for the most part bland but the Mitarashi sauce gives the dessert it's subtle flavouring. Subtle is a word which cleanly characterizes the taste Japanese food in general but especially desserts. The other dessert shown is called Warabi-mochi (わらび餅). Warabi-mochi can be a number of substances covered in a yellowish-brown powder called Kinako (きなこ). Kinako is kind of like the Matrix, it cannot be described, you have to taste it for yourself.  

 In this second photo we can see another Mitarashi-dango beside a dessert called Kinako-mochi (きな粉餅). Kinako-mochi is a cross between Mitarashi-dango and Warabi-mochi. The inside is mochi which is the same substance as Dango just in a different shape covered in Kinako.

If you find yourself in Japan make sure you try these three dishes. Well worth it.