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Sunday, January 4, 2015

For Fukui's Sake - A Book Review

With naught else to do on a quiet first day of 2015, I read the book For Fukui's Sake by Sam Baldwin about his two years in rural Japan.

He spent those two years as part of the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme starting in 2004, which was 14 years after I first went there on the same programme.

The differences in time are startling few though many.

Baldwin is in a remote town (Ono) whose name translates to "Big Field" that seems to border on the Sea of Japan, with a wonderous snowy set of mountains behind it. It is probably far more rural a place than my own city of Ohtawara (which translates into Big-Rice Field-Field), and yet his experiences while completely different from my own are basically the same. Apparently there are many many ways to live in a big field in Japan.

Sure Baldwin's first item of interest while in Japan is to climb Mount Fuji, while myself, despite passing it by many a time via train, apparently visiting a town situated at its base, and viewing it with high-powered telescopes and binoculars from the summit of an active volcano in my own backyard, never saw the damn thing and have my sincerest doubts as to whether or not it actually exists. I've never seen Africa, and also have doubts of its existence, too - so you know where I am coming from. I'm a genius or completely nuts or have a good sense of humor being able to run a joke for 25 years and counting. No bets.

Baldwin and other assistant English teachers in his area also seem to have been afforded the luxury of having their own cars - where there was no way in hell my bosses would have let me have one, explaining that a bicycle would suffice because they didn't want me getting into an accident while under their watch. Having twice been hit by a car while riding my bicycle, I understand their concerns. I also nearly put a motorcycle through the plate glass window of my apartment building's office.

Baldwin also enjoyed himself traveling to a rock and roll festival - something that did not exist  while I was there, but seeing as how I detest crowds and prefer the relaxation solitude of cranking up my own stereo in my voluminous Japanese apartment - it was bigger than damn near everyone else's place in Japan - even those who had a house... I wouldn't have gone to the festival anyway. I do prefer the intimacy of a small club, however, where I can actually hear the music, drink and take a whizz in a real toilet rather than anything portable.

Baldwin also likes to go camping, and boating out where the buses don't run... and me... while I do like the quiet and have many a time simply hopped on my bicycle to the end of civilization in my neck of the woods, I do not care for camping. I am one of those people who believes that when he has time off, he does not need to do any such foolish thing as 'roughing it'. It's my express belief - and rotsa ruck to those of you who disagree - that since mankind spent 10's of thousands of years trying to get out of the damn caves and having to capture and cook one's own meal over a fire while slapping away gnats and mosquitoes... well... I just don;t care for that sort of stuff. Give me a five-star hotel and a bunch of locals to show me around any day. I'd rather look at architecture that is hundreds of years old because I like architecture and history and meeting people I haven't met before. I like the cultural and social aspect of Japan.

Baldwin also has enjoyable times meeting new people, including the locals, finding his own bar and drinking companions who took him on some incredible adventures against or into nature. I did the same, but poor Baldwin went to Japan with his gaijin girlfriend, and so did not get to sample as much of the local culture as he could have. I had a gaijin girlfriend, progressed to being the boyfriend to a few more gaijin JET women, slept with many Japanese women, was protector to many gaijin women, was a confidante to many Japanese women looking for help with their relationships, was stalked by a Japanese woman who showed the ropes to the guy who was a virgin when he landed in Japan to the gentle art and S&M, and dated a Japanese teacher of English something apparently quite difficult to do, but really, I just assumed everyone was doing it. I also had my own bar to drink at and had a drink a few times with the local yakuza boss.  

Baldwin skinny dipped in a lake, but none of his Japanese friends would join in. I myself also did a Free Willy stint in the very popular river that runs through the tourist town of Nikko, though admittedly I did so with two other male gaijin - three Canadians in the water... and if any Japanese spotted us, no one said anything nor did they join in. I'll just say that the water was very cold and raisin bag occurred.

Baldwin also traveled around Japan, doing so with a bunch of male gaijin buddies, driving his Jeep to a point before taking a boat all the way up to Hokkaido all in an effort to escape the humidity of Fukui - and to rough it and see the forests. I - I traveled once by myself and got horribly lost in Osaka, Japan's second largest city, but did make out with a Japanese woman after partying with her and her boyfriend - after the boyfriend went home, of course. All the other times I traveled in Japan after that, I made sure I traveled with a woman capable of speaking more Japanese than my idiotic self. Being seen with a beautiful woman also does wonders for one's ego even if I had no sense of direction, only knowing how to go down. Although I never made it up north to Hokkaido, I did travel by train and by boat to all parts of the island of Kyshu, as well as the main island of Honshu - managing to avoid all areas where there might be insects.

Baldwin also managed to do some teaching while in Japan, and had some fun at the schools - even getting to walk the school's mascot - a dog name Shiro (white). Apparently every dog that had a white coat in Japan is named Shiro, as the Japanese seem to have a tremendous lack of imagination when it comes to dog names. My dogs were: Tin-Tin (named after a marionette in the TV show Thunderbirds); Tippy (we adopted him with that name already - god knows where that came from); Apollo (a rottweiler named after one of Magnum PI's dobermans); Damien (named after the evil kid in the Omen movies that was really Lucifer reborn - it was also the movie where I first saw rottweilers, and this was a rottie); Misty (not my idea... I would have called her Psycho - which she was when she wasn't the sweetest rottweiler ever); Black Jack (after Black Jacque Shellac in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, the roughest, toughest water color and a perfect name for a rottweiler); and Buster Brown (a chocolate Labrador I named after Buster Brown the first comic book character to achieve national syndication in the newspapers at the turn of the last century because I love comic books). Oh yeah, I also taught in Japan and had lots of fun with the students enough so that some of them helped me land a girlfriend via one of their Japanese English teachers who was pretty enough to hate my guts when we first met, but was won over thanks to the persistence of those kids who thought I was a nice guy.

Baldwin went on a fishing trawler and helped catch fish with them, sort them and then sell them at the local fish market. Holy crap! Uh... I went trout fishing in Nikko, caught nothing, but because I was friends with an Aussie fish scientist named Michael Hutchison, he scooped out a 10-pound trout from the pond and gave it to me. He and I chatted as recently as five days ago. Oh yeah... I sat on a private toilet reserved for the Emperor when he fishes in the area. I'll give that one to Baldwin because I got a splinter in my a$$ from the wooden throne.

Baldwin visited a samurai sword genius who replenishes old swords... damn... I visited farms, pottery masters and a bonsai master... and learned the old man hobby of tree bondage - bending nature to my will - just like the Japanese like to do. Even though I was given my own 90-year-old bonsai tree that I killed in six months, I do like katana swords.

Baldwin took up the ancient Japanese art of taiko drumming - very cool. I did the samurai art of kyudo (archery) on a weekly basis and even entered a prefectural competition where I can proudly state that I did not kill anyone will hitting a target (not my own). I also participated in every school club activity including kendo (Japanese fencing) and judo where I excelled - though I never participated in English club.

Baldwin also mentions that he played drums at a school assembly with a Japanese teacher performing another role - and because of technical issues it went horribly, horribly wrong. I once performed a song on the keyboards at a festival in Nikko in front of several thousand people - a solo act where I was supposed to play the Theme From Peter Gunn, but somehow started the baseline a semitone too high and when I played the treble clef I was so out of tune everybody scrunched up their eyes in disgust.... playing that bass line a semitone too high would have been perfect if I was doing the B-52's Rock Lobster... another song I liked to play in my apartment.

Baldwin had health issues with his wisdom teeth - owtch! Luckily he didn't actually have to have a Japanese dentist go to work on his teeth, because the Japanese are known for their sparkling dental work. Me? Let's see... I scratched my cornea twice and had to wear an eye patch - so I looked really cool for two two week-periods... so much so that I continued to wear it even after my eye was better. I also thought I picked up some bad mojo after doing some weird sexual lingus thing that made me thing this was the end - and I had to explain to my bosses and doctor what I had done so that they could provide me with the proper medicine - which, incidentally, always seemed to look like a purple powder - a powder I have never ever seen since leaving the country. I also lost my hearing for a few days after I dropped an arrow while doing archery, stared down in disbelief and then accidentally released the bowstring at full heavy pull smashing it into my aural canal area. I never saw a doctor for that. Strangely, I never saw a doctor when I was twice hit by cars over a one week period. Nor did I visit one when allergies to some Japanese pollen threatened to kill me during that time of the year for a week - over a three-year enrollment. Also, there was the time I nearly asphyxiated myself. 

Baldwin talks about the paper thin walls in his apartment and how stupid Japanese architecture is. I can't argue about some of that, but that asphyxiation thing occurred when I refused to open my doors to let more freezing wind and air into my apartment to let the fumes from my kerosene heater out. Despite nearly dying or suffering sum cert of bairn in jury, the bosses got me an electric heater/air-conditioner that ensured I would never do anything so stupid again, and would never have to suffer from Japan's humidity - thus saving me all sorts of travel trouble that Baldwin managed to get into. My fingers are still numb.

Baldwin loves Japan and was sad to leave it. I love Japan, but according to my blog, I am still there, so I have no idea if I will be sad or not.

For Fukui's Sake is quite the good book. It is nothing like my own adventures, which I sometimes think is mostly about myself and women... but Baldwin... I think his book sometimes devolves into a travelogue for Japan's nature romps - and maybe too much time is spent in the company of gaijin, but dammit... Baldwin had some great adventures, which was why I only mentioned them and did not explain them. 

To Baldwin's credit, he was a quick learner of the Japanese language, and while it is NOT often clear which language he is speaking while chatting with the Japanese people, I assume he is doing it in Japanese. Kudos to him for that! Three years and my sad language kills enabled me to survive Japan, but not to have indepth conversations with people like he did.

But, the point is... and for all of you already in Japan... and those of you considering going to Japan... every situation is different. I tried to show off my own stupid adventures in this blog, while only mentioning Baldwin's... but I did that for a reason.

Well... to show that maybe my own stuff was bizarre - so read my damn blog ... but also because Baldwin's For Fukui's Sake - excellent title!!! - is a quick and fun read and I don't want to deprive the reader the surprise of the story... and, quite frankly, I don't want to deprive Baldwin of a few bucks, should you decide to purchase a copy.

Or maybe I was being jealous.

Published by Baka Books (Stupid Books), I am sure you can pick up a copy via Amazon, or you can garner more information at

Baldwin and I would have liked each other I am sure, but we sure wouldn't have hung out much.

His was a totally different life in rural Japan... but still exactly the same as my own. And that's a good thing.

Andrew Joseph
PS: Thanks to Vince for the loan of the book! 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your review Andrew. I LOLed repeatedly reading it. Sounds like we had very different experiences in Japan but I am jealous of several of yours. Keep on blogging in the free world - Sam Baldwin