Archive for October, 2009

Sports Day

It was the school sports day the other day. Actually, it was more of a sports festival: they already had their sports day, and this was something different. So instead of competing at track and field, all of the school’s 800 students took part in risibly simplistic physical tasks that are phased out of British sports days after infants. I would not have been surprised if they’d wheeled out some eggs and spoons or some sacks for racing.

The event started with a three-legged obstacle race. A three-legged obstacle race! With their legs strapped together, pairs of students had to duck under hurdles, throw sponges into distant bowls, blow up and then stamp on some balloons and, finally, jump up to reach a candy hanging on a string (with a cruel twist, these were at different heights, so laterunners had to jump higher; how the boys enjoyed it when one unlucky pair of girls had to try to lift each other up). The three-legged obstacle race set the tone for the rest of the day: there was tug-of-war featuring teams of about 30 on each side; a similar event where students faced each other before racing to grab objects that were placed in between them to drag them back to their starting positions; a ‘borrowing race’, in which students had to run around trying to ‘borrow’ various objects (objects like English teachers, for example, which is how I ended up being borrowed and running around); until the day reached its climax with a relay race. Featuring teams of about 15 runners.

It probably sounds pretty silly – mostly because it was pretty silly. But I was struck by the way all of the events required and encouraged some sort of co-operation among the students; and also by the way that all of the students seemed to enjoy it. I can imagine that British sports days and school competitions might be a pretty lonely place if you’re no good at sports (and I can only imagine because I’m brilliant at sports, obviously). But here I didn’t see any of the slower students getting ridiculed by the sporty kids; I just saw them getting a load of encouragement (even when some of the massive relay teams saw a fat kid wasting a previously unassailable lead). In fact, there’s a male student at my school who identifies as a female. In the land that coined the proverb, ‘the nail that stands out gets hammered down’, you might expect such a kid to be in for a fair amount of stick. Again, nothing but encouragement. (During regular lessons he does appear to be shunned by the other male students, but no more so than they all the other female students are shunned…)

So in the end, I was pretty impressed with the school sports day/festival/whatever. I continue to be surprised, though, by the lack of effort that the school’s English teachers make to speak to me at school. Even though I spent the day hanging around redundantly like a third tit, not a single member of the English department made any attempt to speak to me, or to explain what was going on or tell me what I should be doing. Instead, I spent the day chatting in my feeble Japanese, to other teachers and students. Maybe it’s because the other teachers aren’t confident enough in their English, or maybe they just don’t like me. Anyway, I’m sure it’s something I’ll get back to another time…

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Looking for somewhere nice to live?

Posh Flat

Posh Flat

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Still alive – or it turns out my brain’s fine

So having survived the massively exaggerated risks of eating fugu, it turned out that I was still experiencing dizzy spells and headaches – which provided the pretext for my first experience of Japanese healthcare.

My symptoms were minor: last Friday some of my students pointed out that one of my eyes was very bloodshot. On the same day I started to feel dizzy: there were some guests in school and as I walked past one of them in the corridor, I nodded at him in greeting and found myself staggering to the side. I remember hoping that he wouldn’t think I was drunk. And then in the evening a minor pain in my toe started to spread to the whole of my foot.

I then took what was probably the unwisest course of action: I looked up my symptoms on the internet. Like Holden Caulfield, I became giddy with the sheer vista of improbable medical possibilities: maybe I had a trapped nerve. Maybe a brain tumour! What about mad cow disease?!! Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been just a bloodshot eye, a sore foot and a bit of dizziness. It was, so the internet told me, pretty conclusively some sort of degenerative brain-wasting disease.

Under the circumstances, I think I coped extraordinarily well. I drank through the symptoms, and the pain, for the bank holiday weekend, enjoying vintage Dom Perignon with sukiyaki on the Saturday; ice-cold beers in the park for a barbecue on the Sunday; and a bit of sake to wash down all the endangered species that I ate on Monday. Unfortunately, though, alcohol did nothing to halt my nervous system’s imminent demise, so on Wednesday morning, we went to the hospital.

It was very different to going to the hospital in Britain. Entering the lobby felt like wandering into the leafy, sculpture-filled interior of a high-end hotel (complete with a pretty classy coffee-shop just off the main atrium). At the reception an army of neatly uniformed staff inquired as to my symptoms: in Japan, it seems, all of the doctors are specialised, and you need to see whichever one specialises in your ailment. Since my symptoms were so broad, the receptionist decided that the best course of action was to send me to a doctor who specialised in brain and nerve ailments, in order to rule out the possibility of any horrible brain-wasting disease.

So then we sat in a very busy, but meticulously clean waiting room for about ten minutes before we were called in to see a nurse. Then we saw the doctor, who suggested that I have a brain scan, a heart scan, and some blood tests. And so we did. Inside two hours. In a public hospital. I mean, two hours later, we were sitting in front of the doctor again, and she was showing me my results: the black and white photos of my brain, taken by lying me down inside some spacey cylinder that beamed lasers at my head; a printout that showed everything in my blood; and a computer screen showing me that my heart was working fine, and was beating 48 times a minute when they laid me down on a bed and strapped me to some electrodes.

It turns out I’m completely fine. I have nothing to worry about, apparently.

And for this peace of mind, I paid about £60, which I hope will be covered by my employer’s health insurance. That sum is the two-thirds of the cost that isn’t covered by my national health insurance. It is, of course, £60 more than I would have had to pay on the NHS. But I don’t think I would ever have been offered a brain scan on the NHS, and if I had been, I would have had to wait for weeks and spent hours sitting in grotty waiting rooms. I am a massive supporter of the principle behind the NHS, but in practice it is decades behind my one experience of the Japanese health system.

Anyway, to celebrate, we decided to have a nabe at home, which is a sort of casserole cooked at the table. It’s cooked on portable stove. I burnt my fingers on that portable stove so hard that they actually sizzled – so much that my wife heard them in the next room. I guess the Japanese medical establishment has yet to come up with a cure for irony.

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Strange foods

I’ve just eaten some whale. Accidentally, obviously. They put it in front of me at a sushi restaurant and I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t want to be rude. It looked like it could have been some sort of mushroom. Or meat. Or fish. Or anything, really. It was just a couple of brown, slimy-looking cubes of something, surrounded by a few salady things. After I’d eaten I was no clearer as to what it was, and nor were my hosts – my wife’s parents, who had decided to treat us to dinner. So we sat around discussing what it might be. Some sort of fatty fish, maybe, or pork – except it tastes more like beef. Whatever it was, it was pretty tasty – five stars, will eat again!!! sort of tasty. Except then we asked what it was and they told us it was whale and it became five stars, will eat again if it doesn’t involve the mass slaughter of a possibly nearly extinct cetacean mammal!!! sort of tasty.

I also ate Ocean Sunfish, which is banned in the EU, apparently. But that’s not quite as glamorously contrarian as eating whale, right? Again, I didn’t know what it was at the time. My wife told me it was tuna. It was obviously not tuna, but I assumed she was telling me it was tuna in case I wouldn’t eat it if I knew it was something else, so I went ahead and ate it anyway. It didn’t taste like tuna. But it was still tasty like tuna, so I went ahead and kept eating it. It was only after the meal, on our way out, that my wife’s mother realised that it was ocean sunfish we’d been eating. I don’t know much about ocean sunfish, but apparently it’s a huge (man-sized), odd-looking fish that likes to swim horizontally. It’s also nice and helpful, apparently, and there are stories of them helping drowning swimmers – so my wife’s mother got upset that she’d eaten it. She didn’t seem to care about the whale.

But before we left the restaurant, I also ate fugu. It’s a favourite of my father-in-law, so he ordered a plate of fugu sashimi, which turned out to be delicious, eaten with some sort of ponzu dipping sauce. It’s also, of course, poisonous , if it isn’t prepared properly. Japanese chefs have to pass a rigorous test involving years of study before they can prepare fugu for consumption, and after they’ve prepared the fish they have to dispose of the poisonous waste in a padlocked bin. There is a famous story of a Japanese actor who demanded to be fed seven fugu livers, claiming that he was immune to the poison. He died, obviously. According to some people on the internet, the symptoms of fugu poisoning ‘may include dizziness, exhaustion, headache, nausea, or difficulty breathing.’ The weekend before eating fugu, I had been experiencing dizziness, exhaustion, and headaches. So maybe it wasn’t the best time to eat it.

But I’m still alive. More on that later.

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Football

In the same week that it all kicked off after West Ham and Millwall kicked off, I went to see a football match in my new home. I went to see my local team: Kofu Vanforet (named after the war banner of Kofu’s most famous historical figure, Takeda Shingen).

Vanforet

Football is a bit different in Japan.

For a start, we got there about an hour before the game, and so did everybody else – after paying about a fiver to get in. I mean we actually got to our seats about an hour before the game – not a nearby pub – and instead of drinking aggressively until the last possible minute before kick-off, we chatted over a leisurely beer and soaked up the atmosphere. And what an atmosphere: as the evening faded gradually into night, the floodlights came on and a cool breeze blew in off the mountains, visible in the distance silhouetted over the opposite stand. It felt like an occasion.

It wasn’t really; it was just a second-division kickabout. Nobody seemed to tell that to the players, however, who came out before the game and bowed to the fans before resuming their warm-ups, and as each player’s name was read out and their photo and stats shown on the big screen, the fans sang a different song for each one. Nobody had told the ballboys, either, who took up position around the centre circle and bowed while the medical teams did a lap of honour shortly before kick-off. And the pre-match activities were only complete when the teams lined up on the halfway line, like it was an international match or something.

As far as the crowd was concerned, it might as well have been an international: one entire section of the crowed sang for the entire game, pogoing in unison for 90 minutes without pause, while some of their number waved enormous pennants to an unceasing drumbeat. Over where I was sat, things were a bit more sedate, but I was struck by the real range of people who were watching. I was watching the game with another teacher from my school, who has been a lifelong supporter of the team. He was there with his wife, and we bumped into his cousin, but the real surprise was that we also met his mother, who must be in her eighties. And she wasn’t alone: there were both women and old people in abundance. Though English soccer is often proclaimed to be a family sport, I’ve never seen such a wide representation of different ages as at this match, and the results were a much more inclusive, welcoming atmosphere.

I understand the historical reasons for the different demographic. And I’m sure there’s something to be said for paying 30 or 40 quid to watch some lower league hackers hoof the ball around while their fans take their tops off and make slitting-throat gestures; or sitting in silence in case the home fans realise that you’re sitting in the wrong section of the ground; or paying more and watching a bald-headed Chelsea fan encourage his daughter to swear at the ref. It’s just that at the moment – basking in the afterglow of the festival atmosphere at Vannforet – I can’t think what it could be.

As for the football: at the highest levels all football tends to blend together in a sublime mixture of skill, organisation and fitness. At the lower levels, though, the differences become increasingly apparent. Compared to the directness of British football, Japanese football feels more South American (indeed my local team, Vannforet, actually has three or four Brazilians on its books). There is a lot of quick, short passing, and plenty of individual technique. In front of goal, though, they lacked finish and seemed reluctant to actually shoot. In the end, the game was decided by the ref, who awarded two dodgy penalties and then failed to award one for the only real claim. In fact, in a match that was played in a good spirit, with few fouls and few bookings, that was the only point of controversy: when a Vannforet player was kicked in the chest in the penalty area in the dying minutes of the game, the ref blew for full time, instead of for a penalty.

So, dodgy refs. Along with the dodgy toilets (the only sign of football squalor in an otherwise immaculate stadium), some things are the same the world over.

Vanforet 2

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Small differences

I’ve been living in Japan for about two months now. I’ve already written about some of the differences, but there are many, many more. Here are some of them.

I now wear my shoes loosely – permanently laced up with about an inch to spare, so that I can slip them on or off when entering or leaving a building (or using a changing room when buying clothes!). Most of the time, that building is my school, where I have a pair of my own slippers stored in a locker that I wear throughout the day; in restaurants that require you to take your shoes off there are normally slippers provided (and a different set of slippers is kept in the toilet – which is the same as at home). Everybody else in Japan seems quite happy to tread down the backs of their shoes, but somehow I find myself unable to do so. I just have too much respect for the shape and form and integrity of the shoe. Which, when I think about it, is pretty weird.

I also carry a small towel around with me everywhere. When it’s hot, I use this to mop the sweat from my brow, or I wrap a cold drink in it and then press it against my neck. But mostly I just use it to dry my hands, because many public toilets in Japan don’t have any hand dryers or towels. I have yet to work out if it is considered rude to walk out of the toilet while drying your hands, though.

Japan is full of jingles. And muzak. Every single store seems to play the most insane muzakal versions of all sorts of popular hits, from a weirdly leisurely version of Britney’s Toxic to a fairly authentic rendition of some Carpenters song. 7-11 even has its own theme tune. And almost every advert on telly has an irritatingly infectious little musical accompaniment that feel like they will be burned, indelibly, on my brain: ‘amakute shoppai’ (Chip Chop salty chocolate crisps); ‘kare nabe nara hou-su!’ (curry stew); ‘if you’re sat around at home, make new friends on the telephone! 0898 55 0055 chatback! (Actually I haven’t heard that last one in Japan. Yet.) Just to make sure, my local supermarket has a television at the end of one of the aisles that plays a two-minute jingle on a loop, advertising kewpie-chan, which I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to recite with complete accuracy for the rest of my life.

Japan is also full, apparently, of announcements. During the recent elections there were plenty of politicians driving around with loudhailers on the roof of their cars, but this is far from exceptional: whenever an old person goes missing, or whenever the local fire service want to remind people not to burn down their houses, they drive around blaring it out through the streets. At the end of the summer, we’d even be treated to notices of forthcoming festivals, accompanied by fireworks. At 7 o’clock in the morning.

And on the subject of fireworks, Japan is full of them too, mostly at night, during festivals, but also, like I say, at 7am, or during the day, when all you can see are dim clouds of smoke.

One thing that Japan is certainly not full of, is pavements. There are pavements, sure, but most of the time, there aren’t, and so you have to walk along the side of the road, dodging the cars and, just as frightening, the bikes (which seem to be exempt from any laws regulating their behaviour – there was one day that I had waited patiently at the crossing outside my school, only to be prevented from crossing at the green man by a succession of cyclists). Both cyclists and car drivers seem to treat their vehicles as an extension of themselves, behaving as if they were on foot – accelerating through red lights, ignoring zebra crossings, and swerving around obstacles while emailing or chatting on their phones. My walk to work is currently only five minutes long, but those five minutes are terrifying – especially the bit where I have to walk through an archway that is just about wide enough for one car and a pedestrian to fit through, side by side.

The shops are different too, and not just because of the jingles and continuously looping adverts. They also have an amazing multitude of familiar-but-different things, from the sweet white bread (with the crusts already cut off for making sandwiches) to the tiny little wieners that pass for sausages over here (they even try to pass off some of the spicier ones as chorizo sausages, which I guess would be accurate if chorizo was a spicy frankfurter). They also sell vast quantities of dried fish, an amazing amount of instant, pre-prepared everything, and even horse meat (which makes more sense than horse shampoo anyway). Venture into a combini (ie. convenience store) and you can buy most of these things but you can also buy cigarette starter packs: a lighter, pack of cigarettes, and some glamorous and cool-looking packaging. Even when you finish your shopping you’ll find things a bit different: when buying some shelves from the hardware store that’s 50 metres from our apartment, we were given a loan of a van to drive them back; and if you buy something cold from the supermarket and have to walk home with it, they’ll give you some dry ice to keep it cold (and so that you can mess around with it after, by putting it in a bowl of water to produce magical smoke).

Other different things include: Japanese barbers, where they have one man to cut the back and sides; another to cut the top; another to finish off the trimming and do your eyebrows; and yet another to dust you down with talc. Japanese beetles are also different: they’re huge, and they’re everywhere in summer, because all the kids collect them and store them in big glass tanks along with special jelly to feed them. And I never knew tatami had a smell – just like I never knew that rice had a taste – but now that I’m living in an apartment that’s full of tatami I can tell you that it has a very strong, strange smell, and that rice in Japan tastes much better than in England (where most Japanese-style rice comes from California). I can also tell you that sitting cross-legged and upright on tatami is much more tiring than sliding back into a sofa.

They also have a very different sense of decorum over here – a very different sense of what constitutes polite behaviour. During our local orientation we were given lessons in how to sit and stand properly, how to hold cups and bowls of soup or tea, and how to bow. More enlightening was the drinks reception in the evening, where our governmental host joked to one (slightly large) JET that he should take up sumo wrestling; and to another that he was disappointed she was married.

And, finally, the television is very different. We can receive three, very snowy, channels that are all full of people eating – although there was one weekend where they had a special 24-hour telly marathon that was mostly just people dying, except for one blind girl who swam to Hokkaido and a young comedian who used the time to run about three or four full marathons, which, actually, is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen on telly. Until they showed the dog who ran 100 metres using just its hind legs.

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