Friday, 30 April 2010

Dogville (not the movie)

I’m not really 'into' dogs. As I type this, I can hear one barking. The one at Snow’s house (Taro-kun) is jumpy and scary, and has to be tied up when I visit. But I really hit it off with one last weekend. A kind Taiwanese girl from our class (let’s call her ‘Rabbit’) invited a few of us to her friend’s house in Toyota on the Saturday afternoon for sushi, beers and a round or two of Nintendo Wi. One of these video games involved throwing a フリスビー (furisubee) for a cute computerised dog to catch and return.

My teammate and I did the little trotting one proud, and we trounced our classmates with a few laser-guided throws. I suspect there are gameplayers out there who have bonded tamogochi-style with these animations. But rest assured: Mo-Kun (the one I “hit it off” with), as you can see from the photo below, is definitely an actual dog.

I expect the story of my linguistic boob when discussing this living, breathing woofer with our hosts to make a classmate’s website ( ) soon. You see, I thought we had found common ground: when told that Mo kun’s favourite thing was ‘sanpo’ (a walk), I agreed and said it was mine too. I had misheard: his favourite thing was, in fact, ‘sanpuru’ (dog biscuit samples).

The Japanese go to quite ridiculous lengths in lavishing affection on dogs, and the excitable Mo-kun is relatively unspoilt by the standards of his compatriots. And whilst inter-human relations in Japanese public places are rarely tactile (few kisses or embraces at the airport or railway station, for example), the tlc extended to their canine friends is anything but. They dress them and groom them and fuss over them, especially the small ugly ones. I’d say newborn babies get less attention.

In particular, dogs are the accessory of choice for the common Japanese phenomenon of ‘Girl Walking Alone in Park’. So much so that I recall reading somewhere that, for men looking to pick up Japanese, investment in a dog is a shrewd move. (I witnessed this only the other day in Osaka Park.) Dogs are innocuous talking points on which everyone can agree (“isn’t he cute?” etc) as a preamble to flirtation. There are other equally bland conversation-openers (notably the weather) but the advantage with the sweet, unpredictable dog is that it can sneak its owner through small gaps in the gender fence. Here, in the park, it is truly the (predatory) Man’s Best Friend.

Himeji Koen, early April 2010, “Check out that Bitch

It probably comes as no surprise, then, that in Japan, with its low birth rate, the whole dog ownership craze has spawned an immense (and, frankly, tasteless) side industry which must account for a significant proportion of average Japanese household expenditure. This industry seems to be doing its best to bring Crufts standards and glamour to the masses. ( ) reported last year that:

The number of pet dogs in Japan alone has reached an astounding 13 million or more over the past 10 years.

Of course this industry has attracted numbers of ancillary businesses, such as those specializing in dog sunglasses, doggie clothing, fancy collars and leashes, and any other product that you can imagine having to do to delight and dress up the canine species. Doggie day care centers and spas which provide the highest degree of pooch pampering are becoming popular with dog owners who wish to offer their pets the crème de la crème of canine care.

But can you believe that canine-centered restaurants are also opening their doors? Get this . . . these dog food franchise cafes are featuring the tops in canine cuisine. "Deco Dog Restaurant" is one of them. Their unique menu offers "sweet potato scones, chicken, cheese, vegetables and dog sweets" to tickle Fido's palate with these delectable treats. Trumping these offerings, some of these establishments also offer "doggie etiquette" and yoga classes as well.

For folks who live in apartments where dogs are not permitted, guess what? There are doggie rental services available so these folks can experience the pleasure of spending time with their favorite animal. Many of these agencies will even attempt to provide the renter's favorite breed as well. Rentals can range from several hours to many days. As of 2008 there were over 134 dog rental facilities open for business.”

If I had a dog, it wouldn't take me long to reach one of these places. As seems to be the case for most phenomena I consider iconic of modern Japanese life (e.g. Pachinko, 100-en stores), a short walk from my doorstep just around the corner from Wingtown brings me to what could easily be the archetype. Entering the street, I hear barking. Follow the sound and you realise that this isn’t just any other residential neighbourhood. It's the location of the grandiose-sounding IPC or ‘International Pet Culture General College’.

The IPC comprises (all written in English) the ‘Aichi Pet College’ , the Pet Groom Training Studio, ‘Studio Cut and Hotel Doggy’.

Uniformed staff head in and out, walking dogs at pace. Doggy-printed minibuses are parked out the front; they sometimes pass me on their rounds as I walk or cycle into school.

Do dogs humanise us? Or are we humanising dogs? And, if so, what next, I ask? Dog love hotels? Dog onsen? I wouldn’t bet against either existing already and, if indeed they do, can well imagine they’re queuing around the block.

Anyway, it being a pleasant day, I'm off to the park to play some frisbee. Who knows? I might get lucky and meet a dog.
Memories of Mr Dog-Biscuit, and Himeji (early April)

Early April 2005. We crossed paths just inside the Iranian border, shortly before re-entering Turkey. You walked the last mile to the border. I took the bus. (Economy-minded traveller that you were, you didn’t want to fork out the extra 10 pence.) You came from Chile, or Argentina I think. Looked a little bit like the hippy traveller, with your flip flops and unkempt hair. (I wonder what the well-groomed Persians made of your style.) Your name was Ricardo, or Carlos, I think. We got talking, spent the day in and around the border town of Dogubayazit (known to travellers as ‘Dog Biscuit’ ( ), the scene of a bird flu outbreak a few years later and close to Mount Ararat where a group of Turkish Christian missionaries claimed this week to have discovered Noah’s Ark [note: they’re misled – it’s in Takayama]), visited the castle, ate a Turkish pizza, drank a beer, said our goodbyes, and lost touch.

Unless you just happen to be reading this. (Unlikely.) In which case I should tell you: there are two things for which I remember you well, the first of which still makes me chuckle.

There are countries where regular conversation with curious locals is to be expected, unavoidable, for backpackers. There are others where it is not. Japan falls firmly into the latter category. This is often regrettable since travel here without contacts can be quite an isolating experience. Few Japanese invade your (limited) space, even when you lower the drawbridge. They might want to, for all kinds of reasons, but rarely do so. Politeness, shyness, perceived language barriers – all factors which no doubt play a part. It’s not really a country where you are going to fill your address book unless you take some drastic action, e.g. tour with an obvious ‘talking point’ such as a cute dog peeking out of your backpack (see next post). Which I have not yet seen anyone do.

Countries such as Iran and eastern Turkey, where intrusion upon privacy is a relatively alien concept, lie on the other side of this spectrum. There, a raised drawbridge won't necessarily guarantee you peace in the moments when you’re just happy taking in the view from the bus window. (In which case take your pick of anti-social strategy: short, one word answers; look grumpy; allow personal hygiene standards to fall; feign that you don’t speak English etc.) This is perfectly illustrated by the experience ‘Ricardo’ - a bit of a ladies’ man, if I recall (of all places to meet one: Iran!) – shared with me in Dog Biscuit.

A local male student who had engaged Ricardo in conversation earlier that day had asked him, “Do you mind if I walk with you?”, and so they had ambled around the streets of this small town together. Approaching lunchtime, he had asked: ‘Do you mind if I talk with you whilst you eat?”. Again, no problem. Ricardo welcomed the company. A few hours and “Do you mind if..” questions later, Ricardo again did not mind talking with the student when, sightseeing concluded, he walked back to his hotel. Where Ricardo then said goodbye and that he had enjoyed the day. But his companion wasn’t relinquishing his grip quite so easily, wasn’t going anywhere. So Ricardo said something along the lines of “well, I’d like to read now”. The student’s reply: “Do you mind if I talk with you whilst you read?” By this stage, I guess you could hear the shudder of the drawbridge. He had had to become rather more abrupt, rude even. At which the student, having failed to take the hint before, got the message, and left.

At dinner that evening, what would have been his next “do you mind if I talk with you whilst you [ …]?” question, we wondered.

‘Ricardo’ never carried a guidebook, and it is for this that I also remember him. He may have travelled with a guitar but, when it came to sightseeing and touring, he made it up as he went along. No maps, no descriptions, no explanations. His beatnik style was to wander and stop when he found something interesting. He arrived in towns, and left them too, completely and possibly blissfully ignorant of their attractions. Ricardo even took some convincing to walk to Dog-Biscuit’s castle. (He’d make an interesting case study of the sort to be found in Alain de Botton’s ‘Art of Travel’).

[Highly debatable quote from Amazon review at : "If there are flaws in this, de Botton's latest and perhaps most readable book, they are the usual suspects: just occasionally the author comes across as a bit long-winded and self-regarding." But I would say that, wouldn't I?]

In my experience it is not uncommon - especially in the Third World - to meet backpackers who apparently delight in telling / asking you, openmouthed, “what, you didn’t go to…?” They want you to feel you have missed out. (They also tend to be less interested in the places you have visited.) Equally, there are those tourists for whom travel seems to be one long laborious mission to prove they have been .. wherever they have been. They will enjoy their holiday in retrospect, yet here and today their minds are on their photo album and the souvenir shops. (To a lesser or greater extent, I suspect many travellers can identify with this description – I, with my scrapbooks and.. blog posts, certainly do.) Anyway, into such company, I would gladly teleport Ricardo for the alternative view.

If by now this sounds like a ‘man crush’ (an expression which these days seems to go hand-in-hand with media coverage of Jose Mourinho), don't worry - it isn't. I just admired his rejection of the common affliction that is ‘Tourist’s Conscience’.  In this respect I am the anti-Ricardo, and often find myself wishing - invariably with hindsight - that I weren’t. When I have the opportunity to visit a site recommended in books or by others, I assume that I will never be here again. So I had better see it now. Even if I’m already burnt out by sightseeing or indifferent to its alleged attractions. In which case, it's as if I have to visit a place in order to realise it really wasn’t worth visiting, after all – and what I take from that visit is the knowledge of why (it isn’t).

So, is this why I am in Himeji, home to Japan’s most impressive castle, today? Staying in girly Kobe (famous for its beef, quality of life and the shortest skirts in Japan, although Matsumoto runs it close), it is the obvious day trip.

But I was never particularly excited by the prospect of coming here. I had seen its towers from the railway line on previous travels but never stopped off en route. Now, with a cheap, soon-to-expire railpass burning a hole in my pocket, it would seem foolish not to visit.

Even if I’m not especially interested in Restored Japanese Castles. From the inside, they all look pretty much the same, with the same staircases, the same displays of masks and swords. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. (But I had to see them in order to realise this.) So, I wonder, is it fortunate or unfortunate that I saved the best castle in Japan till last?

I skirt around the park and admire Himeji-Jo from a distance. Even in poor weather, groups sit out under the sakura to take in a bit of o-hanami. I take a few photos. Box ticked. I’m not planning on hanging around for too long. The large crowds and queues from earlier in the day are slowly subsiding but the guides still suggest you need 2-3 hours to ‘do the castle justice’. I have more like one and a half. And I’m hungry. It’s 3 o'clock and I haven’t yet eaten.

I head next door where my guidebook tells me there is an excellent salt-water eel restaurant, ‘Kassui-ken’, set in a charming garden. In the back of my mind, this has been my destination. I have been looking forward to visiting here more than the monument itself. I should see the castle but I want to eat anago.

Looking out over koko-en (carp lake garden?), and without regretting my choice of entrance ticket for this afternoon, I realise that I will almost certainly never enter Himeji-Jo - not today, not ever - and tuck in. Like so many Japanese, I have opted to plan my itinerary around my stomach.

I eat quietly. And noone asks: “do you mind if I talk …?”.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

The film not even trainspotters want to see

We are now approaching Japanese Golden Week: five days of holiday ending on Children’s Day (5th May), a festival which I mentioned in an earlier post. I plan to lie low in Okazaki or Shizuoka during this period, when everyone will be on the move, touring and visiting, and trains and hotels will be fully booked.

A first ever trip to a Japanese cinema appeals, yet I read that Japan’s multiplexes are also likely to be packed. Indeed, the name ‘Golden Week’ is said to have originated from the Japanese film industry, which noticed a huge spike in ticket sales during these holidays ( ).

What film should I opt for? I continue to try to keep abreast of releases back home via the currently intermittent Mayo / Kermode Friday afternoon BBC Radio 5 Live show, even if I don’t get to see the movies being discussed.

On last Friday's show, ‘the Good Doctor’ was discussing woeful English-to-French translations of film titles, taking contributions from listeners, and for the first time I emailed in a suggestion.

The film I had in mind was The Horse Whisperer, an adaptation from a novel, with a very literal title in French. That title does, however, have the merit of telling you what the film is about. Those who haven’t read the book, or seen the film, might well ask: is ‘The Horse Whisperer’ the story of a whispering horse, someone who just can’t stop whispering ‘horse’, ‘horse, ‘horse’ (etc) – and wouldn’t that be annoying? – or the tale of a man ‘who whispered in the ear of horses’. Well, that - 'L'Homme qui murmurait à l'oreille des chevaux' - is exactly how the film was marketed to French audiences. A film title unlikely to give rise to any 'money back' claims or - I suspect - fire the Gallic imagination.

Alas, the Mayo / Kermode wittertainment moved on to a different discussion concerning film taglines which state the obvious, and my email was not read out. (Which the reader might consider to be for the best, all things considered, even if ‘the man who whispered in the ear of horses’ is equally relevant to that subsequent topic, as it's a 24-carot example of stating the obvious, too.)

Now, talking of film titles lacking the X factor, one might expect that the Japanese film industry would be keeping potential blockbusters up its sleeve for the busy moviegoing period to come. (Which might explain Bandage’s [see previous post] earlier release.) So what’s this film poster that I just saw at my local ‘WingTown’ shopping centre?

That's right. ‘Railways’.

Just look at that poster.

As it’s in English, I guess that the whiff of dullness that surrounds (the title of) this film makes for an altogether more exotic scent in Japan. But have you ever seen a less inspiring name, and poster, for a movie in your life? (‘L’homme du train’? ‘The Postman’? Well, that was called ‘Il Postino’ when it appeared in English cinemas, which made it less humdrum.) I can’t even begin to imagine a plot synopsis but would like to hear Mr Kermode try.

What could it be about? ‘Waiting for Godot’ but minus the metaphysics, and with trains? You can see the trailer here, where it doesn’t look too bad at all: and But, despite the obviousness of the name, the poster gives few hints.

Come to think of it, the name ‘Wingtown’, where the book / record / entertainment media shop is called ‘Culture Resort Imagine’, wouldn’t be such a bad title for a film. No worse than Dogville, or Condorman, or Railways, at least.

I'd like to see it made by M Night Shyamalan, with Brian Blessed in the lead role.

And, thinking of taglines which state the obvious, here's one which springs to mind:

'Railways. Would you prefer to go Sleeper?''

(Note to bookies: odds on Best Foreign Film at 2011 Oscars?)

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

What a Naisu Language

Much of this week’s focus in class has been on reading and spelling of katakana words and texts. A devilishly tricky script to decipher, かたかな, virtually a language in itself, is to foreign terminology what the best toilet rolls are to sh*t: ultra-absorbant. At their most inventive, the Japanese warp imported words into new hybrid expressions, with meanings sometimes impenetrable to the exporters.

This has given rise to such memorable exclusive-to-Japanese phrases asマイブーム (‘myboom’, defined on the invaluable website as ‘something that a person is currently obsessed with or fascinated by’) and パラサイトシングル (‘parasite single’, a ‘single person who earns enough to live alone but prefers to live rent-free with his or her parents’), to give but two examples.
Taken to extremes, I guess that over-users of katakana in Japanese speech would sound like Borat (‘It’s naaiice’) doing a dialogue written by the late Miles Kington (
 / ). (Q. “Avez vous un Golden Délicieux, madame.” A. “Non merci. Je préfère un Pippin de Cox.”)

But katakana figures heavily in our classroom language too. Teachers’ instructions incorporate a lot of cognates, most likely for ease of communication in Japanese. For example, sensei might see from a student’s リアクション ('reaction') that a listening comprehension is too ‘challengy’ (チャレンジ), circulate to do a チェック ('check'), maybe make some チェンジ ('chainji' / changes), suggest we take a メモ ('memo’). The リスト ('list') goes on and on.

At first sight it is regrettable that one of the English adjectives which the Japanese appear to have embraced most fondly is .. ‘nice’. It just happens that this is one of my least favourite words in English, especially when used to describe a thing, and in my two previous experiences of TEFL, in Romania and India, I always encouraged students to expand their adjectival range and look for alternatives. Its over-use in opinions is a trap I have seen foreign students fall into: for example, studying at Bradford University in the early 1990s, I distinctly recall exiting a cinema with a Spanish mother tongue student, who described the film as ‘nice’. We had just seen Schindler’s List. ‘Nice’ simply has no nuances and, in my book at least, should be avoided.

Incidentally, ‘nice’ also reminds me of the piss-take language which my sister and I invented in our teens to parody bland exchanges at the evening dinner table. (Family conversations grew more piquant as we found our respective, highly contrasting, paths to rebellion.) Again, I fully acknowledge John Major and his green peas (presented by Spitting Image) as an inspiration here. See for example

As could be said of most of this blog, “I guess you had to be there” - which, alas, you weren’t (or, on second thoughts, if you’re actually reading this, you were!) - but we called our micro-dialect ‘lippy speak’ because it was peppered with what I think linguists call ‘plosives’ (best said breathily and annoyingly into a family member’s ear). Sample phrases include such gems as:-

Hmm, there’s nothing that I like more than a nice ripe piece of brie.’ (That one to be said as plosively as possible.)

Hmm, there’s quite an autumnal nip in the air.’

Hmm, there's nothing I like more than a sesame seed bap." (Be careful with that one.)

(for the fluent in lippy speak only) ‘That’s a moist blouse you’re wearing.’

But enough of these reminiscences. In katakana, unlike lippy speak, ‘nice’ loses it blandness. Indeed, Denshi jisho, the website I mentioned above, lists no less than nine entries beginning ‘naisu’ (ナイス), including a number of topic-specific compound nouns. Intriguingly, most seem to relate to golf or physical appearance. So, if you’re a womanising golfer – any names spring to mind? – there’s a good chance that you could make yourself understood in Japanese already, without any prior study, when talking about your twin pastimes.

Following this realisation, I decided to put the versatility of katakana to the test and unleash its awesome semantic force for today’s open-ended homework task, for which I created a wholly fictional diary entry in Japanese. (Credit to my unbelievably good teacher, Nie sensei, who will not be offended by it.) Note that it is a Japaneezy - but inaccurately and inconsistently romanised for ease of reading - English version of my original, flawed Japanese, but I have included the full katakana as well. I hope you find it a ‘naisutorai’ ナイストライー. 

Because I’m a トーナメントプロ tornamentopuro, I’ve come to Japan for the マスターズゴルフMasutaGorufu.

Today, at the ゴルフコースgorufucourso, when I’d just played a チップショットchippushotto, I saw a グッドルックス‘goodolooksu’-having, ナイスバデイnicebady グルーピーguroupie. In the クロスバンカー curossbunker, she kindly madeアプローチan appuroachy to me.

ナイスショット “Naisushotto” she said. Please show me your インサイイドアウト‘Insideouto’ [inside out; swinging golf club with an inside out motion]. After I’d done her a a ナンバー (number / chatted her up), we made a プランpulan. In the evening she would come to my コンドミニアム condominyamu for a キャステイングセレックション‘kyasting serection’ . I thought I’d made a ナイスチョイス naisu chyoisu.

We played ポーカーpoker, had a パーテイ party and a バイキング‘baiking’ buffet and made some ノミューニケーション‘nommunication’ [a Japanese slang pun on ‘nomu’ – to drink]. Then she told me I was a ナイスミドル‘naisumiddle’ (attractive middle-aged man).

But it was aトラップ torappo. Next to the フランスまど ‘Furance window’、a リポーター riporta and a カメラマンcameraman were waiting. Because it was a big シャタッターチャンス shutterchansu’, the cameraman took many スナップショット‘snappushotto’.

On the next day, when I read the ニュースnewsu ヘッドラインheddoline, I did a パニック paniku. ‘スキャンダルSkandaru – gorufo puro’s セクシャルハラスメントsexsha harasumento’ it read. The end of the ツアー tsuour had a バッドエンドbaddoendo so I left it.

And because I want to become a ナイスガイ‘naisugai’, I’m now doing セラピー serapi.