White Day

White Day, in case you haven’t heard of it, is like Valentine’s Day in reverse. On Valentine’s Day in Japan, women are expected t o give chocolates to men. They give ordinary chocolate to their colleagues; special chocolates to people they like; and really special chocolates to people they really like. On White Day, those men are supposed to give chocolates in return.

Except I completely forgot about White Day and didn’t get my wife anything in return for the delicious chocolates she got me on Valentine’s Day. So the next day, I decided to make up for it by getting her a present. Now I knew she wanted some special moisturizing green tea soap that they’ve been advertising on the telly, but she won’t buy it because it’s too expensive. So I stopped off at our local pharmacy on the way home from work and searched for this green tea soap. I managed to find one type of green tea soap. Only one. But it clearly said that it was soap, made from green tea, and it had a picture of luxuriant froth on it, so I figured it must be pretty moisturizing. And it was expensive, which clinched it – I bought it and brought it home to my wife.

It turns out it was special anti-BO green tea soap.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, but I forgot about Valentine’s Day, too. I mean, technically I didn’t, because like I say, on Valentine’s Day in Japan, women give chocolates to men – men aren’t under any obligation to give presents to women. Nevertheless, I did intend to give my wife flowers for Valentine’s Day, but I forgot, so I bought some on my way home the next day, from the supermarket.

It turns out they were special funeral flowers.

This cultural exchange business is more difficult than I thought…

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Cheese

The first time I came to Japan was on a trade mission organised by the British government. I came over as part of a delegation that represented the British videogame industry, to attend the Tokyo Game Show and talk to various developers and publishers about mutually beneficial commercial opportunities. One of the things I remember about that trip was that somebody asked the man from the British Council (who, by the way, seemed personally affronted that he had to suffer the ignominy of hosting a trade mission on behalf of the videogame industry) what he missed most about Britain. His answer? Baked beans.

I don’t miss baked beans at all. That’s actually pretty strange. I mean, I really like baked beans, and I used to eat them at least twice a week back in Britain. But I don’t miss them at all. What I miss most is cheese. Which is also strange. Because it’s not like there’s no cheese in Japan. There is lots of cheese in Japan. There is a whole sub-genre of frozen food that’s designed for the homemade bento boxes that sustain Japan’s workforce during its working day. Tiny dumplings, mini chicken burgers, small spring rolls – a near infinite variety of mechanically-recovered meat concoctions that unleash little explosions of flavour like some sort of packed-lunch amuse-bouche. A lot of them have some sort of basis in cheese, whether it’s a miniature slice neatly stacked on top of a sauce-covered mini-burger or a delicate squidge of melted cheese in the middle of a chicken-mince and renkon sandwich.

There’s a similar profusion of fromage when it comes to their full-sized brethren: croquettes, pizzas, curries, noodles, sandwiches… If there’s a way of making something cheese-based, the chances are the Japanese have tried it. They’ve even tinkered with the very fabric of cheese itself, unleashing a profusion of different types of processed cheese on the world. They’ve got processed cheese that has a salt-sharp edge to rival the most authentic parmeggiano, and creamy concoctions that melt in your mouth, just urging you to reach for another one. They’ve got cheese with black pepper in, cheese with salami in, cheese with nuts in, cheese with different colours in.

And it’s all pretty tasty. But it’s not real cheese. It has pretty much all been made in a laboratory and it tastes like it. The one exception to that is the currently vogueish Camembert, which is real cheese, made in the traditional manner, mostly in Hokkaido. It wouldn’t pass muster if you were a Frenchman (indeed my school’s French ALT did an almost textbook Bof! Zut Alors! face when we discussed the matter and begged me not to eat any Japanese ‘Camembert’). Again, it’s pretty tasty. But it’s not the real thing.

If you want the real thing you have to pay lots of money for miniscule amounts. Which is why my favourite Christmas present this year was the real, authentic, pungent, powerful Stilton that my parents sent over with my sisters. It was like inhaling oxygen after spending a year sniffing armpits. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to describe it like sniffing armpits and then eating them. If those armpits were Stilton. But hopefully you get my point. If you’re wondering what to bring to Japan, bring some cheese.

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Learning Japanese

One of the reasons that I don’t update this blog very frequently is that I am trying to learn Japanese, so I’m trying to limit my interaction with English-language sources and trying to maximise my interaction with Japanese-language stuff. It’s harder than I thought. (It’s also harder than I thought to write something interesting about learning Japanese, so the following is intended mainly for fellow learners who are looking to compare notes.)

Before coming to Japan I had tried to learn Japanese from various textbooks without ever getting very far. I started out, several years ago, with a book called Japanese in Three Months, which contained a lot of words and grammar points in rapid succession and haphazard order. I guess I lasted about three or four days of memorising vocab on the train to work before deciding I wasn’t getting very far. So then, at the suggestion of a colleague (who is now my wife), I decided to learn hiragana and katakana, and bought a book called Japanese for Busy People. It was better than the first one, but I still wasn’t making great progress, so, at the advice of someone on the internet I decided to switch to the Minna no Nihongo series of textbooks.

That was in September 2006. I’ve still got the email receipt. I’d say that was when I really seriously decided to learn Japanese, instead of just dipping into a textbook every now and then and telling myself I was learning Japanese. Certainly, the Minna no Nihongo textbooks were better than my previous textbooks, consisting of 50 lessons that each contain vocab, grammar points, sample sentences and dialogue, and various exercises. So whenever I could I’d learn the vocab and grammar points, and I’d listen to the Japanesepod podcasts while out running to consolidate what I was learning. Even still, there were still long periods where I was so busy with work that I did little more than reviewing words and grammar that I already knew, or even when I was so busy that I didn’t even do that (there was one six-month period where I didn’t open a textbook at all).

By March 2008 I’d largely completed the first two Minna no Nihongo textbooks and had moved on to yet another textbook, in the Kanzen Master series, which contained all of the grammar points and hundreds of example sentences for level 3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Still, though, the major obstacle I faced was lack of time. And so I took the decision to apply for a place on the JET programme, which I did around September of the same year.

Around that time, I stumbled on yet another new wheeze to learn Japanese. At the recommendation of the All Japanese All The Time website (or AJATT as it’s sometimes called by people who like abbreviating things), I decided to go through Heisig and learn how to read, write and understand the meaning of all of the basic jouyou kanji. Even with the help of the awesome Reviewing the Kanji website, it still took me somewhere between three to six months to finish it, but when I did, it made a huge difference. Having only had a haphazard understanding of kanji, all of a sudden (if you can call several months a sudden) anything in Japanese was fair game. Instead of being limited to textbooks, or having to ask my wife to help me read stuff, I was able to start to read anything in Japanese. Now, if there is one thing that I would recommend to new learners of Japanese, it’s Heisig.

And so, inspired by Heisig, I decided to abandon the textbooks and embrace the method endorsed by AJATT, which is to a) immerse yourself in Japanese, reading and listening to it all the time; and b) to take real-life Japanese sentences that you encounter while immersing yourself, and stick those sentences into a spaced repetition flashcard programme called Anki. What Anki does is to test you when it thinks you’re about to forget. In my case, it tests me every day to see if I can still understand those Japanese sentences.

I’d say the second part of that formula has gone pretty well: about a year after starting, I have over 5,000 sentences in my Anki deck, and I would say that I am probably about ready to pass the JLPT level 2.

The first part has gone pretty disastrously. I had thought that coming to Japan would help me immerse myself in Japanese, but in practice it’s much more difficult than I thought. I work pretty hard at school and so I spend almost my entire working day speaking or correcting English. There is little time for chit-chat at work, and the other teachers don’t really engage in it. When I get home, my wife insists on speaking to me in English and whenever I beg and plead with her to speak to me in Japanese we end up having a row. She doesn’t like me buying manga or books because we’re still paying for our wedding. And she doesn’t like it when I sit in front of the computer trying to learn Japanese, because she prefers me to spend time with her.

So for now, apart from overhearing incidental Japanese at school, or having the TV on in the background, my immersion environment consists of about half an hour of Japanese every day, listening to those podcasts, audiobooks, or Japanese movies that I’ve ripped to my ipod on my way to work, or out running. And since I never say anything in Japanese, my spoken Japanese is probably worse now than it was when I was working my way through Minna no Nihongo.

And that is how I am learning – or trying to learn – Japanese. In case it’s of any interest, like.

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All you can eat

“I have no idea how anybody could get fat in Japan,” I said to my wife as we stepped out for a walk the other weekend.

“Overweight, maybe, but not fat like obese fat. If you’re obese, you actually need to eat a serious amount of calories just to maintain your weight, and I don’t know how you would even do that here. The food is just too healthy. There’s too many vegetables. The portions are smaller. Even fast food is healthy over here, and the chocolates don’t seem to have many calories. And most of the kids at school do about two or three hours of sports every day. It’s nuts. And yet somehow a lot of the foreigners over here still manage to pile on the pounds! I don’t know how they do it.”

Famous last words. Famous last words!

About an hour later, we discovered Chateraise, a chain of Japanese cake shops that specialise in lovingly created, beautifully presented ice-cream, cakes, chocolate and wine. And upstairs, in a bright, airy loft-style dining room we discovered their all-you-can-eat buffet (or ‘viking’ as these things are called in Japan).

Arrayed on one side of a table in the middle of the room was a tantalising selection of breads, cold meats, smoked fish, various salads, different types of bread, and all sorts of hot dishes, such as curry and rice, or slow-cooked pork-belly with white beans – each one prepared from good quality ingredients combined to create subtle fusions of flavour. On the other side of the table was an equally varied assortment of cakes, pastries and puddings, and, on a side table, various jugs of teas, coffee and juices.

Disbelievingly, we took our seats and made our order: 890 yen for the buffet; another 200 yen for the dessert buffet (the same price, by the way, as a single slice of cake downstairs); another 100 for the drink bar; and another 100 for a glass of wine. The total, a bit under 1300 yen, adds up to about $14 or £9 at the time of writing.

So then we headed for the buffet, tentatively loading our plates, nervously hoping not to stand out among the willowy figures of our fellow diners as the greedy fat munchers that we so obviously are. Two plates later – slices of beef, ham, salad, pasta salad, fried mushrooms, potato fries, chicken in batter, chicken stew, omelette, sausages and little sweetcorn/bread canapés – I began to relax as I noticed the other diners doing the same. A bowl of curry, a slice of chocolate cake, a slice of cheesecake, a chocolate pancake roll and a custard pudding later and I could hardly walk.

Towards the end of our meal, just before we left, I noticed two new diners come in: a tiny woman and a very slim man. In the space of about ten minutes they started by eating three or four plates of dessert, before moving on to the cold meats and hot dishes. I have no idea where they put that food.

Anyway, the following week we managed to find ourselves walking past a different branch of Chateraise. Then we found ourselves walking into it and ordering another slap-up, tip-top delicious meal. This time, our passage to indigestion was made more interesting by some of the other customers.

“I bet they’re going to nick some of the desserts,” said my wife, nodding in the direction of a table behind me.

“Who, them?” I replied, turning round to find a wholesome-looking mother and daughter, on their way back from some Saturday morning horse-riding, to judge by their jodhpurs. “Don’t be ridiculous. You honestly think they’re going to nick something? They look completely respectable, and besides, nobody nicks stuff in Japan.”

“Whatever. I think they’re going to nick the desserts. She’s just come back with four puddings. Let’s just see if they leave the containers behind,” she replied with what I thought was a pretty unjustifiable air of smugness given that we had yet to actually count the containers.

Except it turned out to be a perfectly justifiable air of smugness, as it turns out. Walking back to the buffet table to load up on more curry rice, I noticed them sharing some suspicious-looking furtive looks; on my way back I heard the almost comically loud noise of a bag being not-so-surreptitiously zipped up under the table. When they left there were, sure enough, no pudding containers.

So maybe that’s where tiny Japanese women put their food.

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Stop idling!

That’s the advice that a lot of my students gave when I asked them to make posters about environmental conservation. It’s pretty sound advice, too, for a global population that is collectively sitting on its hands in the hope that we won’t actually all be underwater in a few years, having raped the planet of all its resources. But what they actually mean is turn off your car engines. Which is still good advice, but probably isn’t the first thing you’d think of if someone told you to stop idling.

Anyway, I think this ‘stop idling’ business is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that ‘stop idling’ is a phrase that comes straight out of the dictionary. A lot of my students have electronic Japanese-English dictionaries (such as this one, for those of you who don’t mind a bit of strong language and a flashback to before I got married). Whenever they want to write something in English, they’ll look up the words they want to use and then just plug them into a sentence or add them together without any understanding of how grammar and syntax and context come together to create meaning. I mean, ‘idling’ is a word that can technically be used to describe a car engine that’s running. But without context it’s not the obvious one. (Another weird bit of advice that my students wanted to give is to ‘classify your rubbish’ – owing to the dictionary definition of a Japanese word that means to separate your rubbish in preparation for recycling.) And so you get these sorts of over-literal misappropriations of the English language that end up all over Japanese T-shirts and posters, and from there to all the hilarious Japlish blogs. Which is as good a demonstration of the lexical approach to language learning as any, I think.

But I think it’s more interesting for another reason. At first, I didn’t really understand why my students thought the best thing you can do to stop global warming is to not to leave your car engine running. Who leaves their car engine running? When? When you’re waiting at a traffic light? Surely they don’t mean that you should switch off your engine while waiting at the lights. But then I realised that what they’re talking about is something I’ve only seen in Japan: people just getting out of their cars and leaving the engine running while they pop into a shop or bank or whatever. It’s not something I’ve seen outside of Japan because in most places outside of Japan, if you leave your car unattended, with the keys in and the engine running and your satnav system and cutting edge stereo blaring, you would worry that someone might drive off with it.

The other day there were announcements on all of the local tannoys that someone had just robbed a post-office about 6 miles away, using a knife, and shortly after the announcements a police patrol car took up residence in the school car park. When I lived in London I just lived under the perpetual assumption that a nearby store or bank was being robbed at knife- or gunpoint.

So I don’t know whether Japan has more or less crime than anywhere else, but – and this is what my students’ advice made me realise – it certainly feels safer.

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What to do in Tokyo: a beginner’s guide

There are lots of things to do in Tokyo, obviously. But, having spent the Christmas holidays doing some of them, I thought I might as well write about them here, in case it’s of any use to anyone who might be visiting.

The reason I was doing things in Tokyo is that my sisters were visiting from England, to celebrate New Year’s Eve – and their birthday, two days later – in Japan. They flew into Narita airport on December 27, early in the morning – which, incidentally, is the best time to arrive in Japan, I think: if you can keep yourself awake for the whole of that first day and go to bed at a normal time, it puts you in a good position to minimise the impact of jetlag. (I normally go for a run to get myself through the inevitable afternoon slump; then I’m so tired by bedtime that I sleep right through till morning.)

Day 1: Shinjuku

When they arrived we got a bus from the airport to their hotel in Shinjuku. Narita airport is a couple of hours away from central Tokyo, and although you can get a train, it’s cheaper and simpler to get the Limousine bus – especially if it stops at your hotel. Since the traffic was good, we arrived at their hotel in Shinjuku about an hour and a half later. And Shinjuku is, in my opinion, the best place to stay in Tokyo: it’s got a good mix of shopping and sightseeing, a decent nightlife, and it’s well-connected by train and bus to other parts of Tokyo and Japan.

After a few drinks in the hotel bar while waiting for their room to be made up, we started our tour of Tokyo by taking lunch at a family restaurant – an aspect of Japanese culture that is unfairly neglected by most travel guides. We ate in a Denny’s across the road from the hotel, but other family restaurants include Gust, Coco’s, Royal Host, and, my favourite, Saizerya (my favourite because it sells really cheap wine). The family restaurant is, of course, a western import, but it’s one that Japan has made its own – a perfect microcosm, then, of Japanese culture. Also, a perfect place to get some delicious food, and usually pretty easy on a potentially jetlagged (or hungover) stomach: hamburg steaks, pizzas, noodles and so on.

After Denny’s we made our way over to the Park Hyatt and had drinks in the 47th floor lobby – which is a little bit expensive, but well worth it for the amazing views of Shinjuku and the Tokyo sunset, and so that you can say you’ve been to the place they filmed Lost in Translation. Finally, we ate and drank at a fairly standard izakaya. Izakaya are, according to all my Japanese friends, the Japanese equivalent of a pub, but that would only really be true if pubs were tapas bars: somewhere you go to eat a series of small, mostly sharing dishes while drinking booze. They can sometimes be difficult to find, because of the way you have to get an elevator from the street to reach them, but if you’re visiting Japan, they’re well worth the risk of getting off at the wrong floor and finding yourself in a hairdresser’s or something less salubrious.

Day 2: Asakusa

On the second day we started out with lunch at a tonkatsu restaurant at the top of a department store. Tonkatsu is basically breaded pork cutlet, like a schnitzel. Like the family restaurant, it started out as a western import but has now been wholly Japanified, and they put other stuff in the breadcrumbs too (one of the specials at the restaurant we went to was the currently-big-in-japan-camembert katsu, for example) and it’s served with shredded cabbage and brown sauce. You probably know what a department store is, but unlike British equivalents like Debenhams or House of Fraser, in Japan they’re more like mini-malls, containing lots of different shops. You will find them above every major train station, and pretty much every single one houses a basement full of amazing food stores – cakes, sweets, souvenirs and speciality foods – and a top floor full of restaurants. And not just overpriced sandwich shops or food-court takeaways, either – although they often have those too. Some of these department stores are home to some of the best restaurants in the area; actual, bona fide, sometimes haute-cuisine, restaurants.

After finishing off our tonkatsu (which wasn’t quite haute-cuisine, but pretty delicious nevertheless), we moved on to Asakusa which is where all the temples are. In fact, there are so many temples that it’s also where all the tourists are, and there are so many tourists that we actually bumped into some people off our bus to Shinjuku (who I only remembered because they’d left a bottle of whiskey on the bus, which I had handed in to the driver).

Our original plan was to stop off in Akihabara – the electronics district, famous for its second-hand game stores and maid cafes – but we’d got off to such a late start that we just admired it from the train. When we got to Asakusa we ogled all the food stalls on the way to Sensouji temple, watched an off-duty Sumo wrestler say a few prayers, wandered past a rickety old amusement park, and enjoyed some beers while sitting on upturned crates in a cute little shack near the river.

From there we headed to Roppongi, which is where all the foreigners hang out. It was actually my first time in Roppongi, and I really don’t know much about the place, but it seemed pretty swanky to me – especially when we got to our destination, an opulent karaoke club called Lovenet, where all the rooms have themes. One room has a Jacuzzi, for example; others have glass walls; ours was themed like a sweet factory, so we ate our full-course meal off a glass-topped table full of sweets while drinking as much booze as we could.

Day 3: Shibuya

On the third day, we went for ramen in a dingy but delicious counter in Shinjuku and then shopping in Shibuya, which is where all the young, cool kids hang out – particularly the 109 building, which is like a horrific mistranslation of Top Shop over several floors, but also fairly full of hot totty (among all the fashion freaks and the weirdos). There are about a million other department stores of course, but there are also some cool little alleys full of fashion stores. After exploring them, we checked the football scores at a Manga Kissa, a brilliant mistranslation of internet café that involves unlimited drinks, internet, games, comics, magazines and, if you’ve missed the last train, showers. Then we took pre-dinner drinks at an English pub where we drank beer and snacked on that traditional English snack, deep-fried spaghetti. Dinner itself was yakiniku, which is where they bring you lots of raw meat and vegetables so that you can cook it on the barbecue grill embedded in the middle of your table.

Like Akihabara, Harajuku got forgotten amid all the food and fashion, but if we’d got up earlier, we would have gone there to check out all the crazily-dressed hangouts and sample the more upmarket stores of Omotesando.

Day 4: Disney Sea

We spent the fourth day at Disney Sea. There are two Disney parks in Tokyo, and they’re expensive, but a lot of fun, just queuing up, eating and soaking up the atmosphere. Disney Sea has the added bonus of making alcohol available in its restaurants. Like I say, there are lots of queues, at about an hour for most rides, and two or three for the popular ones. There are a couple of ways around them, though. The first is that some rides have a separate ‘single riders’ queue, for parties that don’t mind getting split up. For some reason nobody seems to use it, so we managed to cut a two-and-a-half-hour wait for the Indy Jones ride right down to about ten minutes. The second is the ‘fast pass’ system: at certain times during the day, certain rides issue a limited number of fast pass tickets. If you manage to get one, you can come back later and skip the queue (so we managed to cut another one-hour queue down to fifteen minutes, for example).

Day 5: Kamakura

Day 5 was New Year’s Eve. We spent pretty much the whole day recovering from all the walking and drinking at Disney Sea, but come the evening we were ready for a few drinks at another izakaya before heading to Kamakura. Kamakura is an hour or more from central Tokyo, but it’s even more full of old temples than Asakusa, and, in addition to lending its name to a character from GI Joe, has also given its name to a period in Japanese history after some shoguns set up there in the twelfth century or something. From Tokyo, I think you can get a regular railway, but there’s also the Enoshima Light Railway which, last time I went, had trains with wooden floors and houses about a foot away from either side of the train – though this time they seemed to have gotten rid of the traditional trains. We got off at Kamakura and made it to the biggest temple, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, just in time for the midnight countdown. Then we ate and drank at the many stalls that set up around temples during various festivals: bananas on sticks; strawberries on Ritz crackers; takoyaki; fried beef; chicken karaage; fried beef (with some red wine thrown in for free along with some compliments on my use of Japanese, even though all I’d asked was how much the red wine was); and a hundred other foods.

We also visited Hongaku-ji temple, which is devoted to Ebisu, the god of trade and good fortune (and jeans, apparently). And then we wandered down towards the seaside town of Enoshima and my favourite temple, Hasadera, where they had laid out hundreds of candles on the floor.

Days 6 and 7: the end

Since the next day was New Year’s Day, and since we spent New Year’s Eve traipsing round temples till six in the morning, we spent Day 6 doing pretty much nothing, apart from a delicious traditional meal at a tofu restaurant at the top of a different department store. Then on our last day we spent the afternoon in the Park Hyatt again, this time going up to the bar from Lost in Translation for some even more spectacular views over Tokyo (albeit surrounded by weird-looking foreigners – I don’t think there was a single Japanese person drinking there other than my wife). Then we finished our seven-day tour of Tokyo at a tempura restaurant and then far too much red wine and sake at the nearest karaoke booth.

It’s a shame they only had seven days, or I’d have taken them to see the slightly fashionable Shimokitazawa, or the less fashionable but easier to shop in Machida. But then this blog post would be even longer and more boringer. Every cloud has a silver lining, right?

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Comedy Gold in the school gym

Today, I had to be rescued from beneath a barbell.

Anyone who knows me knows I like to WORK OUT. Not because of my rippling one-pack, obviously, but because I like to tell anybody who will listen. The reason I like to WORK OUT is not because I’m self-obsessed, or because I have a thing for rippling male torsos, but because I used to be fat and it’s unhealthy to be fat.

Since coming to Japan, I have been WORKING OUT in the school gym. It’s got a few exercise benches, several barbells, a couple of dumbbells, and several poor-quality gym machines. I only ever use the dumbbells, because I WORK OUT on my own, and if you’re working out on your own it’s not really safe to use barbells in case you get stuck under one. But we’ll get on to that in a bit.

Occasionally – when it rains, for example – the gym will be full of the baseball team, which sucks because it means it’s difficult to get on the dumbbells. Usually I improvise a rubbish workout with one dumbbell, or use the poor quality multigym equipment, but it’s never very satisfying and I always leave feeling unjustifiably bitter.

More usually, however, there are just one or two other students using the gym. There are about three regulars, all of them in their third and final year at the school. Today, two of them were in the gym. One of them is in several of my classes and, as far as I can tell, has only opted to study English into his final year as a way of getting out of other, more demanding lessons. He seems to resent the fact that I’m intruding on his time/space out of lessons, and speaks to me only if I ask him if he’s finished with some equipment, and only ever in the most cursory, polite way. The other seems very sweet and always gives me a big smile, greeting me when I arrive and saying goodbye when I go. That’s probably because I don’t teach him – although I may have accidentally loudly announced, while standing next to him, that my muscles are bigger than his the other week. I can’t recall for sure. I was a little bit flustered at the time, having just been asked by one of my female students if she could touch my muscles. Consequently, my Japanese grammar and comprehension went out of the window, and I can’t really be sure what I said.

Anyway, mostly these three regulars just use the gym to improvise a game of baseball with a small broom and a ping-pong ball. Today, the two of them were working out – one of them using the dumbbells. Like I say, normally I’d just improvise an unsatisfying workout, but today I didn’t want to, because the only exercise I have engaged in for the last two or three weeks is boozing and eating too much. So, instead, I decided to use the barbell to start my WORK OUT, as always, with a chest press.

In case you don’t WORK OUT, the chest press involves lying flat on a bench, and pushing a weight up into the air – normally with someone standing over you in case you can’t lift it and get stuck under the weight. I decided that, since I didn’t want to irritate my student any more than my mere presence already had, I wouldn’t bother with someone standing over me. I’d just stop before I got too tired, and besides, I’ve seen several students lifting without someone standing over them.

Now, the thing about the chest press is that it’s probably my weakest exercise. I have lately been lifting about 50kg, about 8 or (at a real struggle) 10 times. But since I’d had spent so much time not WORKING OUT over Christmas, I resumed my regime the other day, lifting just 40kg about 15 times. Today, I decided to keep the weight at 40kg, since I’ve had a cold for the past couple of days. And I just went ahead and lifted.

It was the first time I’ve ever lifted a barbell. It felt weird! I had to lift very slowly just to keep it steady. After about eight lifts I was starting to feel tired, but I really didn’t want to admit defeat so I struggled on for a ninth lift. And I just about did it. And the other day I did 15, right? So why not try another one? So I did. And I got about half-way and had to stop. I mean, I had to. There was no way that weight was going any further. Unfortunately, the bracket where I needed to return the weight was about an inch higher than the weight. And so I pushed with all my might. I mean, I really pushed! And the next thing I knew, the barbell was resting on my face, just below my nose. And the two students were running over to help me lift it off my face. At which point I sheepishly thanked them and continued my WORKOUT, with a bit more care and a sore nose.

And that is how I came to be rescued from beneath a barbell.

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