Thursday, 29 January 2009

Relaxation ....

They start them young on the slopes here!

The onsen really is an amazing invention, so relaxing and rejuvenating. There is a particular etiquette for taking an onsen though - first you must strip off before sitting on a small stool and having a shower before climbing into the steaming water. The water is so hot at first but it is easy to settle in and allow the water to soak away all aches and pains from the day of skiing. It is a little strange at first to sit in a bath with other naked women, but you soon get over any body issues and really enjoy the soothing waters.

'Natural hazards' - Japanese snowboarders.
Konno prepares the sashimi for dinner.
It has been a long time since I have taken a holiday and stayed in the one spot the whole time, so I am finding it extremely relaxing to be in same place for 7 days. We seem to have developed a pattern of sleeping in, reading, skiing, long lunch breaks, more skiing, onsen, napping, reading, dinner and drinking then early nights. What a life!
View from the gondola.
Well, it is a holiday! Naps and books are compulsory!
Mum recently made the observation that my blog seems to be taking on 'food' theme. I suppose that is true but I really believe that two of the best things about travelling are trying different foods and meeting new and interesting people. If I were to judge this holiday by these two criteria, we have had an extremely successful holiday! Konno has taken us to try so many new foods and drinks, most of which have been beautiful. We have tried: Sushi - Definitely tastier in Japan! Sashimi - So fresh and beautiful. Sukiyaki - A meat, vegetable and tofu dish with a sugar and soy sauce base that you cook yourself. Yakitori - Skewers of BBQ meat and vegetables. Quite salty. Nabe - A Japanese hotpot with fish, tofu, rice cakes and vegetables in a miso broth. Shabushabu - Another type of Japanese hot pot where you dip thin strips of pork into a steaming miso broth. Sake - Very strong and not for me. Syochu - Another Japanese spirit made from sweet potato. You drink it with hot water or rosehip tea. Konno was very insistent that this was a healthy drink. Umeshu - A sweet plum wine, known as a 'ladies' drink. I don't like spirits, but this was good!
New friends exploring the small world we live in.
It's our last day of skiing today and unfortunately it is raining, which may mean that most of the afternoon will be spent next to the fire in our favourite little restaurant on the hill, Fushya. We have been here every day for lunch with our new group of friends - Konno, Junko and Ben. Often others we have met pop in too, it's a lovely small community there. We also had dinner there the other night - Konno pulled some strings and they opened the restaurant for us. We skiied until about 7pm, had dinner and then back on the slopes till 9pm - nice!
Gunnar cooking the Sukiyaki under the watchful eye of Konno and Mama.
We are heading back to Tokyo tomorrow for some more sightseeing and shopping before Gunnar heads back to Wuxi on Sunday. I then put on my work hat and head to Yokohama to visit the Yokohama International School to pick their brain about the PYP! How nerdy on a holiday!

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Omega 3 overload!

On the chairlift.
The skiing is definitely getting much better here, in fact I will even go as far as saying, it is quite addictive! Just one more run and we'll go in! I have survived two days with only two falls, not bad considering my first few days. I have been incredibly lucky to have an amazing ski instructor, Ai-chan (Ai - friend), who has been so patient and encouraging despite her limited English. She even took me through the kid's fun park - a series of hoops to go under and several jumps, so much fun!
Junko about to cook the nabe - a traditional Japanese hotpot with fish, tofu, vegetables and miso. New friends enjoying sashimi - Konno wielding the knives and Ben in the front.
We woke up yesterday to a very snowy morning, which meant heaps of amazing powder snow on the mountain - all the better for landing on! Today has been a beautiful day with bright blue skies - perfect for going up the mountain on the gondola and skiing on the top of the mountain. Tonight we are going night skiing which should be magnificent, the mountain looks spectacular under lights.
Konno tending to the traditional Japanese fire at a local restaurant.
I don't really know a lot about the ski culture in Australia but it is very interesting to watch people on the mountain here in Japan. You can easily categorise them based on their behaviours - There are the skiiers and snowboarders who know what they are doing, then there are the beginners who have a look of forced concentration on their faces as they snow plough down the mountain and hold out their arms for balance (this is me!) and then there are the Japanese snow boarders. Well, they are a very interesting group - the Lonely Planet described them as a 'natural hazard to avoid', and this is exactly what they are. They spend most of their time sitting on their bum in the middle of the slope which makes it quite difficult for the likes of me who already have significant trouble turning without having to avoid stationary people. There are also the snowboarding girls who seem spend an extraordinary amount of time not just sitting, but also making sure that their beanie is placed very precisely on their head, with the right amount of hair protruding from underneath. The people watching is definitely very interesting!
Ai-chan - ski instructor extraordinaire!
I'm not sure what Gunnar and I have done in a previous life to deserve such wonderful treatment at our hotel, but it must have been pretty extraordinary. Konno and his wife, Junko, have been such amazing hosts, really giving us some special experiences to remember from our time here. They held a special 'party' for us the other night and invited some of the people who they had organised to help us on the mountain - Ai-chan, her boyfriend Isami-chan (who just happens to be a professional motorbike rider!) and Ben, an Aussie guy who has lived here on and off for a few years. Konno prepared fresh sashimi and a traditional Japanese hot pot with fresh fish and tofu - hence the Omega 3 overload! View at the top of the Hakuba Goryu ski resort.
Last night, Konno took us to a Japanese restaurant, where we sat around a traditional Japanese fire and enjoyed more fish! We have learnt that Konno is known as the 'chief of the mountain', he can pull strings like no one else can. We both feel so incredibly lucky that he has looked after us the way he has - ski lessons with the best teachers, beautiful dinners out and learning about the amazing Japanese culture. Anyway, off to go night skiing!

Monday, 26 January 2009

"How do I stop again?"

View from our lunch and tea spot!

Well, I have survived the first two days of skiing....just! As most of you know, I'm not known for my patience and am a perfectionist, so it should not surprise anyone to hear that my first day of skiing was an extremely frustrating experience as I struggled to stay upright and spent most of the day on my arse! I had a lesson with the hotel owner, Konno, who was very kind but didn't make me feel any more confident when he informed me that I was a 'very beginner' and was 'good at crashing'! I had strong dejavu experiences all day, as I remembered the first (and only) Davidson skiing holiday when I was 8 - 'Snow plough Anna!' and my legs just got further and further apart and I didn't slow down a bit. It was a lot like this yesterday. I was a little too ambitious at the end of the day and attempted to ski down by myself, it took me about an hour to get half way down the slope and then the ski patrol wanted to shut the lifts, so I had to get a lift to the bottom on the ski patrol! How embarrassing! But a fun experience all the same.

Beginners on the mountain!
I discovered a new side to Gunnar yesterday as well, he was so unbelieveably patient with me as I cursed and got angry at my own inabilities and the fact that a skiing holiday had been his idea and I should have gone to Vietnam as I had planned to! Gunnar is a lot better than me, so has been heading off on more ambitious trails. The gondola Today was much more successful though, I managed to master the snow plough and made it down the mountain several times without falling over once! I had a new teacher today, a lovely Japanese girl whose words I will dream of tonight - 'Make a triangle, eyes down the mountain, eyes where you want to go, push with your leg'. And it worked! I didn't fall over! I may even be able to go straight down the mountain with no turning tomorrow! Outdoor onsen in an old sake tub! We are the only westerners at the hotel and the owners, Junko and Konno, have taken us under their wing and are really looking after us. They invited us for drinks last night and have given us free lessons and organised all our ski rentals etc. Today, we stopped for afternoon drinks with Konno and his friends - how they managed to ski after several sakes and red wines, I'm not sure. I have enough trouble staying upright while sober! Tonight, they are having a party for us, with traditional Japanese food and lots of drinking! Tomorrow night, they are taking us to a local Japanes restaurant with an onsen (hot springs bath) attached. Hopefully tomorrow I can keep improving with my skiing!

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Fish market to Japanese Alps!

Well, we have been in Japan for about 24 hours and already had several unique Japanese experiences - the Tsukiji fish markets, fresh sushi, the bullet train and the Japanese Alps! It doesn't get much better than that! We arrived late last night and managed to negotiate our way to the hotel on the subway, a very easy process helped by colour coding and numbered stations. Although the hotel was budget one, we still had the fanciest toilet I've ever seen - warm seat, flushing sounds in case you want to disguise any noises, front and back shower for when you have finished. Very flash!
Fresh seafood.
An array of fresh shell fish. We were up at 5.30am this morning to visit the Tsukiji fish markets, where all the fresh catches come straight in and then on to the sushi restaurants across Tokyo. We spent a good hour wandering around, checking out the fish and observing the workers go about their business. Afterwards, we enjoyed a beautiful breakfast of the fresh seafood we had been looking at earlier - yum! Definitely the best sushi I have ever eaten, and so beautifully presented.
Bullet train to Hakuba.
Sampling fresh squid at the fish markets.
After a long internet search for accommodation in Hakuba, Gunnar and I bid farewell to Kiki (who was going to meet her boyfriend) and head off to find our way to the Japanese Alps. Again, it was a very easy process and the Japanese people are so eager to help out when needed. We caught the bullet train to Nagano and then a bus to Hakuba where we were greeted by the hotel owners and huge amounts of snow.
Crazy motorised carts at the fish market.
Breakfast - straight from the sea to the market, to us!
Our hotel is in an amazing location, 3 minutes walk to the ski slopes and most importantly to the beginner runs an the ski school! I am feeling quite nervous about the skiing actually, more nervous than I've felt about anything for a long time! Am hoping that I pick it up quite quicklz and don't get too frustrated with myself. Our room has a beautiful view over the mountain and the hotel has 2 onsens (hot springs), one is indoors and the other is outside in an old sake brewery tub. Can't wait to soak my weary limbs in it tomorrow. We went for a wander for some more delicious Japanese cuisine and Asahi beer before hitting the sack, 5.30am starts are not the way to start a holiday! Wish me luck on my ski lessons tomorrow!
Australian sparkling wine in the Japanse alps!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Escaping the madness of Chinese New Year .....

The madness is escalating here in China as everyone prepares for the Chinese New Year holidays. Shops are crowded, the gym has cancelled all its classes, people are fighting over taxis, crowds of people clamber aboard the trains, laden down with gifts for their family. It truly is chaotic! Threats of snow and terrible traffic conditions aren't helping at all. Many of the students have already left for their home countries and a lot of the Chinese staff have left for their home towns.
2009 - Year of the Ox
You show characteristics of the ox if you were born in any of these years - 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997.
"People born in the Year of the Ox are patient, speak little, and inspire confidence in others. They tend, however, to be eccentric, and bigoted, and they anger easily. They have fierce tempers and although they speak little, when they do they are quite eloquent. Ox people are mentally and physically alert. Generally easy-going, they can be remarkably stubborn, and they hate to fail or be opposed. They are most compatible with Snake, Rooster, and Rat people." (thanks Google!)
Just a little reminder that spring is just around the corner (a very big corner though...)

So, what does a laowai do during the time of the Chinese New Year? Get out of China of course! Most people I know here are leaving Wuxi for exotic (mostly hot!) destinations such as Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Phillipines. Gunnar and I however have decided to stick with the cold and head to Japan for a week of skiing. We fly out tonight (hopefully the snow holds off) for Tokyo where we have a few days before catching a bullet train to Hakuba (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics) to play around on the 'idiot slopes' as Gunnar so tactfully described them. Am really looking forward to the skiing, sightseeing and the hot springs at the end of each day!

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

From the heat and humidity to the cold and rain!

Yes, it's back to Wuxi again for me! After a very long day of travel yesterday, we arrived back in Wuxi at 1am. Then up again at 6am to go to work - guess whose class has a grumpy teacher today! The last days of the workshop were fantastic - I found it so inspiring to be around so many passionate and experienced educators, listening to their experiences and learning so much more.
Yummy Nasi Goreng

Jakarta was a welcome break from Wuxi - the heat, people speaking English, 'westernised' restaurants etc. The Indonesian people are just so lovely as well, always there with a smile and ready to help whenever needed. Even the taxi drivers - 'No, Miss, it's too far, will cost you too much money' when I inquired about going to a large outdoor food and music market. It felt so good to get up early every morning and go for a swim - a welcome rest for my body which is starting to feel a little sore after a run now!

My favourite 'tropical resort' drink - Banana juice

Singapore airport is an amazing travellers haven - movies, free internet, swimming pool, shops! Normally a 4 hour stopover goes so slowly but not here! I had a lovely time wandering through the (English!) book stores, watching the Australian Open and doing some shopping. But it's back to reality now and it will be a busy few days here in Wuxi before I head off again, this time to Japan for skiing, sushi and sumo! Reports are due to be handed out, planning needs to happen, displays need to be taken down and put up and parties need to be arranged for Tom, who is leaving the Kookaburras to head back to Korea.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Internationalism and security ....

One of the 'professional' things I miss about home is the network of support and learning I developed within and outside of MLC. So, it was amazing to step into the PYP workshop today and feel at home with a group of like minded educators from all over the world. There are people from international schools in China, Indonesia and Singapore, with the teachers (or excuse me, administrators, apparently that's what I am now!) coming from all over the world, including 2 others from Tasmania! What a small world.
When in Jakarta ...... Bintang

The discussions today centred on ideas of international mindedness - What is international mindedness? What makes a school international minded? It was a stimulating conversation with many new ideas being thrown about, particularly around the idea of religion, which is quite topical in international schools in Indonesia, given that there are 5 main religions followed across the country. I really miss stimulating discussions such as these, I always leave them with scribbled questions and my mind buzzing with new ideas and thoughts.

Lush Jakarta

The discussions and the company made me think a little more closely about the changes in my life and my mindset since I have moved to China. I definitely think that I have become more internationally minded - more aware of cultural differences, of the global economy and the difficulties faced by most of the world's population. Language is a huge part of this and I really think that people (such as myself) who grow up in an English speaking country are at a disadvantage in the world. Sure, we have languages on offer at school, compulsory in some, but there is not the same necessity as other countries to really learn a new language fluently. For example, people coming from Europe, think nothing of speaking 2-3 languages fluently and having a 'little' bit of several other languages. I really need to get cracking on the Mandarin lessons!

The Body Shop at last! My skin can return to normal!

Something that connects to the idea of internationalism, particularly in these troubled times in Indonesia and other parts of the world, is the issue of security. Indonesia could quite possibly be the most secure place in the world at the moment - absolutely everything is checked wherever you go. You have to pass through security gates going into hotels and shopping centres, taxi boots are inspected as you drive into the hotel.

Friday, 16 January 2009

From Wuxi to Jakarta

Ahhhhh, the warmth! It was such a good feeling to step off the plane in Jakarta this afternoon and smell the thick, sweet, humid and tropical air! It reminded me of holidays to Bali when I was younger. The heat hit you and it felt so damn good after the Wuxi cold. After a very early start, Pete and I were on our way. We flew Singapore Airlines, the best in my opinion - the staff are so friendly (and look stunning in their uniforms), the service is fantastic, the food is good and the movies were great!
Changi airport train ...... spotless!

We had a brief stop over in Singapore and were able to quickly peruse the many shops on offer. I'm glad we have a few more hours there on the way home (although my wallet may not thank me!). It was absolute heaven to be able to walk into a book store and look through all the shelves, rather than the standard "Do you have any English books?" question which is always followed by being shown a small selection of books on Chinese characters, a few dog eared novels and maybe a copy of 'Business Weekly' magazine. Singapore is amazingly spotless, the airport is divine. The train had not a spot of grafitti or chewing gum as it would have in Australia or China.

English books!!!!

During the final leg to Jakarta, I was able to spot the other teachers attending the workshops here - as I mentioned before, it's exciting to travel overseas as a teacher for work, so it was easy to pick the excited teachers, as opposed to the bored business men!! Our hotel is lovely, the rooms are beautiful (it doesn't take much to please me, coming from a backpacker background!!) and it overlooks a park which I will explore tomorrow afternoon.

Western toilet, but hose to wipe? Hmmmm, I think not.

Jakarta is great, it's wonderful to get out into another city in another country, with a totally different culture. The traffic is chaotic but nowhere near as bad as in China - maybe due to the fact that there are traffic police everywhere. There are a lot of motorbikes, as opposed to scooters though, so it is quite noisy. The city is so lush as well, it made me think how much the horses back at home would love the rich green grass! Pete and I went out for some Indonesian food this evening and found a great place where we could get nasi goreng, rice noodles (I have forgotten thename) and delicious satay sticks with peanut sauce, all for a very low price. We followed that with a western treat of Cold Stone icecream, yum! Will definitely be hitting the hotel gym after the workshop tomorrow. The people here are so friendly, always smiling and ready for a chat, you can't help but be happy here!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A teacher going on a work related overseas trip?!

As most teachers will know, teaching isn't terribly glamorous, there are no all-expenses paid business dinners, functions or overseas trips. The most exotic event in a teacher's life is normally going on camp - often sharing a room with other staff and waking up at all hours to put on the 'teacher voice' and tell off excited children who won't sleep. But, at last, I am heading somewhere exotic for work! Tomorrow morning, Pete and I are heading off at the ungodly hour of 4am for Jakarta. Whilst there, I will be attending a PYP workshop which I am really looking forward to. It will be great to clarify my role as co-ordinator and make some connections with people in the same role in schools from all over the Asia-Pacific region.
Wuxi .......-6 degrees, sunny and clear.
Jakarta ....... 24 degrees, haze.

I was hoping I would be able to gloat to everyone living in China about the heat and clear skies of Jakarta. But unfortunately, a google weather search finds that Wuxi is going to be sunny and clear and Jakarta will be hazy. I've never been to Jakarta so I'm not exactly sure what it will be like, but Wuxi being sunny and clear? I'm not so sure about that - the weather men are obviously being a little optimistic!
As well as the workshop I will be attending, I'm also looking forward to the heat for a few days. It will be lovely to thaw out before coming back to the cold and then heading off to the snow. I never thought I would say that I'm looking forward to a wait at the airport, but for Singapore airport I will make an exception - the shopping is meant to be fabulous. Can't wait to get my wallet out in the Body Shop - my skin will thank me for it after several months of heating and Chinese skin products! I know that it has been very hot back at home, so I hope everyone is enjoying it!

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Fine dining in Wuxi .....

After a long and cold day at work yesterday, several of us decided to venture out for some fine dining in Wuxi. There is only one place on offer for this kind of food - Uberfoods. It is quite possibly one of my favourite 'westernised' things to do in Wuxi (after the massage place of course!) The food is always beautifully presented and tastes just delicious. The wine is always lovely too - as soon as we walk in now they know exactly what we'll all be drinking! A real treat for a mid week dinner!
Spinach and ricotta gnocchi.
Salmon variations.
Pineapple and grapefruit sorbet.
Trio of pork, chicken and beef.
Chocolate mousse with strawberries.
Death by chocolate.
Creme brulee.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Daily mayhem at the supermarket

As the weather was still cold but clear (for a Chinese city) on Sunday, Amy and I decided to go for a walk to the supermarket to pick up some things. I really miss going for long walks outside, particularly with the dogs. Unfortunately there isn't really anywhere that nice to walk here, unless you catch a cab somewhere first. But we braved the cold and the smog for a walk anyway.
This is the view from my apartment on a 'clear' day!

We were met by absolute mayhem when we reached the supermarket. It was like people were getting ready to bunker down for the end of the world - pushing and shoving with trolleys and baskets, jostling for a place in the line to weigh vegetables, grabbing at items like they were about to sell out - crazy. Just a normal day at a local Chinese supermarket!

Making all sorts of yummy baked goods at the supermarket - buns, noodles, dumplings.

As we walked into the supermarket, we were confronted by rows upon rows of a huge variety of nuts. And of course, a crowd pushing and grabbing. I assume that the nuts are something special for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations, but I'm not 100% sure.

Turtle for dinner anyone?

I was thrilled to find a large selection of pre-packaged meat at this particular supermarket. I have not bought meat here yet because I'm put off my the sight of huge bags of bloody and fatty off cuts of meat but these packages look delicious. I'm looking forward to cooking up some spag bol and some stirfries this week with the lean meat that I found. And so cheap as well - four packages of meat (about 400 grams each) for about $10!

How about a bag of frogs?

I continue to be amazed by the selection of seafood in the supermarkets as well, much of it live. Eels, turtles, shrimps, all kinds of fish. I'm still a little sceptical about eating fish over here, other than at the nicer restaurants where the fish is all imported.

Feeling the live fish to check its suitablity for dinner.

It's going to be another busy week here as reports are finalised, planning is in progress for next term, and heading off to Jakarta on Friday morning - bring on the sun! Am looking forward to some nice dinners this week too - I'm having 2 of the girls over for dinner tonight to share holiday snaps and enjoy some of the meat I bought yesterday and then heading to Uberfood tomorrow night to celebrate (hopefully) finishing reports!

Chinese efficiency - staff on rollerblades!

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Girls night out in Wuxi....

As many of us were feeling the cold at the end of the week, we decided to head out for some German comfort food and red wine at the Paulaner. After spending ten minutes discussing our wine choice for the evening (from a fairly substantial wine list), we were informed that they only had three bottles to choose from! Only in China!
Dinner at the Paulaner - red wine and winter food!

We were pleasantly surprised that there was a band playing - a gorgeous group of Phillipino girls and guys. They were absolutely fantastic and were very obliging as we persused the playlist and put in many requests. It was great to have some real winter comfort food - sausages and mash, followed by apple strudel, yum! Whilst we were at the Paulaner, we were lucky enough to witness the debut of Amy Martin, upcoming Chinese pop star! You can see her video clip below. The translation of her song is a random collection of Chinese phrases - hello, not good, cheers, don't have - enjoy!

Phillipino band singing US pop songs in a German restaurant in China...hmmm!

After a filling meal, it was off to Bar street for a girls night of dancing. As always, you are always a little baffled by the strange things that you see on a night out.....plastic bags for the cloakroom, fireworks inside, elaborate fruit platters and a bizarre assortment of Chinese and English pop music. It was a fun night for us all to let our hair down, meet some new people and combat the cold!

Nightclub cloakroom, Chinese style.

Saturday was a beautiful day here in Wuxi - the sky was (relatively) blue and it was cold and crisp, my favourite sort of days. Unfortunately, I had to spend it inside writing reports and satisfying my latest addiction to a TV series!

Only in China.....fireworks inside.
Today, it's more report writing, a trip to the gym and some holiday planning, as well as some rest before another busy week. This week is a big planning week for next term, writing reports and then off to Jakarta on Friday morning. Girls out on the town.
New found friends at Soho.

Chinese pop star .... Amy Martin!