Friday, 29 January 2010

I did not come to Japan for its popular music. In fact, I'm rather encouraged to realise there is something about this country which doesn't interest me. Of course, there are Boy Bands and Girl Bands aplenty, all snapped up by mobile phone companies; their stars omnipresent on billboards, and household names. This manufactured pop is on an even greater scale than in the UK yet - unlike back home - I don't know if anything worth discovering lies off-radar, lurking in the shadows. Whether this is because Japanese music goes largely unreviewed in the British press - the same British press which took the time to report the arrest for public indecency of a J-POP hearthrob found drunk and naked in a Tokyo park ( - or because Japanese music isn't worth discovering, I don't know. Perhaps it's a little early to judge...

So, today (Saturday) being homework day, I'm not going to limit myself to memorising kanji. I have dismissed the manufactured bands, of course, but I'm going to check out a few "essential selections from the decade just gone", courtesy of an article contained in a "Japanzine" I picked up in Nagoya last weekend. It's called "the Gaijin Eye" and contains a rather idiosyncratic rundown of "the top Japanese cds of the 2000s". This is its top 10, as exposed to my jukebox jury of one.

10 Anicore (?) by Onomatopeee is trumpeted by the reviewer as being "for those of you who've ever walked through Akihabara and felt the urge to smash the **** out of the speakers spewing forth that cutsie-ass anime idol pop". This is some recommendation. The review also calls it "plunderphonics", which reads like a new spin on sampling (to a fan of Renegade Soundwave, also welcome) and describes the artist as a demented man with a "condition" where he "hears explosions in his sleep" producing a "vomit comet of utterly depraved breakcore-infused anime songs". So far, so good, and certainly some billing to live up to. But now I have to brave the music... Best clip I could find: Hmmm, not exactly late night mood music. The reviewer is spot-on with his description. It does what it says on the tin but, in truth, I cannot digest the tin's contents.

9 Buck Tick - Mona Lisa Overdrive. The reviewer says "their collaborations with Pig and Soft Ballet cemented their techno-rock credentials". In Nagoya, perhaps? Anyway, I'll take his word for it. I find a track at,
which sounds like Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran turning Japanese, or (worse?) into the Japanese Boy George; I really think so. Did I say it was a little early to judge?

8 Number Girl - Omoide in my Head. These are allegedly "the most distinctive J-rock anthems of the decade". On the evidence of this clip (, I can't really tell the (dead) wood from the trees. Seven more to go, and my hatchet already needs a wash.

7 Supercar - Highvision. The name suggests a Kraftwerk imitation band with a limited command of English so it's no surprise that the first track ( sounds rather like a primitive Orbital, which - following this critical bloodbath - is promising enough to lead me to, where they sound a bit like New Order. Impeccable references, not exactly innovative, but ok.

6 Rovo "live 2003.05.05". The review suggests this is "hippie-trippie progressive rock", which I wouldn't take as a recommendation, but I rather like the footage at It's the kind of music which should be played on steep ascents to temples. Temples which ban hippie-trippies.

5 When you check out a band called Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paradaiso UFO, I think you know what you're going to get. I'm not wrong: Noone would bat an eyelid if this lot were found naked in a Tokyo park. The world and their career no doubt ends tomorrow, David Koresh-style.

4. Buffalo Daughter - Pshychic. I can imagine myself sitting out in the garden on a hot summer's day, with a glass of a amontillado sherry (thanks, dad) and not listening to this: . Review states that "it's surprising how little love they get from the foreign press". (Pitchfork, which reported - admittedly in 1999 - that "there's so much great music coming out of Japan" - am I reviewing the wrong decade? - gave their album a 5.2 /10). Sumimasen ga, chotto...

3 Vision Creation Newsun by the Boredoms - I read that this band, described as "retarded art-punks out of Osaka" (a city where Thompson Twin / Flock of Seagulls haircuts are as common as beards), is the precursor to Rovo (see above). I guess you have to have taken huge quantities of psychedelic drugs in your youth to 'get' this, which is perhaps why they're not especially popular in Japan. Obviously, this means I don't 'get' them either. Watching the video ( is a bit like getting your eyelashes caught in a kaleidoscope, at a planetarium, on a hangover. Which I suppose would be an average day for someone like the bloke from Onomatopeee. But don't write them off: they matured into the well-adjusted, easy-going chaps that are Rovo. Who needs a Drugs Tsar?

Still waiting for the epiphany.

2 Cornelius - Point. Review describes this as "deceptively minimalist sample-pop cleverly integrating water drops, bird songs and other innocuous sounds". (What: no whales singing?) It is surely only a matter of time before the Gaijin Eye reviewer is deported; in the meantime, he must keep his bathroom cabinet firmly locked. The track is not too bad - - and the video shows some pleasant views from the Tokyo Monorail. Didn't hear the innocuous sounds though; perhaps they had learnt instruments by this stage in their career.

1 Shena Ringo - Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana. This one is described as the 'most glorious mix of rock and electronica this side of Kid A'. (Why do people always take Radiohead as a reference point? I just don't see it. For me, that particular high water mark would be something like Depeche Mode's Songs of Faith and Devotion or the third Electronic album - surely Johnny Marr's most underrated work, and really worth playing loud - or early The The). Anyway, back to the artist.. there is loads of stuff by her on Youtube and the descriptions of her career suggest that this particular ringo is an offbeat antidote to the standard lolita-pop fare here. I don't detect much rock but her range of imagery and styles mark her out as a Japanese 'Emilie Simon' (see next post) - or maybe it's more accurate to say that Emilie Simon is the French Shena Ringo. (Some of Simon's videos, like Dame de Lotus, seem not dissimilar to clips like this - , identifying her as a possible influence.) I'm not won over as a fan but it's a name to note.

So it's fair to say I'm rather nonplussed. Fair play, though, as these bands have great names which would make their T-shirts, obviously up against stiff competition in Japan, a hot purchase. And that's something I DID come to Japan for. Yes, I hope to be wearing an 'Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paradaiso UFO' design to classes at Yamasa on Monday, and will no doubt attract disillusioned post-millenarians who will accompany me to deserted hilltop shrines at weekends.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Turning the tables - a teacher in Japan

As I complete this post, my former students in Hounslow are arriving for school. And I was, and will be, doing just the same at the time they should be, but probably aren't, going to sleep.

8.25 in the morning: I detach my bike from 'le fromage' (this blog needs to be read chronologically) and ride it down the hill. I chain it to the stand, say a few 'ohayo's and head up the stairs to the fourth floor.

Like my former students, I now have a school day comprising six fifty minute-periods. This is reduced to four on a Friday, although it's a fairly comparable schedule since I don't get PE of course.

My four teachers, all females (a concern here being the risk of acquiring a 'girly' Japanese accent) are dedicated and professional. As one would expect in Japan. Attendance records are taken and published, and those with a poor record are named and shamed on corridor walls as well as barred from moving on to the next class in the following quarter. Homework is set daily and it is anticipated that we should be putting in an evening shift of three hours per day. (In truth, I aim to exceed this and boost it with private study.) It is returned to us on the same or following day.

We start the morning with a 'quiz' (euphemism for a vocab test), for which the pass mark is effectively 90 %. (Students used to ask, before vocab tests, "does spelling count?". Sometimes, writing in hiragana and katakana, I wish it didn't.) All marks are entered on a database - sounds familiar to former colleagues? - and we are made to repeat the tests at home in the event of sub-standard performance.

I'm settling in, despite still making the (ahem) schoolboy errors of confusing my 'kyu's and 'jyu' and 'ni's and 'ji's, and already have a good friend in the class, Singaporean Rainbow-san, who is a benchmark / pacemaker both for her diligence and repertoire of kanji. (She is already in Kanji Class 2, whereas I knew precisely none on starting Kanji Class 1 only 3 days ago.) She's also one of those model, polite students that teachers are only too happy to help, and quite rightly too.

A typical day begins with a three period morning, with 10-minute breaks inbetween. A visit to the toilet can be a risky business when the door to the corridor is open, since the urinals are built to Japanese heights, so I lean well forward... (On a similar note, back ache must be a cultural hazard here, as sinks and showers typically pose the same problem for 6-footers.)

There are three more lessons in the afternoon, the penultimate one being an 'elective'. Kanji is on Mondays and Wednesdays: working through the penstrokes relaxes me, although the class is extremely challenging since many of my classmates are already relatively far advanced. This is followed by a private lesson with one of two very obliging and encouraging teachers. Again, female. (In fact, there seems to be only one male teacher in the whole school.) The latter set as much additional homework as I want, and it's for me to dictate the content and pace. So far we have spent time conversing and consolidating work from the textbook; we also go over some of the kanji, which is where I'm really looking for an 'acceleration' in my learning. Not everyone does these private lessons, which cost a premium but - I felt (time being money) - are worth it.

Japanese lunch is a joy. No indigestible, soporific sandwiches. We sit in the cold common room and listen to Kanada-jin P-san's cosplay stories / fantasies, and the North American girls' tales of visits to Nagoya cat cafes etc.. Hhm, where was I? (P-san has provided the most amusing moment of lessons so far when he consistently mispronounced one of the textbook characters' names as 'Tampon' rather than 'Tawapon'. There were a few hands over mouths yet mutual acknowledgement of this amusing slip only followed over lunch. The teacher respectfully passed no comment.  I'm not sure that I would have shown the same degree of self-restraint.)

The composition of my class spans a range of backgrounds. We have a Catholic priest, a nun (I think!), three members of an American Christian charity and a self-confessed Taiwanese slacker repeating the quarter. He outswears Gordon Ramsay and is here for the visa .. and the girls. (Today he was trying to convince me of the merits of Shibuya girls over Osaka ones, not that I asked; I could be gay for all he knows and am a hesitant but amused participant in the conversation.) Just like Rainbow-san, I have left a job and much more besides to pursue this passion for learning Japanese - the priority is study, study, study - so it is fair to say the nirvana we seek is somewhat different.

There are fourteen of us in Class L, the lowest 'set' if we can call it that, and we change our seating plans daily by drawing numbered sticks on entering the class, which ensures we get to work with everyone. The ambiance is polite and respectful. Noone is here in Japan against their will, although it does not follow that everyone is a willing student (aforementioned would-be party boy - a role which may be difficult to fulfil in Okazaki - being a case in point).

Sometimes it's worthwhile staying on campus to continue these studies and begin homework; on other occasions, come 3.30, respite and a break is the priority. Or, maybe, study in a cafe. There's not really much social life, which is not what we - well, most of us (see above) - came for anyway, and leisure plans and cultural pursuits tend to be arranged for the weekend instead. Okazaki is big (and, in my case, as yet unexplored) but not exactly kicking. (Long-term residents will - no doubt with good cause - take issue with this generalisation, but it's my impression, and in truth I would rather be studing in a city short of distractions, anyway.) Instead, most of us continue our studies from our rooms and maybe interrupt one another on MSN to talk about weather, compare notes on the likely cost of an electronic dictionary and discuss other similarly exciting stuff.

So here I am, caught in a moment of nostalgia. I have fond memories of my former school, you see, and am grateful for what so many of my students did to make my final days there as memorable as possible. I even brought the touching goodbye cards they gave me to Japan. And the video from my Tutor Group is the greatest gift I have ever received, bar none (true). Just like the end of any relationship - and, let's not shy away from this, for a 'relationship' is what it should be - there was a sense of bereavement. On leaving a school, this is played out on a microcosmic level across a range of classes and years. Some of them have respected you; some have not. Some of them respect you now; some of them still don't. But in most cases there is an acknowledgement, mutual and spoken. And, as my father told me, often it's from the student with whom there were ups and downs along the way that the goodbye carries greatest poignancy. I remember their faces, words and their occasional complexities, and I feel happy to have had these times.

If anyone thought that this teacher had forgotten what it was like to be a student, I can honestly say I feel more like one now than at any time since I was eighteen. This isn't University. And thinking back to Hounslow, the words sung by Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens, in a beautiful track from their comeback album 'The Friends of Rachel Worth' ( ), come to mind:
"I wish him luck, I hope he gets it right, as he lives my life".

Monday, 18 January 2010

The culture of classroom observation figures prominently on the list of teachers' preoccupations in England. Visiting students, trainees, departmental colleagues, foreign visitors, Heads of Department, the Headteacher, Governors, Borough and OFSTED inspectors; all at some stage are likely to pay a visit. Sir / Miss may be a little apprehensive, hoping that today is not an 'off-day' and aware that impressions based on an isolated 25 minutes in a potentially unpredictable environment can either flatter or deceive. If they say they're here to observe the students, we know it's only a half-truth.

Today I wonder how we - or is it now 'they'? - might react to a different type of observation. An 'Open Day', at which mother and father get to see what they imagine to be a normal day for Little Johnny and ourselves. (For all I know, such an event may already be in the pipeline or a reality back home, as discriminating parents looking to make informed choices further assert their role as the ultimate customers or 'consumers' of education.) And whilst we're at it, how about opening the doors on a Saturday?

Snow meets me off the eastbound Tokaido Line at Shizuoka Station and we head directly to the neighbourhood school. We leave our shoes at the entrance and head down the long corridor to where her 11-yr old cousin, Fu-chan, dressed in a bright orange sweatshirt numbered '88', sits at a table of four in a large science lab, ten minutes into a chemistry lesson.

Our unsuccessful attempt at a discreet entry to the classroom causes some distraction and arouses not a little curiosity. (No, he does not have a gaijin parent.....)  Our visit is a surprise to him too.

We join a line of no more than ten observers to the side of the large classroom, which has two rows of four wooden tables and a wrap-around board at the front. Most of the writing is in hiragana and katakana; there are few kanji. In a country which leads the world in audiovisual technology, the interactive whiteboard is conspicuous by its absence. (Having hosted a small group of visiting Japanese teachers looking to observe their use during the previous academic year, this comes as no surprise.) But there are teacher-friendly gadgets such as an automatic, belt-driven board brush cleaner which a number of the boys queue up to use after the lesson and which I have not seen elsewhere.

My expectation based on stereotype is that primary school-age pupils in Japan would be less fidgety and their lessons more sedentary. The silence certainly holds when the teacher speaks, although a few pupils appear distracted as lunchtime approaches. During practicals, they move around freely and switch tables; some are up to no good even with an audience. The atmosphere on this special occasion is relaxed. Sensei never raises her voice.

The experiments finished, the tables having been cleaned and equipment packed away, the goodbye routines are played out individually yet respectfully between the teacher and each table quartet. There is no collective farewell between her and class.

We thank her for having hosted us. Throughout the time, she has seemed at ease and there is no sensation that our visit has been unwelcome or intrusive, not that this is a country where such a sentiment would be revealed. As an insight into the Monday-to-Friday reality of lessons in Fu-Chan's school, the experience tells us little, yet in these isolated 25 minutes I doubt that she has had an off-day. The parents have seen their children are relaxed and valued, and leave grateful and contented.

We return to our shoes, skirt around the sandy courtyard playground and take the five-minute walk through the neighbourhood back to Snow's home. A bowl of miso ramen awaits. I assume the teacher eats well too.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Keeping with the French theme, I'm rather spooked to see that another, unrelated Monsieur Baton visited Japan recently too. See:

His spelling isn't too hot but it all makes sense. The multi-million-yen question: does this particular French Stick have a 'CBA velociste' too?  Le fromage would certainly suit him.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

A Bike called Cheese

Having committed a considerable amount of time and effort to the often thankless task of convincing West London teenagers that learning French can be a beautiful, life-enriching and - whilst often doubting this myself - useful endeavour (oh to teach Food Technology aka cooking or ICT..), it comes as a relief and comfort to see the affection in which the Japanese hold all things Gallic. Or, at least, all things superficially Gallic.

Even some of my most able and proficient students at The Heathland School, Hounslow, had their moments when they queried the subject's place in the modern day curriculum. Comments such as "What's the point"? or even - more recently of course - "why can't WE learn Japanese?" became increasingly common towards the end of my three-plus years there. This slow-burning movement seemingly reached its democratic apogee when student delegates took a request to the School Council asking for a wider, sexier range of languages to be offered up to and beyond GCSE. Spanish, now fashionably associated in the minds of students with sun, sea and maybe soccer following a number of high-profile non-academic sports trips, headed their shopping list. The plea was politely snubbed but the message was clear: "if we have to learn languages at all, can't it be a cool [sorry - sick?] one?"

It is a pleasure to see no such credibility or sophistication deficit exists here in Japan. Worn as a badge, anything French screams "I'll cost you more .. but [or because?] I'm worth it". Even if it serves no meaningful communicative function.

I need only look beyond my doorstep to see one example of this: my elegantly named second-hand bike sits chained to the railings of my 'villa'. The brand is called "CBA le velociste" and the model's logo reads "chez Marc". (Even though it had only one working brake when I first visited, the bike spoke to me, like when choosing a pet kitten, Malawi orphan or oompa loompa.)

Ma petite reine now has a new neighbour though, from the same family too. Yes, another 'CBA velociste'. Its name?

'Le fromage'. See, if the name's French, it will do. However cheesy. However sh*t.

This is only the tip of a hollow iceberg. 'Le fromage' is also the name of the nearest bakery. Perhaps they sell red herrings too. And the bread I bought - at the supermarket - is called 'la qualite", with the English-language slogan: "it is the bread that makes the table happy".(More seriously, these names come as no surprise when one considers that that the Japanese for bakery is 'pan-ya'. And, reassuringly, railway station chain bakeries invariably have accurate French names.)
All of this, in the land which popularised the denshi-jisho or electronic dictionary. There really must be gaps in the market... Shop makeovers? Private tuition? Selling 'le Piat D'or'? If it moves, Frenchify it. Language students of the world unite: if the home of manga, Nintendo and tamagochi says 'oui', who are you to disagree?

And if you want to be ueber-cool, there's always German.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Postcard from Japan - Basho, January:

The snow we two once
      looked at together - has it
              fallen again this year?

(Thanks for the calendar.)

(photo nicked from Magda's site!)

Thursday, 7 January 2010

A post which predates the last two. And no mention of Narita escalators or 100 yen stores...
I have only previously seen Japan in summer, travelling on a rail pass, and Fuji-san was always clouded over at the summit.

Today, from the fifteenth floor of the Tokyo hotel I have just left as well as from the right-hand window of the near-empty skinkansen bound for Shizuoka, the view of Japan's highest mountain, a volcano, is clear and impressive.

Shizuoka Prefecture is the heartland of Japanese football, having the schools and two teams (one the dynamic-sounding Shimizu S-Pulse) from which many of the national side's players have emerged. It's nonetheless unlikely to hold a place in the heart of the average Englishman, if known at all. It was here that Brazil eliminated England from the 2002 World Cup, a game memorable for Ronaldhino's lob over a stranded 'safe hands' David Seaman, a match I watched miserably from a Croatian hotel room.

The city itself is better known for tremors of a more serious kind, and these ones wouldn't reach England. Disastrous earthquakes strike here every 100-150 years, the last 'Tokai' quake having taken place - somewhat worryingly if you do the maths - in 1854, and today Shizuoka is considered the city most vulnerable to catastrophic earthquake in the whole of Japan. At least this means its people are prepared and buildings tested, unlike those of Kobe in 1995.

At Snow's house, there is an earthquake emergency pack with water and tents and long-life foods, kept just inside the front door. Once detected, earthquake early warning signs automatically send alarms to mobile phones, with the possible 10-20 second advance warning unlikely to allow you time to do more than climb under the nearest table or switch off the gas. There are evacuation centres in every neighbourhood, and Shizuoka's earthquake education centre unintentionally makes for a worthwhile tourist outing, with simulators as well as mock-up post-shock rooms contrasting the impact where furniture and dangerous or fragile items have been strapped and fastened to walls with those where they have not.

Shizuoka did have a relatively serious earthquake last summer - measuring 6.5 - 6.7. It caused damage to parts of the city as well as the Izu Peninsula where I had been a few days earlier. Within seconds, national TV was showing video footage from mounted cameras of shaking offices and streets.

In Snow's house, there were a few cracks and smashed photo displays. It's easy to see why pictures and paintings hung on walls are rare in Japan, yet I'm not sure you'd want them in homes as elegantly spartan as this anyway.

On the evening of 3rd January, we ate maki-sushi rolls filled self-service style from a rotating seafood dish, just as we'd done the previous summer.

Then, the following morning, Snow's mum served the traditional New Year's Day breakfast, including a special soup with mochi rice balls, a range of boiled vegetables, some unrecognisable, as well as sweets made from chestnuts picked locally by her dad. I think this was my New Year's Day.

We went to the temple for the bowing, clapping and bell-ringing and watched the local businessman and male staff from the prefectural office troop along to do the same on this, the first full working day of the year. I always feel really at home here, and it improves my limited Japanese; in fact, it reminds me of French and German exchanges, always asking 'how do you say...?'.

Shame to be moving on so soon ...
"Position vacant: man-who-stands-on-street-corner-holding-baton. Must be able to work as part of large team and be able to maintain concentration and politeness over long, possibly uninterrupted, shifts. Ideally should have experience of assisting lost tourists. Experience as private traffic warden at quiet pedestrian crossings an advantage."
Ok, so I don't understand much Japanese, but this is how I imagine the job advertisement. Everywhere I go, there are roles which simply wouldn't exist anywhere else. They stand at every possible access point to street maintenance works, often in groups large enough to outnumber those actually performing the task, stopping and guiding the few people who don't find their own route around them down a parallel street. Yet they remain alert and cheerful, happy to help. Is this a short-time job or a career? Do they take turns to guard and repair? Are they happy to be doing it? Up and down the country, the face says yes. The same goes for the car park attendant stopping the occasional trickle of Thursday afternoon traffic to allow shoppers arriving infrequently on foot, such as me, to pass. He does so boldly, even keenly, as finally the situation justifies his presence - yet I would have been comfortable waiting for the car to cross before me.

What is the future for these workers, or for their distant cousin, the Narita Escalator Attendant? (Note from Editor: Sorry - this reflection is becoming a sadly consistent theme ..... get over it, Marc, and study). And, come to think of it, why were there no less than six students holding orange signs which read シートベルツ ('seatbelt') at the roadside of the last relatively quiet junction? Were they working or volunteering?

I go for a walk around my new neighbourhood. See more French-named places, including a local roadside "Cafe Raffine" which, ignoring the sign, looks just like a house. And I see more 100-yen shops, many more. Five minutes from my studio, I find a large shopping centre with supermarket; there's a large-ish 100 yen store on the first floor. I continue up the road for 10 minutes - there's another plaza and 100-yen store. Then I pass two more. Even a convenience chain store such as Lawsons has its own 100 yen version.

If astronomers do not yet know whether there is life on other potentially life-supporting planets in the universe, they are open to the possibility that there could be millions of such planets or there could be none. Well, Japan's shopping universe has galaxies of plazas sprouting Daisos and its competitors wherever you look, and life is certainly cheap and plentiful. (Whilst 100-yen is the benchmark, in Tokyo I've seen competition from 83 yen stores or somesuch. How the pricing cartel loves a lone maverick, to prove - not necessarily correctly - that it is not a cartel.)

Looping back on my way home, two red baton-wielding men rush out purposefully from the foyer of a huge hotel, raise their hands and stop the oncoming ring road traffic to allow a large limousine to exit, for all of fifteen seconds, before heading back towards the entrance. They then clear away something apparently ceremonial from the hotel front. I never hear car horns. Just another day in this strange consumerist constellation of quiet, shiny malls where little is left to chance, least of all my safety...

Footnote: Well. that's how it seems. In fact, Okazaki and nearby Toyota consistently have the highest death toll from road accidents of any city in Japan. Hopefully, though, we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that toilet duck ingestion 'mishaps' are on a downwards trend.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Within a few hours of arriving in Okazaki, I was shopping in the 100-yen shop. A visit to the Daiso superstore, like an English pound shop but considerably cheaper even by today's exchange rates, must be a rite-of-passage for any gajin arriving here. I've returned there a few times since, as the under-equipped state of my accommodation has gradually revealed itself, and am acclimatising slowly to the Chinese water torture that initially is its muzak. (This is interspersed with occasional Roxette-tailored-for-Japan-style ballads, with English lyics that mercifully few shoppers are condemned to comprehend, as well as woeful bossa nova lite, commonly played in supermarkets too). It feels a little 1991-ish, moving out of halls of residence, touring the bucket shops, buying the household necessities I'll no doubt be chucking out in a few months. Yes, I feel like a student again, and I suppose that's what I am.

Fortunately I was allowed to move out of my initial 'studio', in a block called Villa 4, within a day of my arrival. It felt like I was living in an hollow-walled hallway and, at night, as the fridge exploded into life and the aircon pump heater revved up, I could hear every movement of a newly arrived English-speaker next door. This didn't quite match the 'one room mansion' description on the Yamasa site and contradicted the additional blurb that "the main feature of Japanese refrigerators is that they are very quiet - because refrigerators are often in close proximity to sleeping areas" ( The (cheap) fridge in my studio must have been intended for altogether more spacious accommodation.

Coincidentally, I also learnt from Yamasa's very own website that "in Japanese 4 is pronounced as 'shi', which is the same word as death. In many hotels and apartment blocks the number is simply not used." So, perhaps Villa 4 is an in-joke played out on clueless arrivals. Or maybe I was predestined to take this room? My birthday is, after all, the 24th, and the same article informed me that "in hospitals you are also unlikely to see rooms numbered 9, 24, 42 or 420. As the number 9 is pronounced as 'ku' which rhymes with a different word meaning pain or worry. 24 is pronouned ni-shi meaning double death." (In which case the half-full jug surely dictates that I get two lives too.)

Anyway, I am now housed in a different block called Villa U and am unaware of any associated superstitious connotations. It will be a longer but simple bike ride to classes and is in an even quieter residential area close to a few ponds, a row of shops and, charmingly, a barber's called 'Que Sera Sera'. Notwithstanding a few manifest inadequacies (notably kitchen facilities and insulation - it's cold!), I think I can live here for a few months and it should feel like home. I'll  have to wait and see.

And, really, my most exciting news: I am the proud new owner of a second-hand microwave. At around £13, it was a case of 'the cheaper, the better', as there's a simpler dial timer and no complicated kanji programming to puzzle me (a trying experience I have already had with the aircon / heater control). Next purchase - and an even more thrilling post - might be a second-hand bike?

Now, having served my time in a legalistic setting - by which I don't but maybe should mean teaching and its OTT risk assessments - and having sub-let my flat, I am aware that we are living in an increasingly litigious world of ambulance-chasers and garden fence boundary disputes where you can never be cautious enough. But none of that prepares you for Japan. From that first moment you push your overloaded trolley onto Narita's escalators, there's someone every 100m to check you're ok and warn you of any dangers, in case you (e.g.) cut your fingers on a napkin or impale yourself on your chopsticks. So, back from Daiso, having been shopping in the 'なに' state, I apparently have a range of potentially life-threatening utensils and products to fall back on and hospitalise myself.

There's the intriguing...

- my 'dessert spoon': 'This product is a tool to cut fruit. Do not use for the use except this'. (What - I can't use it to eat ice cream instead?)

- my head-torch: 'Be sure to roll a piece of towel on head before you use this product'. (But would I have time in the event of an earthquake?)

The unhelpful or consumer-unfriendly...

- my new 'handy slipper': 'It is popular in an airplane, hostel or hotel'. (But crap for the home?)

- my tea towels: 'good hygroscopicity': hey, on second thoughts after a Google search, Daiso is actually teaching me new English vocabulary.

- my 'rotate can opener': '*using this can opener may be difficult, depending on the materials and size of the can'. (Caveat emptor, indeed. Money back, please.)

And just in case you have an imaginative negligence claim in mind...

- for my coat hangers, I'm warned: 'Please stop to use it at the place which is full of radiation'. (Better take them out of the microwave, quick.)

- for my spatula, 'please do not use for purposes other than cooking'. (Am I naively unaware of a common alternative application? Anyone posting: please remember this site has a Parental Guidance certificate.)

- for my Hard Cleaner for Toilet, 'Do not apply this product on human body or food'. (Are they warning me based on experience? Now that's a law report I'd like to read...)

Of course, one day I'd like to be able to read the Japanese label but, for now, I feel I'd be missing out if I were a monolingual non-anglophone.
It's time for lunch (after my 'placement test' yesterday, classes begin next week, with 'orientation' tomorrow), and naturally I'll be putting on my flak jacket, gloves and protective helmet before entering the kitchen. Wish me luck, I'm going in....

Saturday, 2 January 2010

I bought my dad ( an anthology of Basho's haiku for Christmas, not previously knowing who Basho was. I thought it might keep him busy whilst mum completed her 3000-piece jigsaw. I followed that present up with a 'how to write haiku' guide for his birthday. Will Le Vieux Baton's first magnum opus be complete before the jigsaw? Could Haiku-Scryfer be Chesham's answer to Herman Van Rompuy?

"Please shut the door when you take a bath. Because hot air of the bathroom makes a fire alarm ring."

Taking you back to the nailbiting conclusion of my first post, it was only having filled the bath full of steaming hot (citrus aroma soda - infused) water that the jetlagged author noticed this warning on the inside of the open door, which he promptly closed. Fortunately, no alarm went off.

Returning to the scene of this near-miss during a night spent wide awake, I wondered how Basho might have written the advice. Or Herman Van Rompuy? Or Le Vieux? This is my 5-7-5 effort:

Room of rising heat,
No wake-up call, please. (Instead,
visit an onsen.)

According to Wikipedia, "while traditional Japanese haiku has focused on nature and the place of humans in it, some modern haiku poets, both in Japan and the West, consider a broader range of subject matter suitable, including urban contexts. While pre-modern haiku avoided certain topics such as sex and overt violence, contemporary haiku sometimes deal with such themes".

Well, at least there's no sex or overt violence. (After all, my parents might be reading.....)

Friday, 1 January 2010

Tokyo, or what little I saw of it on January 1st, is quiet. The airport is a ghost airport; no queues for Immigration and Arrivals empty. Yet it's still pristine and the terminal staff are all there: even the lady (not sure of her job title!) telling me exactly how I place my baggage trolley on the down-escalator. (An employee who would surely be stood down on New Year's Day in a country less dedicated to customer service and a job which, in the UK, would surely have been rationalised in the name of 'efficiencies' long ago, if it ever existed.) I'm happy to be here, again, even if I'm ill-at-ease in the language, have lost hearing in my left ear since descent into Narita, and don't understand what the escalator woman is telling me. (What, I can really place 55 kilograms facing downwards on a steep escalator ... and it won't fall? Yes, it seems, is the answer, as she pushes it to the brink.)

The first time I was here, summer 2008, I travelled straight into Shinjuku, billed as the busiest transport hub in the world. Unsurprised yet impressed at the time it took to cross from the eastern to the western half of the city transport map, I promptly got lost, even with a map. Summer 2009, I chose Shiodome, manageable, central and within walking distance of Tsukiji Fish Market, where an early morning visit fitted well with my body clock post-flight. And now, not having expected to return for at least year, I'm in Shinagawa, exit station for the city's westbound shinkansen.

From my 'Tokyo Tower view' room at the hotel, which kindly let me check in early, I can indeed see - by craning my neck well to the left - the red-and-white replica. It has occurred to me in the past that this monument would have been a (minor) curiosity item, a talking point, if I had placed a poster of it on my (otherwise German and French - dressed) classroom wall. ("Sir, I didn't know the Eiffel Tower was red and white.... Is it the Eiffel Tower? Or is this some Arsenal-related joke?") 13 metres taller than its French inspiration, it's just one example of Japanese "anything you can do, I can do better" thinking. But, unlike the Eiffel Tower, it is not considered especially iconic of this city, and visitors to Tokyo rarely rush to see it (recognising perhaps its relative youth and that, deep down, the original and best is back in Europe?)

My room is also a "Wellness room". This means it has special foam pillows, a foot massage machine and interesting items in the bathroom with names like "Ashi-Yubi sponge" (also foam). Obviously I hate the whole pampering business and never consciously use expressions like "R&R" but it's pleasantly comfortable after a 12-hour intercontinental flight during which I saw in not one but two New Years (which adds to the dehydration, if you know what I mean, especially with a friend-of-a-friend among the cabin crew). These uniquely Japanese things, from multi-programmable toilets to redesigned 'X-wing' coffee sachets, today seem less remarkable but nonetheless impressive. Like most rooms in Tokyo, this one is not doing its bit for the environment. I mean, it even has two disposable nail brushes.

The Tokyo arrival recipe tends to be: debit card rejected by on-line banking fraud protection (thank you, First Direct), Narita Express, zombie-walk to hotel.. and sleep. Which I do, quite successfully, and dream more jetlag dreams. I've dumped half my luggage in a Shinagawa coin locker, and plan to move on to visit a friend in Shizuoka on Monday, before heading on to Okazaki on the following day. What will I do today? Mug up on hiragana and katakana, which I've not studied for a few weeks, and ride the Tokyo Monorail. But for now, coming up to 7am, it's time for a natural grapefruit aroma soda bath.....