Thursday, 18 February 2010

Here at Yamasa, we do a lot of written homework. So when my private lesson lead teacher, Matsuyama-sensei, suggested that I develop the habit of writing a Japanese diary, to be presented and corrected daily, I stifled an inner groan.

How could I sugar-coat this task or render it more appealing? Option (1): slip in outrageous lies and see if my teacher notices / blushes / no longer requests diary. Probably not the done thing in Japan. Option (2): buy something with an attractive design from the 100-yen shop in the hope I will take pride in ensuring the contents live up to its cover. (At the risk of being blatantly sexist, experience of working in a secondary school suggests this is the kind of thing only girls do.)

And here it is: my new diary, with its "chirruped forest" logo. A catchprase which, astonishingly, yields two search results when googled.

It has quickly become one of my current favourite 'Engrish' possessions, possibly overtaking my 'Terrific power!' multi-purpose-claptrap storage case (see below), which gives me such a great sense of liberty whether I'm storing peanuts or carrying my electric toothbrush overseas. (I plan to submit the latter to the magnificent

Whilst on the subject of Engrish, here are two of the best T-shirt designs I have seen worn, in all likelihood innocently and obliviously, by Japanese (photos taken during previous visits to Japan):

from 2008, taken at Matsue Castle: "for 6[9,000] yen, esta Puta will let you take the shirt off her back".

from 2009, Kyoto: "Save the Planet. We are the World Banana Seven".

If you're also a fan, you might want to stop by, where I am a repeat customer. Their T-shirts make for memorable birthday presents.  
Sure beats Frankie Says...
"But now I know
She's got a built in ability
To take everything she sees
And now it seems I'm falling, falling for her"

Every day at around 8 am, I listen to 'Invisible Touch' by Genesis. Not once, not twice, but three, four, maybe five times. That is my morning routine.

Please note: this is not a quote from American Psycho.

As you'll see from the photo, this catchy number from the eighties is used as background music by a Japanese (late) breakfast show. I don't watch the weekday TV here, but I do listen to it, and I know it's 8 o'clock when I hear Genesis.

The song accompanies the presenters' lengthy and rather wooden introductions, the latest footage from the Winter Olympics, news clips and guest discussions. It's 8.10 and I'm still hearing it. Now, imagine enduring this for a month. (Before you suggest I change channels: no masochism, no blog.)

It seems strange that in a country where there is a commendable consensus in favour of silence in public transport - no loud ring tones or impossible-not-to-eavesdrop mobile conversations, here - shops and broadcasters source their background music from a rather limited range and then place them on heavy rotation.

Can the presenters actually hear Phil Collins through their microphones? And, if so, is this normal to them? Do they recognise that their lead-in to the latest Japanese figure-skating medal award is being accompanied by a cheesily worded tale of obsession? At any of the last four weeks' editorial meetings, have the programme's chiefs thought of shaking up their BGM armoury? (I was thinking of "you oughtta know" by Alanis Morrisette, for continuity's sake. Come on, the royalty payments can't be too bad, and noone will pick out that line about the cinema.)

I suppose that the advantage of not understanding English in Japan is that anything can become background music. You can play it on a loop, and it won't seem repetitive, because you won't notice the words coming around again. It's like the goldfish-swimming-around-bowl myth. Invisible Touch becomes a 10-minute tour-de-force, an indecipherable Homerian epic in 3, 4, maybe 5 movements.

Furthermore, the Japanese don't have to worry about the semantics of the invisible touch. Does it really matter to Phil Collins whether or not her ability is "built in" or accessorised? And if she's reaching inside, why should we care that her touch is invisible anyway?
Just some of the questions the Japanese are not asking over their natto and miso soup this morning...

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


This exquisite paper sushi set was produced after lunch by the aforementioned, multi-talented Fu-Chan, who has imagination to burn. He even made me a takoyaki octopus ball, to order. Suteki desu ne?

Snow's house, which she describes as "traditional Japanese", is only a 5-10 minute drive from Shizuoka JR shinkansen station. All tatami matting, fusuma sliding doors and shoji paper panels, as a living space it feels light and rather delicate on the inside, yet I sense it is solidly built. (In Shizuoka, one day it may need to be.) There is also a butsuma (shrine) room, where short, silent prayers are said on special occasions or before departures, by way of ritual and out of respect rather than belief.

The atmosphere and hospitality here is always warm and relaxed. In winter, we place our legs in the open space beneath the low hori-kotatsu dining table; shielded from the cold by a blanket which traps the rising heat.

But if this sounds like an austere environment, it's far from it. The TV is always on; (Japanese) food and travel shows dominate the schedules. If we're not eating, we're watching people on TV eating. It's as if the Holiday programme had a channel of its own. These programmes must grate if you understand them, which I don't, since my knowledge of Japanese verbs is currently limited to formal forms rarely used by the Japanese on television. But I consistently hear the adjective 'oishii" ("delicious" or "tasty"), often delivered in the most exaggerated tones as the presenters act for the cameras. Noone dislikes what they eat, on television.

Snow's mother sometimes takes a break from the kitchen to sit and play sudoko on her Nintendo DS. Everyone does their own thing; people eat at different times, and it's completely acceptable just to keel over and doze for a while after a heavy meal (just try that on a linoleum floor), just as we did one Sunday afternoon a fortnight ago. It's easily done when one's feet are already below floor level.

Shizuoka is a large city, yet this is a quiet neighbourhood. Behind the house, there is a steep hill ('yama' - the same word for mountain) covered in bamboo trees. A short walk to the top brings you to a superb view. One can see the shinkansen line, trains passing from left to right, that's east to west, and across to the ocean. There are more 'yama' in the direction of Shimizu.

This is where Snow's family came to see in the New Year. Here, that does not mean waiting for midnight (a number, a time); instead, they rise early to catch the morning sunrise.

During the walk, we pass Snow's dad's garden. This is a kind of allotment, providing fruit and vegetables such as radishes and Shizuoka's famous 'mikan' tangerines for the home. A keen gardener, he comes here a lot; I suspect he likes to be alone, to lose himself in his planting and picking, maybe even escape the women of the house now and again. But this is a household which imposes no sense of obligation to participate in anything much. His need for solitude is respected. Naturally, I feel at ease with this mentality too.

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days here again this last weekend. Feeling slightly jaded by study and Yamasa's testing regime, just as Snow was sleep-deprived following her daily commute to work in Tokyo, the aim was to catch up, rest and eat. (Thanks to her mother, we always manage the last of these particularly successfully.) The only plan we had made was to go strawberry picking ("ichigo gari"), which Shizuoka is famous for.

Snow had described to me how there was a good place between the sea and the mountains to do this. Having savoured the slow pace and simple pastimes of their quiet city life, I confess that I had already formed a dreamy vision of our proposed excursion. I was in Japan, the land of elemental haiku (see below) and communion with nature at milky-watered onsen and under cherry blossoms, after all. My vaguely romantic notion was strengthened when, on arrival at Snow's house, we saw a man dressed like a peasant farmer coming down the road, with a round bamboo bucket / box tied to his back, walking the dog. A shepherd returning home. Then I realised it was her father, back from from the 'yama'. On his back he had brought freshly picked mikan. The next day, would this be us? Picking fruit on the outskirts of a densely populated city called Shizuoka, looking across at Fuji-San? (etc etc..)

In the week prior to this visit, I had asked my father to do a little family-based research for me. My grandfather ( ), wrote a number of books ( ) about his home town of Newlyn, a Cornish fishing port, in the late 70s and early 80s. Many of these are out of print today. His autobiographical account of growing up there, 1979's Newlyn Boyhood, dedicated a chapter to the joys of picking a different fruit: blackberries. I have taken the liberty of appending the full text below this post. (Thank you to Baton Sr for his help and efforts at 10wpm.) Here is just a taste:

"When out on the moors, or searching the September hedgerows, there is a real thrill in coming across a brambly corner laden with glistening black fruit, ripe and tempting, and one picks away with delight and abandon. How often a most uninviting lane or ditch, hitherto showing a few 'scrovy' berries, suddenly reveals a shining harvest that one might well have missed."

Now, I was hoping that my 'Strawberrying' might be a contemporary take on my grandfather's theme. The generational cycle versus the (often concealed), timeless joys of fruitpicking. Alas, no such luck. Which might be welcome news to those who feel Baton au Japon is slowly veering into rose-tinted-new-ageist-you're-on-one-long-jolly/-mid-life-crisis/-work-evasion/-doss-project narrative. ("If you use the word 'elemental' one more time, I'll unsubscribe.")

On the Sunday morning, we drove to the Shizuoka waterfront, just back from which there is a stretch of strawberry farms. This is a 'stretch' in much the same way roadside hotels or restaurants form a 'stretch'. Outside most of them, pairs of women, mostly students looking rather miserable and distracted for Japanese, stand swinging plastic strawberries in the hope of enticing your car into their car park and so-called farm.

We enter one belonging to one of Snow's family's friends. Three of her young cousins, all genki to burst, are with us, together with her aunty, mother and sister. Above us, rows of greenhouses line the lower slopes of the yama.

We are allotted one greenhouse, not built for six-footers, and are given not plastic punnets, but dishes. It turns out that these are for the green stems and inedible parts. We will not be taking our harvest home at all. We are here to eat. As much as we want, for as long as we want, as long as it's not from the end section of the row (which has been fenced off). It's a Sunday lunchtime buffet. But just strawberries. There are no views of Fuji-san, no cholera graveyards...

My romantic notions dispelled, I tuck in. When Snow's family find particularly ripe strawberries, they tend to keep these not for themselves but offer them to others instead. After a while, I get a bit bored and try catching out Snow's cousins by tricking them into eating strawberries which are perfect from the front but rotten, mouldy or insect-infested around the back. This isn't very Japanese but, being kids, they enjoy it. Especially when I fall for my own trick.

Having eaten everything approaching red from our 'allotment', we stretch our legs (and I, my back) by walking to the top of the hill, where there's a temple. Spritely Fu-chan (see last Shizuoka post, below, and above) races me to the top and beats me by a distance. The view along the coastline is a good one. (Just ignore those greenhouses at the bottom.)

Heading down and back to the car park, we pass the inevitable souvenir shops. All is Strawberry.

On the other side of the yama, perhaps Snow's dad is alone at work in his allotment. Or, having returned home, taking a nap in front of the television.

I can understand why he didn't want to come. It has been fun, it has been a family day out, but once was enough. Next time, let's go mikan-picking.


taken from Newlyn Boyhood, 1979, by Ben (Baton)

If the blackberry were an exotic rare fruit, found only in the most inaccessible parts of a far country and brought here at tremendous expense then the rich gourmets would pronounce at length on its superb flavour and its appeal to the educated palate.

But the blackberry is common and usually very plentiful here in the South-west, and I think it is one of the most under-rated of fruits. Probably there are those who share with me the opinion that blackberry tart and Cornish cream, at their best, make an incomparable dessert. Picking blackberries - if you like the activity, and not everyone does - is something that can be enjoyed by children and still participated in by the elderly.

Possible [sic] the scoffing phrase quoted above refers to the persevering ability of blackberry pickers to search out and discover special 'cuddies' in their efforts to fill their containers. When out on the moors, or searching the September hedgerows, there is a real thrill in coming across a brambly corner laden with glistening black fruit, ripe and tempting, and one picks away with delight and abandon. How often a most uninviting lane or ditch, hitherto showing a few 'scrovy' berries, suddenly reveals a shining harvest that one might well have missed. We used to call the best ones 'git sooters'.

When as boys we went off to get blackberries our usual route from 'The Green' was up the Bowjey, across Gwavas Road, through the fields (for Gwavas Estate was still a dozen years in the future) on past the Ring and Thimble which you can still see on the Sheffield road and then either to Chyenhal or Clodgy Moor. Whatever luck we had it was always hard going returning home tired, wearily negotiating the stiles we had so easily crossed an hour or two before & we were proud to show a full basket of fruit. Sometimes if we'd had a poor picking we would fill most of the basket with ferns, and have just a toplayer of blackberries to forestall any jeering.

My father enjoyed blackberrying, a real change from Trinity Service or fishing duties, and he would go off on his bicycle, ranging much further and finding better spots than we could. I do recall one bad moment when, as we came out of Newlyn Board School to see him resting with a fine harvest of blackberries in a wicker basket, the latter suddenly slipped off the handlebars and most of the lovely fruit scattered irretrievably on the dusty ground. Anyone who has done much picking will have at some time experienced the mortification of an upset tin or can, and those who have tried retrieving blackberries spilt on grass will know how unsuccessful and messy the result is.

In the autumn if, on the way to school, we suddenly realised that we had not brought a 'copy' for the Art lesson we could always find in the lush vegetation on the hedges of Adit Lane a bramble stem with green and golden and russet leaves, plus a few berries, just right for pastel reproduction.

How I envied the artistic gifts of some of my schoolmates, whose life-like crayon drawings were far beyond my smudgy and botched attempts,yet I enjoyed art lessons and remember the big blue-covered drawing books for pastel work, their pages of varying hue separated by tissue papers.

Of all the people I associate with blackberry picking there is one pre-eminent figure in my boyhood recollections - Aunt Sarah. She lived at Sheffield and then for many years at Paul, and was an energetic warm-hearted woman, always busy and bustling, always hospitable and cheerful. If I stayed at Auntie's at autumn weekends she would take me out to help her pick blackberries, usually at Trungle Moor or just above Sheffield. I can see now the great zinc pail she carried, and though quite probably it was not nearly as big as I then thought, yet it took great efforts to fill it.

In the evening the men of the family came home from the granite quarries at Castallack or Carnalanca, and the well-cooked meal soon disappeared, but for me the main delight there was the blackberry tarts - for a mere one would not have sufficed them - eaten with thick portions of luscious clotted cream. How we tucked into them, soon leaving the enamel dishes bare.

One incident from that period still makes me smile. Aunt Sarah was too busy to go out with me one afternoon, so I was despatched with a rather smaller bucket to get blackberries. I did so, not going very far, but with fair results after an hour or two. At suppertime the tarts again appeared and there were favourable comments on the quality of the fruit, and I basked in the praise.

Then Auntie said: "Boy Ben, where did you pick those blackberries?" I casually explained the hedges I had climbed and the good place I had found, not far from Boslandew House. Aunt Sarah's usually smiling face changed, she put down an uneaten portion of tart, and silence fell on the normally talkative family. I had entered the 'cholera graveyard' to gather the fruit, and all the implications of that forbidden harvest were discussed in lengthy, if unscientific, detail.

For their golden syrup the firm of Lyle cleverly adopted as a motto 'Out of the strong came forth sweetness' but I was unable to quote or make up any fitting epigram to justify my misdeed. For the next day or two I watched anxiously, but nobody seemed the worse for their cemetery dessert.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Struggling with my penstrokes, something almost certainly obvious to long-term learners of kanji strikes me: the Elements go to the very heart of the Japanese language. Whilst we have Sundays and Mondays, the Japanese pair the pictogram kanji representing Sun, Moon, Fire, Water, Tree, Money (reserved for Friday - pay day?) and Earth with the kanji for 'day', which is also 'Sun'. (So, bridged by a further kanji which I have yet to learn, Sunday is 'Sun [x] Sun'.) The Moon kanji used for Monday serves as the unit for each of the twelve months too. No need for schoolchildren to make any etymological connections here; the elements are more explicitly rooted in their language and conception of time. This isn't just about Japan being the country of volcanoes, typhoons and tsunamis either. It's reflected in the everyday; it's even quite common for inconsequential, everyday decisions to be reached via games of Rock, paper, scissors.

The haiku for February on my calendar is from Boncho, a contemporary of Basho. I was unfamiliar with this name but can assure you he is Japanese, not Bulgarian. (Talking of which, watching TV in a Shizuoka denki-ya a few weeks back, I saw that there is a famous national of that country carving out a niche for himself in Japan as a sumo wrestler.) Some time before his death in 1714, he wrote this:

The companion
   to the wind's blowing -
     in the sky
        the single moon.

(In Japanese, it's three lines.)

And flicking through my calendar, the same elemental undercurrent flows through each month. Without spoiling the poetic joys of 2010 in advance, which would be like scoffing all the chocolates on 1st December, I take a sneak preview and see that the monthly haiku to come cover Snow, Mountains, Grass, Darkness, Rice, Leaves, Summer, Rain, Night and (again) Snow. You're probably thinking these are normal themes for a calendar but, in Japan, the focus seems so much more pronounced. Or do I mean limited? Grant McLennan (RIP), a special yet unsung songwriter who somehow managed the feat of including more references to 'Moon' in his lyrics than (ahem) Sting, would no doubt have approved. Even if you're left cold by the writing, there's no doubting the sense of clarity.

And, now switching to Chesham, I find a beautiful poem, from closer to home, which needs no translation, the words of which end in Sun. Thanks Dad. And hope you're feeling better, Mum. (entry of 30 January 2010)

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Beans Day Update: Oni (the demon) rushed into our classroom at 2.15 this afternoon. By the time we had thrown unopened bags of beans at his feet - consideration being extended to evening cleaners - it had beheaded sensei and bitten off the ear of of a young student from Bhutan, offered up in sacrifice. Oni then fled outside, howling with rage, leaving the rest of us teacherless yet safe for another year. This school really needs to review its ID cards policy.
A good day to throw beans

To balance out my previous post, time to mention something I love about Japan: it's a country which has not lost sight of its folklore.

One of the best places to experience this is Tono (,_Iwate ), in Iwate Prefecture, where you can cycle around the ricefields taking in the 'kappa' (imp) tales chronicled by Lafcadio Hearn and on which the local, pleasantly undeveloped tourist industry is built.

 (photos from August 2009 visit)

These are not the ghost stories for which Hearn is best known in the West: the film 'Kwaidan' vividly - but perhaps a little slowly - brought four other folk tales researched by him to international audiences. (Note to self: beware the Yuki-Onna!)

I have always loved the spookiest ghost stories, especially those with the whiff of genuine experience, and the Japanese sensibility for spirits and their coincidence with the changing seasons is one which finds in the British Volksgeist a distant soulmate. (Yet I suspect it's in the European countries such as Lithuania, where paganistic traditions remain deep-rooted and intact, that the popular sense of the supernatural has survived best of all.) It's also no coincidence that I love the songs of The Clientele - a modern-day band to which I readily declare an almost religious attachment amd who sing of phantom apparitions, seasons, bonfires and harvests (as the fad-seeking British public turn a deaf ear). Just like tomorrow in Japan, they bring a sense of the mystical to the everyday; numinous yet not out of place in modern (city) life.

Back to Okazaki. Wednesday will witness a malevolent visitor to school. One who's much more fun than an OFSTED inspector too. It's the festival of Mamemaki. I learnt about this yesterday, when I attended the Japanese equivalent of a 'Stammtisch' / French circle after school. By far the least proficient of the students attending, and the only representative of my Beginners' 'L' Class, I listened to others discuss what it is exactly. And, with the kind assistance of a teacher who occasionally searched vocabulary in her denshi-jisho, I picked out the odd relevant word so I could do some more homework back home. The key ones (with definitions from Wikipedia - sorry) are as follows:-

Setsubun (節分) - the day before the beginning of each season. "The name literally means "seasonal division", but usually the term refers to the spring Setsubun", which is tomorrow (3 February).

Risshun (立春) - the specific name for tomorrow's festival. "In its association with the Lunar New Year, Spring Setsubun can be and was previously thought of as a sort of New Year's Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki (豆撒き, lit. bean scattering)."

I read on. The bean scattering is "usually performed by the toshiotoko (年男) of the household (i.e., the male who was born on the corresponding animal year on the Chinese zodiac), or else the male head of the household. Roasted soybeans (called Fuku mame) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an Oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the throwers chant "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (鬼は外! 福は内!)." (Gaijin pronunciation of the latter phrase needs to be accompanied by appropriate body language to avoid any ambiguity / bruises. Especially since, during innocent dictionary-based homework, it came to my attention that 'mame' is a colloquialism for a part of the female genitalia once considered equally mythical.) "The words roughly translate to "Demons out! Luck in!" The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one's life, and in some areas, one for each year of one's life plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come."

In England, I'm sure such antics could safely be banned from schools on health and safety grounds. I mean, someone could slip on a bean, suffocate behind a mask, or even mispronounce 'fuku wa uchi'. But here it's embedded in the calendar, untainted by commercialism, and will be celebrated by over half the population, from the shiniest, highest office block to the fields of Tono.

Happy Risshun / Mamemaki to all back home! A special note to my sister: have a BEANY time, won't you?