Mock Exam, Morocco (no-one to copy)

Teaching English: What doing a Delta is like (part 1)

I’ve turned into a language geek. Or perhaps I’ve just come out of my language geek closet to face the world. Language, travel and learning about culture are where it’s all at for me, and I can’t seem to get enough of any of them. But I’m trying mighty hard.

After training and working as a lawyer, then going a bit grey owning a busy manufacturing and retail business with 45 employees, then rediscovering life and travel and language with my family after moving abroad to France 7 years ago, I find myself here. ‘Here’ is still France, with 3 bilingual (yes, I’m a wee bit jealous) children, a flexible and long-suffering husband, sheep, hens, a dog, and from this weekend, a new kitten. The four donkeys in the garden are just on loan.

So after focusing on Intercultural Communication in business (which in my book is mighty important, moreso even than language proficiency), I decided to go a bit deeper into how and when and why we best learn a language. Hence the decision to get back to the books for 8 months to study for the Delta exam.

The Diploma in English Language teaching is a 3 module advanced teaching qualification. The first module is the written exam covering second (and first) language acquisition and how that impacts upon methodology, phonemics, genre, a heap of parsing, understanding resources (good/bad and why they are the way they are) and learner problems.

I did mine over 8 months, online, with skype tutorials, a group moodle, and tutor support. It can be done more intensively, and also in combination with Module 2, but how you manage to get all the reading done I’ve no idea. It’s a blended course; Module 2 is hands-on in the classroom again – 27 days of beady eyed assessment spread over 5 months. Module 3 is back to online.

Maslow needs an add on if you want to do a Delta online
Maslow needs an add on if you want to do a Delta online

You get the results a couple of months after sitting the exam. I did my exam preparation with ESOL Strasbourg (they were great) and sat the exam in Strasbourg. I was away travelling in a campervan for a year in Europe and Morocco with my family whilst I studied for it. I had planned to be the study role model for my kids’ homeschooling, but it turned out the other way round. I got in trouble for not working…. a lot. Thanks guys.

Apart from having to know an awful lot of stuff, the exam is quite difficult because

1. It’s closed book – you need to know the phonemic chart inside out, all the technical terminology, the history of how we’ve taught SLA (second language acquisition – for the past hundred or so years) and the assumptions about language learning which go along with that. These days I struggle to remember why I went into a room, so it was tricky.

2. There’s very little time in the test to write what you know even if you know it, unless the answers come to you instantly ie there’s not much thinking time. That’s a bit frustrating. In that respect it’s a bit artificial, unnecessarily so I would say.

There is an element of simply learning to pass the test because the assessors are fussy about what they will and won’t accept. That said, preparing for the test forced me to learn – really learn – a lot. That’s the reason I found it to be so good for me as a teacher. Moreso than a Masters, which seems to be more theoretical.

Greece I think.  Another mock exam.
Greece I think. Another mock exam.

Tips for doing Delta Module 1

1. I’d recommend doing each module separately and take my hat off to those who give up their lives for a few months to do a combined course. Separately gives you time to read and take in the background materials.

2. I looked at the exam initially, saw that technical terminology was worth only a few points in questions one and two, so put off learning it. But actually a knowledge of terminology runs through the whole exam. Don’t put it off, just get down to learning it right at the beginning. And you never know, intervocalic flapping or cataphoric referencing may just crop up in day to day conversation at the supermarket or on Who Wants to be a Millionnaire. Not.

3. I found the best way to learn terminology was to use the app, Quizlet. Download one of the preprepared Delta lists. It’s more fun and it’s addictive because you want to beat your time.

4. There’s an online publication called How to Pass Delta by Damian Williams which I found useful. It’s only a few quid even if you don’t, but I found it helped to prepare for the format of the exam and the expected layout and content of answers.

5. If you didn’t think Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage was useful before, you will now. It helpful for parsing and explaining potential learner difficulties.

6. The genre questions can almost be learnt rote.

7. Do past papers over and over to give you advance practice, especially with timing. That’s where I messed up. I started off way too slowly and couldn’t write fast enough by the end to finish. It’s tempting to be neat and perfect for questions 1 to 3 and then realise there’s no time to properly think through the last couple of questions. Past papers are available online.

8. Easier said than done, but don’t leave studying till the last minute. I did. Always have done, always wish I hadn’t. Don’t.

9. Practise parsing over and over ie breaking down sentences into parts of speech until you feel comfortable doing it at speed. And without a reference book.

10. Don’t hold off too long to get started on module 2, or you’ll need to revise the whole lot again……

If you’re about to do your exam, good luck, if you’re thinking about doing it, go for it, and if you’re wondering what intervocalic flapping is, it’s when someone glides over their t’s as in “bu(tt)er” with an American accent. Gee I love pronunciation. So now you know. If you’d like any more information about doing a Delta, please get in touch.

By Jen

Red square Moscow

A career change at 40 can work

Forty is not the new 30. You start worrying about your teeth, and wish you had brushed them more. You wish you’d started moisturising your face 20 years ago, or at least cleaned it before bedtime. Did you choose the right career or partner? You have to make a decision about grey hair.   Eyeliner is getting pretty tricky to apply. You are pre HRT but post nappy changing. Well, not always for either.

On the other hand you stop worrying so much about what people think. You are kinder to yourself. You can read Shades of Grey on a busy train, not in a cupboard with a lamp. You can be cheeky and not get into trouble, and you don’t really care if you do anyway. But you are still a bit scared to tell your mum and dad that you have a (small) tattoo.

It’s a time when a lot of parents no longer feel the urge to cut up other peoples’ food, and can slow down eating to a normal social speed again. You start loving slippers and fluffy dressing gowns. There is less sick to clean up. But you can’t do your kids homework any more. And you start worrying about your parents getting older.

Back to the career thing. Being in a job for 20 years can sneak up on you. Or even several jobs because the days of womb to tomb work have gone for most people. We did the buying a house on the internet and moving abroad thing that only seriously irresponsible people do, so the jobs we knew and (didn’t) love stopped along with that.

I got a job in rural France as a part time caprine maintenance engineer.

Goat milking
It’s love.
Baby goat kid
…. and this is why. 10 minutes old.

At work one day in this, ok goat milking job, my mind was off on a wander as my hands turned a few hundred goats’ cheeses. It’s a task you do every twelve hours to drain the whey from the cheese. It was a lovely lovely job. Satisfying and repetitive, it involved goats, my fifth favourite animal after elephants, gorillas, dolphins and butterflies, and there was no huge effort of thought involved like previous jobs. It gave my mind time to think about things I’d never had time to think about before. I had previously for example been able to rank my top twenty animals. That day I got round to thinking what a cool idea it would be to somehow combine work and travel.

Back at home, a few hundred metres stroll further along our little road, I found a site on the internet explaining how to train as an English teacher. I signed up without really thinking much more about it. Sometimes it’s better not to overthink.

Plaza d'Espagne Spain seville
Cultural visit to Plaza d’Espagne, Seville

And then six months later, on a Sunday evening on a train, half way through the teaching course, I sat recovering from a week’s onslaught of grammar and expectant students and permanent fear of making a complete tit of myself. I wasn’t really sure where I was heading. Metaphorically. I did know roughly which train I was on. I had had such a directionless career path. Lawyer, bakery owner/dogsbody, caprine maintenance engineer and now wannabe teacher. And then, boom, it all fell into place. Teach business and legal English. Milk goats at the weekend.

The biggest tit I’ve made of myself when teaching, incidentally, was during my first ever solo lesson. I had cleverly decided to put the (advanced English) class of 18 year olds into random groups of four by using a pack of cards. The students would form groups by finding their matching 7s or 8s etc. I dished out the cards, explained what to do, and no one moved. “Everyone up! Find your matching cards. Don’t be shy.” No one moved. Very slowly, in as clear English as possible I repeated very very sloooow-ly “Fiiiiind yooooour maaatching caaaards.” I was worried that I had the beginners class by mistake. After an awkward silence one of the students said, in fairly fluent English, “Excuse me, but we’re actually sitting in the correct order already.” Since then I’ve learnt that all important step of shuffling the cards before giving them out.

Cultural visit to Czesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Cultural visit to Czesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

During my training, I got an unexpected buzz at knowing the grammar behind the language I had used all my life. The rules I hadn’t known existed. The secrets behind HOW to teach, and how people learn. I was hooked. You could have sat me at that point in a windowless room forever with a grammar book and I’d have been delighted.

And then the working and travelling started and the meeting of like minded grammar geeks cum travel junkies began. It’s very reassuring to know you’re not the only grammar geek cum travel junkie out there. I spend more time at home than away, and those family times are getting more and more precious as the kids grow older and more independent. And then I’m off to teaching land, which can be in Germany or Russia or Serbia or wherever. It’s like being James Bond and a mum and wife all at the same time.

Meteora
Cultural visit to Meteora, Greece, James Bond set.

It’s allowed us as a family to head off for a year in a campervan, working intermittently along the way. We are not long back and still coming to terms with the return.

It hit me this week what a surreal job it can be. In the past week and a half I’ve been in Tokyo, London, Paris and Munich. I am, nevertheless, very glad to now be home in our little hamlet with two street lamps and a sign to remind drivers to watch out for toads crossing the road.

Cute road sign
Watch out for the toads.

Some working weeks are [she tries to trawl through her English teacher extensive lexis, but come up with nothing better] shite. Some weeks are more rewarding than any job I have ever known. It all boils down to the motivation of the students. For me the two are directly proportionate. Learning how to motivate those on the edge is something I find rewarding too. The more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I know there is to know.

I would encourage anyone who either wants to pretend to be James Bond or who believes that there is something more out there just to go for it. Even if you don’t know what the something is, it sometimes takes that first step of removing yourself from the busyness of life to have time to reflect. The lack of security for that in between moment, or perhaps forever, is often a worthwhile trade off. You might even find that you actually love what you’ve left but didn’t realise it. Either way, a good thing to know.

Have you had a late career change? Retrained, set off on a journey? How did it go? Any regrets?

Olympia Greece
Cultural visit to Olympia, Greece.
Black eggs hakone volcano Japan

Japan: peeping inside a volcanic crater

Ropeway Sounzan to Owakudani hakone japan
The ropeway from Sounzan to Owakudani
The beginnings of autumn.
The beginnings of autumn.

The climb up the side of Mount Kami to Owakudani in a cable car is steep and green, beginning to turn shades of red in October as autumn approaches. The sight as you hit the summit is unexpected and memorable.  If I’d known Owakudani means ‘the valley of hell’ I might have been more prepared.   Suddenly the green disappears and you feel like you are dangling on a wire above the surface of the moon. Clouds of smoke billow from the ground, with not a stick of vegetation in sight. The ground is stained with trails of yellow sulphur and terracing is supporting the ground to prevent landslides.

This crater was formed after an eruption 3000 years ago.   To this day, the crater continues to spout out fumarolic gases and hot vapour.  The area is also still prone to landslides with the last major one in 1910.

I didn’t know until I looked up a kids’ site about volcanoes that volcanoes are named after Vulcan, a roman god of fire.  You learn all the best stuff on kids’ sites.

Owakudani crater ropeway view
Dangling over the mouth of the crater.
Owakudani crater hakone japan
A barren, vaporous landscape.
Hakone volcano crater Japan
Terracing work and boreholes attempt to hold back further landslides.
Hakone volcanic crater Japan ropeway
Looking back over the crater at the cable car pathway.

When the cable car door opens on arriving at the station it’s like opening the lid of a long forgotten egg sandwich lunchbox. You are reminded on signs not to spend too long wandering around because of the fumes. I wasn’t planning to argue.  Outside the crater there’s some great hiking however, and I wish wish wish I’d taken my hiking boots.

Hakone volcanic crater Japan
Don’t hang around near the crater.
Black eggs hakone volcano Japan
Collected cooked black eggs from the volcanic pools.
Owakudani volcanic crater hakone Japan
Steamy thermal pools.
Owakudani volcanic crater hakone Japan
Looking back towards the cable car station.

This man is fishing for our breakfast.  Eggs are cooked in the hot volcanic water, turning their shells black.  The story goes that you live an extra seven years if you eat these eggs.  I was hoping  it was cumulative.  My friend Lin and I shared 5.

Black eggs hakone volcano Japan
Eating black eggs for breakfast.

After breakfast we headed down the other side of the mountain to Lake Ashi.  There is a boat across the lake and we had our fingers crossed that we would see Mount Fuji in the distance.  But it was too cloudy.  This bit of the round trip back to Hakone-Yumoto seemed a little bit touristy.  We had avoided the crowds at the volcano by getting the first cable car of the day up there.  By the time we got to the lakeside it was pretty busy.   Almost a bit Disneyland.  But the views were beautiful nonetheless.

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Lake Ashi hakone Japan
The boats across the lake operate pretty much non stop.
Lake Ashi in Hakone.
Lake Ashi in Hakone.

Once back in Hakone-Yumoto, Lin and I spent the afternoon at an onsen.  There’s a separate post about that.  It was heaven.  And then we caught the train back to Tokyo at night.  It’s a great circular 2 day trip out of Tokyo.   If the weather is on your side, you get stunning views of Mount Fuji, and the reasonably priced 2-day travel pass (under £30) covers everything – trains, cable cars, the boat across Lake Ashi and buses.

So how do you go about organising it?

I left my case at Shinjuku station in central Tokyo in a luggage locker (300¥ -£1.70 – per 24 hours for a hand luggage sized case) at about 2pm.  You will be glad not to have to carry luggage because it’s on and off a lot of transport.  This was a Monday; weekdays are quieter than weekends. I had planned to set off early in the morning but there was a typhoon which only passed at midday, so lots of train lines were closed all morning. This was typhoon number 18 of the year – apparently one of the wettest so far – 24 hours of non-stop heavy rain. But not sideways so it was ok.

Luggage lockers Shinjuku
Luggage lockers at Shinjuku station.

There’s a choice of train out from Shinjuku to Odawara. You can get the “Romance Car” – which is a normal style train and has a supplement, or the standard subway style train. I got the subway train at about 2.30pm and I arrived in Odawara an hour and a half later.

There’s an easy switch to the next train to Hakone. It left a few minutes later and the signs were easy to follow. We were there in 20 minutes. The next, smaller train to Gora was waiting 50 metres up the platform. All of the connections coordinate, but you receive a full timetable when you book your ticket in case you want to stop off at any of these places en route. Even on a quiet day this train is quite busy so I was glad I’d left all my luggage behind bar a day bag.

Gora tozan train red Hakone Japan
Little red Tozan (mountain climbing) train to Gora.
Tozan Hakone train Gora Japan
Climbing up the mountain – try and sit at the back or the front.

This little red train climbs quite steeply up the mountain and through tunnels. It’s good to have a seat right at the back or the front to see how steeply it climbs. The train actually doubles back a few kilometres later to link onto a higher track, so the back becomes the front. Then it doubles back to get higher and you’re at the back again. And then the front! It’s like zigzagging up the mountain.

And it was just so nice to see so much green after Tokyo.

We arrived in Gora a little before 5.30pm. The sky was going red and the lights were coming on.  Fora is good overnight stop because it means you are right at the cable car station to make your way up the volcano before the crowds early next morning.

My room was a 3 minute walk away. I booked it on Agoda the week before, for £16. It was a rollmat in a female (6 max) room in a new guest house in Gora. It was literally brand new, the first great reviews sold it to me (this can be an expensive area to stay), and it was really friendly and English spoken.  The details are below.

There’s a piano and a guitar if you fancy, and the bar and seating area is really friendly.

Hakone tent Gora japan
Entrance to Hakone Tent, Gora, a great stop off.
Hakone tent Japan
Female room with matting floor and roll out mattresses.
Hakone tent bed
Bed made.

ACCOMMODATION: Hakone Tent, http://hakonetent.com

There’s wifi in the main seating area. Food and drinks are reasonably priced – I had clam pasta for 800¥ (under £6). There’s no breakfast – I took something with me – but coffee and tea is provided in the spanking new kitchen. Also handy to know is that you can hire a towel for the onsen for 100¥.

When you come out of the train station ticket barrier, you turn (within the station) to your right towards the toilet signs. On the street look right and there’s a little underpass. Go through it. Don’t take the very first wide road up the hill; walk on a little, maybe 30 metres, and there’s a narrower steep lane up to your left. The guest house is another 50 or so metres up the hill on your right. Only 3 or 4 minutes from the station in total, but the directions on Agoda are a little confusing. I’ve given them new ones :)

TRANSPORT: The Hakone Free Pass

Despite the name, it’s just under £30 (5140¥) for 2 days. You can get a 3 day one too. I bought mine at Shinjuku station (the Odakyu Sightseeing Service centre). Google for more info. It closes at 6 but when I arrived at 6.01 from the other side of Tokyo, they took pity on such a dejected face and sold me a ticket. If you happen to have transport closure due to a typhoon or whatever, you can get a refund.
By Jen

Prices are valid as at October 2014.

Footnote: I arrived in Japan the day after the terrible volcanic eruption at Mount Ontake.  A terrible loss of life.  My thoughts are with the families of those involved.

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The magic of travel and how magic travels

If you want to REALLY see a country, how do you do that? It’s not easy to see what a place or its people or life is like from a hotel balcony. How do you do it then? Here’s one way that worked for us.

Magic.

In our family, magic has done a few very special things.

1. A few years ago, it turned our shy 13 year old eldest into a confident, funny young man.
2. It travelled with us through Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Thailand, allowing us access in a small but very privileged way into the lives of the people who lived there.
3. It’s gotten our eldest his first job.

Adam is now 16. He became interested in card magic a few years ago. We didn’t see him for a very long time. I thought he’d maybe moved house. But he’d shut himself away in his room practising movements and sleight of hand tricks….. and then practising some more. He started to play the piano to strengthen his fingers. No lessons, just playing. Better than me who had years of lessons. It was serious stuff.

He got pretty good at the magic. Mum’s bias I thought. And then that magic came with us in the campervan as we set off on a year of family travelling. It’s probably one of the best things we took with us.

We wanted to see as much of the real Greece or Morocco or Spain or Austria as we could. We wanted to get to know people in a country as much as the country itself. What they ate, how they cooked, how they viewed the world, their religion, things that made them happy or sad.

I teach English as a foreign language so am very lucky to have friends in lots of unusual places. Like Serbia and rural Italy and Thailand and the desert of Abu Dhabi. Lovely friends, who by virtue of living there, have already made inroads into local life, or who had lived there all their lives themselves. To them all we are eternally grateful.

That was the start. And then it was over to card tricks and magic to skirt round language barriers and cultural differences. Within an hour of sharing a meal with strangers, say middle aged Berber ladies in the south of Morocco, Adam had them covering their faces with their veils to stop the “signals” getting through and offering their daughters in marriage.

The same happened with kids in the desert, or friends of friends in Austria, or restaurant owners in Spain.

It’s not just a mum thing any more. He really is very good. We came home a couple of months ago and Adam got in touch with a local English language newspaper.

From www.creuse-news.eu
From http://www.creuse-news.eu

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In return for placing an advert about magic shows every month he writes an article about what’s on in the local area. He’s become the font of all things happening in our house. If it’s happening in the area he knows about it.

Sometimes you want to thank people for having you. For a teenager with no money (for now) magic was also the perfect way to do so.

And then we added in a Rubik’s cube challenge. I am the slowest in the family. But I have progressed, from 2 months to 2 minutes. Adam is the fastest at 32 seconds. Like the piano, it made his fingers faster for the magic. It’s a bit addictive and the family rankings changed as the journey progressed. I remain the slowest but competition is tough in our house.

It was a great way for our kids to get to know local kids. Or for us to strike up a conversation with the person on the train next to us. Or shepherds who came up full of curiosity to the van in rural Morocco. No words required.

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Magic and Rubik’s cubes. The perfect icebreakers. Anywhere.

By Jen

Capsule hotel, Shinjuku, tokyo

Japan: a night in a capsule hotel

First I was afraid, I was petrified. And then it was alright actually.

It’s necessary to spend at least one night in a capsule hotel if you visit Tokyo or Japan: to overcome the fear that it looks for all the world like a morgue without gurney tables, and to come out the other side a better person for it.

It’s either a morgue or the recovery area at a vets, it’s difficult to decide. But, despite its kind of scary appearance it was ok. The capsule was on a women-only floor on the 8th floor of a hotel in Shinjuku, central Tokyo. It was also only a five minute walk from Shinjuku subway station.

Shinjuku station Tokyo
By Shinjuku station, Tokyo.

The place is spotless. The 185cm long pods have a TV and a panel with a light, alarm and socket. It’s all you need. I felt like I was back in the campervan. The bathrooms have complimentary toothbrushes and other toiletries. Again, spotless.

Shinjuku capsule hotel, Tokyo.
The bathroom with toiletries, showers next door.

You get a towel and slippers to use during your stay. The whole shoe thing is a bit complicated. You take them off, put in a locker, take that locker key to reception to receive your room key, which in turn you hand over for a slip of paper if you go out. Basically your shoes are your deposit for the key. Not so hard to remember to hand it back in at checkout if the alternative is walking out in your socks.

Capsule hotel, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Sliding blinds close the capsule.

One downside is that the pod and luggage locker need to be vacated every day, even if you are staying for several days because you are allocated a new room and locker each time. No problem for me because I was flying the next day.

Another slightly odd thing is seeing all male guests wandering around the communal 4th dining/kitchen/social area or in the lifts wearing blue dressing gowns, which look like they’ve been borrowed from a high security hospital ward. Online reviews suggest the male rooms can be noisy at night. The ladies were quiet as mice (I crept in quite late after karaokeing so perhaps it was busier earlier). The pods are closed with slide-down blinds, but I couldn’t hear any noise outside.

Capsule hotel, Shinjuku, tokyo
Inside the capsule.

There’s free wifi on the communal and 8th floor. All sorts of people looked to be guests, from travellers to business people in suits. The subway stops at midnight so a night in a pod is maybe a useful overnighter.

I’d use a pod again, but maybe not for a few nights in a row because of the check in check out daily procedure. It was an experience. But one which shouldn’t be preceded by a viewing of “The Vanishing”.

Details.

Kuyakoshu Mae Capsule Hotel, Shinjuku
3300¥ per night (24€) – booked on Agoda

By Jen

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Japan: Onsen, hot spring baths

An onsen is a hot spring bath in Japan, in the past mainly public, and now often attached to a hotel or other accomodation. As well as the minerals having therapeutic properties, it’s a very relaxing way to spend a few hours. After my first hammam in Morocco when I was scrubbed to within an inch of my life, I was keen to see how an onsen would compare.

It’s difficult to provide a pictorial account of a trip to an onsen because cameras and phones are generally banned. So here’s what to expect and what it was like in words.

I visited Hakone, an area famous in Japan for its volcanic hot springs. A friend from Beijing, Lin, and I went to try out the Tenzan Onsen, about 10 minutes outside Hakone-Yumoto. It’s quite a traditional and well know onsen, used mainly by Japanese people – thanks Lin for the recommendation and for your company :)

There’s an automated ticket machine before the entrance where you print off a ticket – here, 1300¥ (under €10) for a day pass with unlimited time.

Tenzan Yamamoto
The entrance to Tenzan Onsen near Hakone-Yumoto

Then you slip under a hanging cloth at the door and into a pretty plush reception area. I know about the no shoes inside rule in Japan but here came my first faux pas. The boundary line between shoes and no shoes is sometimes a little unclear. Err on the side of caution. I overstepped the barefoot line and the reception manager did an incredible job of letting me know beyond any doubt that I was in no shoe land, in barely a whisper.

Tenzan onsen
I got brave on the way out and took a photo of the reception area.

We used the shoe lockers at the door and bought a towel. My little orange towel was as it turns out absolutely enormous by onsen standards. Most towels are about the size of a facecloth and are used for washing, mopping your brow, and to add a little modicum (ie no) modesty to the transferring between onsen pools.

We were guided to the ladies section of the onsen (faux pas two was going into the men’s section whilst slightly lost – I was ok at biology at school so realised my error pretty quickly), and told that as of this point there were to be no cameras/tablets or phones or clothes. It was quite nice being released from all three. In particular it was nice to remove the XXXL Japanese bought tights because the crotch comes up barely to my knees.

The shower area required careful pre-shower observation to get it right. I was the only non Asian face with red hair and an “enormous” orange towel so it was tricky to go unnoticed. I did what I did for my first chambermaiding job making right angled corners on the bed with a sheet. I watched, with a nonchalant look on my face, whilst mentally trying to take it all in. It’s not easy to do either when you are being watched.

There was a little wooden stool about 6 inches high. You give that a little hose down with the shower hose and sit down. Then you wrap the provided soap in your tiny towel, lather it up on your skin, and basically ensure you are ultra clean but non-soapy before you enter the baths. There were little wooden buckets to help with this.

I used my orange towel and a variety of contorted poses to hide my tattoo. A big no-no in most onsens. I’d heard here that it was ok but after the no shoe incident at the beginning I was taking no chances. In the Japanese criminal underworld, yakuza traditionally wore elaborate tattoos and this association remains. My little butterfly on a flower I suspect wouldn’t put me even as high as a petty shoplifter, but I didn’t want my onsen voyage to end before it had begun.

Some ladies grinned sweetly as they watched my cleansing efforts. That day there were old ladies, stunningly beautiful girls, mums to be, mothers and daughters, the whole generational spectrum were represented. Just no one with red hair and an orange towel.

Each onsen pool is different. They were all outdoors, but many with vine-covered lattices over them; one was like a cave (my favourite). Some are milky and warm, some crystal clear and goddam hot, and some crystal clear and goddam cold. You need to check the temperature with the little bucket sitting by each pool to avoid yelping in surprise.

Tenzan onsen hakone
The onsen greenery

The view from each pool was also different. Massive bamboo canes mixed with grapefruit trees, little stone statues of pagoda-roofed temples or mini gods, rocks and waterfalls. One particular lady caught my eye. She was wrapped serenely around and over some rocks in the milky pool, half in, half out the water. She was sleeping, and the steam was floating around her. She looked like a mermaid.

When that spot was free later, I tried to emulate her position. I looked like a walrus hiding a butterfly tattoo. Here is a picture.

Tenzan onsen hakone
More greenery.

Not obviously of me in the pool because that is not allowed and frankly might be a little frightening.

Hours passed and we dotted from pool to pool, sometimes sitting on the rocks at the edge, sometime submerging, sometimes lying on the wooden lattice benches for a rest because relaxing is hard work. I would have liked to have stayed till nightfall to see the lanterns illuminating the pools and the steam swirling around in the dark. Next time. The guy in the featured picture at the top is exactly a female version of what I felt like afterwards. Soft skin, possible not quite as soft as a hammam, but so relaxed I completely forgot the no shoe boundary again on the way out. And lounging around dreaming like a mermaid/walrus in steamy hot spring water does beat having a centimetre of skin forcibly removed all over.

Onsen relax
Relaxed after an onsen

More information….

How to get there

Take a taxi, or the local bus (100¥ From stop B outside the train station) from Hakone-Yumoto, which takes less than 10 minutes.

How much?

1300¥ for a day, 1200 with a Hakone Free travel pass. Children are around half price. There is food available too, if a little pricey. And soft drinks.

What to take

An itsy bitsy teeny weeny non-orange towel
Slip on shoes

By jen

Tafraoute morocco

Home: Routine and Tiredness

Some people looked at us as if we were mad when we set off in a very small box aka campervan for a year, on the road to nowhere, as a family ie with our 2 teenagers and 10 year old. Even one of the UK newspapers which featured an article on our travels voiced that “you are crazy” thought by headlining a sub-article, “Rather Them Than Me”.

Austria pasture mountain
Up a mountain in Austria.

I’m beginning to understand that now but in a way I wasn’t expecting.

And I am laying the blame entirely at the feet of tiredness and routine.

I know there are people who work hard and are happy with what they do – more often than not because it’s a chosen and not a compulsory path.

Sahara sand dune
Roly polies down a sand dune. 

Our kids are back to the fairly gruelling routine of up at 6.30, travelling to school and sitting at a school desk by 8am. Then getting home at 6.30pm, eating dinner at 7 and sloping wearily to bed at 9ish. Punishing but pretty normal. You may pat yourself on the back that you have chosen a place to live that has a shorter school day, but the homework time then generally increases or the holidays decrease. It’s basically much of a muchness everywhere.

And boy are our kids getting more and more grumpy as the term rolls on. Of course we love them as much as ever, but there is very little volunteered chat or communication, or smiling. It’s like the old cliche, getting blood out of a stone. Isn’t that normal for a teenager? No, (and this is the crazy bit) it’s NOT NORMAL. And how do I know? Because, for a year it’s been different.

Yeah everyone is different too. But with the exact same kids and the exact same parents, things have changed. We had no choice but to spend time together when we were in the campervan. The kids “studied” for an hour or so a day. They found out about other stuff. We played games that normally gather dust in the cupboard. We talked. We questioned why there were so many discarded plastic bags in Morocco or why absolute crap is added to our processed food. We did things in pairs, or threes, or fours or fives. We sometime did things on our own.

Salzkammergut Austria horses mountain pasture
A moment to reflect. Salzkammergut, Austria.

The kids read and researched more when they were away than ever before. It was self directed and they found out about thing that interested them or they were passionate about. That’s mostly stopped – not completely because once you see what’s out there it’s tricky to ignore it completely – but tiredness has restricted either the ability or the desire to follow their interests, certainly with as much gusto as before.

So my tentative conclusion is this. It may be completely wrong, and I don’t underestimate the power of hormones (gee, I have plenty of those myself). But with the self same kids, the self same parents, and the self same hormones, it was the re entry to the “system” that changed it. Little worker bees being moulded and formed to accept a life within the system from the tender age of 4 or 5.

And you know what? The hostility that has sometimes been directed at us for jumping off the hamster wheel is, often I think, anger and frustration. Anger and frustration at a situation which more people than would care to admit want to change or leave.  Our life is no better or interesting or worthwhile than anyone else’s. But for those people who are not happy? What to do? Make out that those that choose a different path are bizarre or mad?  Sometimes life is pretty fast and even stopping to think is a luxury.

For those that are already happy with the way things are, well done. And I mean, really, genuinely, well done. It’s what we all covet or crave.

image

Am I totally wrong? Should we all just do what we are told? Do you live in a country which has got the education spot on?

5 big pairs of feet, one little campervan.

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