Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let it snow

Snow! Here in the UK, who would have guessed it? Naturally, no one (despite the fact that it usually occurs at some point during any twelve month period). Therefore, hundreds of people are stranded at airports, in their cars, department stores and, possibly most oddly, the channel tunnel which you would naively think would be unaffected by the weather.

Since living in NYC and now Canada, it's fairly hilarious watching the country dissolve in chaos from a few inches of frozen water. That said, it'd doubtless be rather less entertaining if I weren't safely at home with a hot mug of tea. The problem I guess comes from the rarity of such conditions making it impractical for the Government to purchase serious snow equipment for a single use a year, although the BBC have now printed an article on how to grit a road, in case anyone was up for a change of career. Given the STFC's science proposal for the next five years funding, it's not without appeal.

Meanwhile, I'm attempting to demonstrate the benefits of gluttony to our ailing family cat who, at twenty, has decided food is for "them young things". It's not quite as I would have it, but I suspect when I reach the equivalent age in human years, I won't give a damn either.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Melt a pile of Swiss cheese, pour it over new potatoes with added pickles, gherkins, tomatoes and bacon, have a baby wave a bread roll at you and you have a great Swiss meal! It is possible that the small child is not strictly necessary for raclette, but with only a single data point it's hard to be sure.

Regardless of the necessary trimmings, I ate too much cheese. I don't even regret it and it'll set off the too-much-chocolate I intend to eat next week at home. I did, however, almost miss out on the entire experience by struggling to find my cousin at Zurich station. Damn those giant Christmas trees and pretty market stalls that were set up in my line of sight! Outrageous.

In other news, apparently the UK has stopped funding Astronomy. Sad but ... OK, not totally true ... but the STFC (Science & Technology Facilities Council) announced a pile of project cuts in their five year outline. Fortunately, I'm totally into being a Hobo, so I'm just going to continue my plan to use Astronomy to work in every country that'll have me and pretend it's because of the economic situation. Yes.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Where are you from?

It's a standard question that pretty much everyone asks, especially in academia where people move around a great deal:

Where are you from?

Yet, because young researchers do indeed change jobs frequently, it's not a question with an easy answer. For instance, do they mean "where are you from ..?" as in your current main residence when not visiting this institute? Or "where are you from ..?" as in the institute you were at before starting your current job? Or "where are you from..?"; the city your parents now live in and where you might refer to as home? Or "where are you from..?"; the place you spent most of your childhood and where you accumulated your accent?

For me, the answers span three continents which makes is a tad hard to produce a single all-purpose answer unless I was to say "Earth" and I'd rather hope that much was obvious (though don't always bank on it - I do work in Physics).

Of course, I ask this question myself as often as I receive it and while having this debate with someone in the same position (who I had indeed just addressed the question to) I came to the conclusion that what I was really asking him was:

Where would you be deported to if the government discovered astronomy was actually a cover for drug smuggling?

(You see X-rays from space do you? I think it's time to you sobered up, young man!)

I would hasten to add however, that it is purely coincidental that my answer to the above question is also where I am going for Christmas. Not deported, folks, not deported. There really is a universe in my computer that I built from cubes resembling virtual Lego bricks. (I think I win for being paid to believe that.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Swiss complex

There is something about Zurich that makes me feel slightly inferior to the Swiss. Perhaps it is the perfectly clean and efficient tram service or the way that everyone, from professors to shop keepers, speaks accentless English. Maybe it is the beautiful buildings, the mountains or the giant metal cowbells that hang around bovine necks just like in the picture postcards. It could be the sparkling clear lakes or the fact that the Astronomy department has both foosball and ping pong tables that have never been stolen in a drunken student revelry.

Not that the nation does not have its idiosyncrasies. Many citizens extol the virtues of mountain air, good cheese and fresh bread and then proceed to smoke like a chimney. It is an eye opener and a mouth (and nose) closer.

I am currently sitting in the newly renovated apartment I have rented for two weeks. Aimed at visiting academics, it is opposite the University of Zurich's campus and comes with everything you need; bed, TV, stove ... and an incredibly complex coffee machine. Like the rice cooker in my apartment in Japan, the Swiss seem to have clear opinions of what is absolutely essential for survival.

Amusingly, I was repeatedly taken aback to be addressed in German as I mooched around the town centre. Ah, that's right! It's a foreign country with buttons on objects you would rather were kept simple, but it's not Japan and all Europeans look the same.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Licensed to drive

I have an Ontario driving license!

[Extended intermission for lengthy, if disappointingly choreographed, dance routine to be performed]

To my amazement, the response to my desperate inquiry revealed that while no road tests were being performed during the strike, a few select centres in Ontario were doing license exchanges. I was pointed towards a website which declared my nearest open test centre was about an hour's drive away and to be prepared for a very long wait, no guarantee of service and maybe swine 'flu. So, armed with a book, a laptop and a box of tissues, I headed off to the town next door to discover the queue ... was outside. Was it really so long that the whole waiting room had filled up before 10:30 am? Actually no... it transpired that this was a rather bizarre way of punishing people who were been served during the strike. We will see you .... but you have to stand outside in the Canadian early-winter looking through the windows at our heated, empty waiting room. Maybe the union found it upsetting they could not see all the frustration they were causing so decided to design an exhibit.

The wait was about an hour; allegedly I had picked a good day since I was told inside that the previous week had seen lines four to five hours long. Oddly, I did not have to sit a drive test (which is fortunate given the strike) or even a written one; I just had to relinquish one of my driving licenses (I hold both USA and UK). Since my US one was expired, I thought this was a good swap. Admittedly, it might have been better to offer up my British license since it had more years on it, but I also doubted the promise that I could switch my Canadian license back to a UK one when I left. "Mutual exchange" or not, I would not put it past my own country to make me sit their notoriously difficult drive test again just for the dry laughs that define my culture.

I left with a piece of dot-matrix paper in my wallet and a photo-card in the mail. Hurray!

I still need insurance. I called a few places and the results were ugly. Perhaps I could hire a good looking Chippendale driver instead.

Incidentally, my new phone can send photos it takes directly to an online scrap book attached to my account. I find that kinda clever.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ice, ice baby

So my moving boxes are now largely empty. The resulting horizontal filing system has been upgraded in almost every room and a clear path to the door is visible in the remaining areas. It was time to get down to the real reason I came to Canada; the ice hockey.

Thursday night I joined my department's twice weekly pick-up game. That's right; the Physics department has a hockey team. I swear they also do research in my field.

This week, we were somewhat short on players. In fact, we had no bench[*]. So my first time back on the ice after almost a year resulted in some body complaints: "You're doing this again?! .... And ... you're not getting off the ice ... at all .... seriously?!"

By the end of the hour, I had remembered how to skate and even regained the use of my legs just in time for Saturday's match with my new city-based hockey league.

Ironically, I was put on a team called "the Canadians" (named after the NHL Montreal team) and was told upon arriving at the rink that I would be in changing room 5. This is changing room 5 .... out of 24.

The "Mohawk 4 Pad Arena" is something out of a Florida hockey player's dreams. Yep, you heard me, "4 pad"; four NHL sized ice rinks sitting side by side like quadruplets with multi-coloured fleas. The fleas in question were the hockey players who were in full swing on each rink when I arrived... and when I left at 1 am after eating in the bar that sits upstairs overlooking the games.

From what I could see, there was no mention of figure skating or family sessions. This was a rink with a single purpose .... x 4. Did I mention the Walmart here is packed full of hockey equipment? Or that I was planning on giving up my apartment and moving to the rink? 

[*] For non-hockey enthusiasts, the bench is where the players not currently on the ice sit. You rotate in shifts, with each player usually being on the ice for a couple of minutes hard skating before changing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

There's a moment you know ... you're fucked.

There are really only so many 0C morning starts you can take before the "Sunshine state" number plate on your car (complete with a large picture of an orange) starts to grind. It also served as a fruity reminder that at the end of the month I would no longer be covered by my American insurance policy and the car had to be registered in Ontario. I therefore gathered together all the scribbly scraps of paper Customs had given me and scooted to the licenses office.

A cheerful woman greeted me at the counter, told me I had all the paper work I needed and I just had to get Ontario car insurance. Well, that sounded very easy and reasonable! Man, I love Canada.

I then called my bank, who I knew also did auto insurance, and explained what I wanted. No problem! They could definitely insure me providing I had an Ontario driving license. I always appreciate how helpful everyone is here.

So I called the driving license authority who told me ...

Screw you. We're on strike.

.... Huh?

Yep. Since August. This automated message will now come to an end.

Okay, I admit it was actually a web page and it did not in fact read "screw you", but the paraphrasing is nevertheless accurate. You know the fuzzy warm feeling you get when you just know everything will work out? Not feeling it, people. Not feeling it at all.

Excuse me, I need to go and buy bus tickets.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The problem with agreeing with yourself

Ha Ha Ha

Laughter ... did someone just tell me a joke? Maybe I heard an a particular piece of music? Or perhaps I am an insane screwed up individual who is on a rollercoaster?

The origins of why people laugh was discussed in a lecture I attended today. The speaker proposed that we laugh when there is a contrast between what two parts of our brain are telling us. He offered this joke as an example:

Two fish are in a tank ... one says "so how do you drive this thing?"

Initially, a part of your brain called the amygdala acts first. It controls emotional reactions and produces confusion, a negative sensation. There is a tiny delay and then cortex reacts, understands the pun, and cancels out the bad sensation the amygdala produces. As a result of this delay and contrast, we laugh.

In the case of humorous music, a tune will deviate from what we expect causing a negative emotion from the amygdala (since the brain's job is to predict the future correctly) but then the cortex kicks in to remind us it's just music, there is no threat, so again we laugh.

Finally, we were offered the comparison of two people on a rollercoaster, one of whom is enjoying it and another sane person who is not. As the foolish idiots who embarked on this ride of doom riders go up and down and upside down, both their amygdala produce an emotion akin to "Holy crap, we're going to die". In the case of the person who loves the ride, the cortex cancels this out a moment later, knowing rashly and with very little evidence that there is no real danger. The person bursts out laughing. For the second individual (a.k.a. yours truly), the amygdala says:

"Holy crap, we're going to die"

and then the cortex follows it with:

"Damn right."

This person is not laughing. No.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A letter to your future self

Due to luggage weight limits on my flight back from Japan, I sent two large boxes and a poster tube to my work address in Canada via sea mail. At first, this seemed liked a great plan. I placed all the heavy books and CDs in the boxes, keeping the lighter clothes in the suitcases with breakable objects wrapped snugly within them. It was only after I'd dropped the parcels off at the post office did it occur to me that, if they were lost, I would be missing almost all the manga I had bought in Japan which was fairly irreplaceable (from this side of the world at least).

At this point, one of my friends decided to post about how she had lost half her sea mail items.

I started plotting ways in which I could return to Japan.

This week though, amazingly, incredibly both boxes and the poster arrived! I was expecting it to take about three months but it has only taken one. In fact it was perfectly timed, since I only arrived in Canada last week. Oddly, the new box I bought gained a split down the side whereas the slightly damp box I rescued from outside a 7/11 supermarket near my apartment is just fine. Even more oddly, a post office somewhere along its journey mended the split box by putting straps around it. I am filled with love for the human race.

Now I have an office full of pornographic doujinshi manga and all my text books are still at home. I'm trying to decide if this is a problem.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Overheard conversation between two graduate students before the start of journal club this week:

Student 1: I've been asked to give a show with the planetarium and to make it romantic.

Student 2: Romantic?!

Student 1: Yeah ... they said they didn't want any of that dry academic stuff but something fun and romantic.

Student 2: Oh...

Student 1: .... it's for two people.

Student 2: ... that could get awkward.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Hello, can you make me look like this anime character?

"Well, aren't you the most exciting thing I've seen all week, no all month?"

Complimentary, yes. The first thing you'd like to hear coming out of your hair dresser's mouth? Not so much.

I had been wanting to cut my hair short for quite some time. The prospect of spending four months in Japan stayed my hand (or rather my scissors) since none of my imaginings of how that salon experience would go with my Japanese language skills ended well. So, aflush with the excitement of being able to talk to every street vendor in town (except my new phone voice message system that inexplicably came up in French, but that's another story), I headed to the nearest hair dressers and made an appointment for this weekend.

When you desire a fairly drastic cut, it is always a good idea to give your hair stylist a picture, rather than a few random arm waves. Digging through old photos, I found one of myself from a number of years back with the cut I wished to revert to. The picture was a clear, face-on shot but I couldn't find an accompanying image of the back of my head. Hunting through magazines in the local supermarket only offered me Angelina Jolie (hair too long) or Brad Pitt (facial hair too long) and I was on the brink of giving up (generally; such magazines have that effect), when I glanced down at my key chain. Attached to the bunch of shiny new keys I'd accumulated in the last week, was a small model of one of my favourite Japanese anime characters (Eiji from Tenipuri) and a picture of another (Atobe, from the same series). Both were sporting basically the same hair-do I required. Well ... it was a bit unconventional, but hey if it works ... So along with the photo, I presented both Atobe and Eiji for inspection and preyed to the heavens above that the stylist wasn't a secret Japanese manga fan.

At that point, said stylist started to have far too much fun. We went through a whole range of different styles simply because she wanted to "try things out" as we went down in length. It was during this that the topmost comment made an appearance and I hoped she would remember to stop before we got too carried away.

Fortunately, she did. I now have a funky short hair do .... just in time for the winter. But hey, it's easier to cram under a woolly hat.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Balls of ice

This morning's walk to work was bright and clear. Blue skies and warm in a 2-sweaters-and-a-jacket kind of way. As I approached campus, the skies suddenly darkened and it started to pour.

Ha! You think you've got me, Mother Nature, but I am prepared! After all, I have just been living in Florida where no summer day is complete without a spontaneous twenty minute tidal wave.

I pulled up the hood of my coat and looked heavenwards .... to receive a face full of icy hail stones.

Oh right. That would be the difference from Florida.

A few minutes later and the skies cleared to an innocent blue again and I limped off towards my department. While not particularly wet, I was covered with ice chips and my nose hurt from its shrapnel bombardment.  

Okay fine. I admit it. I wasn't prepared for this.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Just me

There is an episode in "Sex in the City" where one of the main characters, Miranda, buys her own apartment on Manhattan. No one can believe that she is buying and living there alone and she is persistently asked about the boyfriend who is bound to be moving in there with her. Such was the situation with the movers today:

Mover: "Are you living here alone?"

Me: "Yep, just me."

Mover: "You've not got a boyfriend up here?"

Steady on, buddy, I just moved here on Friday!

Me: "No, just me."

Mover: "Well, I thought you might have a girlfriend or something."

Me: "No, just me."

Well, you know, at this point I gave him credit for open mindedness so I embellished:

Me: "I move jobs every few years, often with an associated continent change so ... a serious boyfriend would completely cramp my style"

I resisted saying the striked comment to the husband & wife moving team since it might be deemed a little harsh and they were in fact doing a great job.

However, despite the fact my cat was not judged a worthy apartment companion (they were deeply underestimating the space she can take up on the bed), I do now have furniture! And boxes! Distributed completely randomly throughout my house ... Evidently though, I have found my wireless router so all the really important stuff is in place.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lug holes

The Ministry of Health office in Hamilton is located on the 10th floor of a downtown office building. It is here that people can renew their health card, record a change of address or, in my case, register as a new resident to Canada.

[Short interlude to allow one big cheer for socialised health care \o/]

I entered the building and headed to the elevator with a gentleman who had obviously made this journey many many times before:

Man: These people are hopeless! If you were born here, they'll do nothing for you. Nothing.

Me: I wasn't.

Man: .... Oh. Then you'll probably be fine.

As indeed, I was.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sim life

As any "The Sims" fanatic will tell you, it's not easy starting a house. Your initial 20,000 simonians are significantly depleted by the purchase of your two room abode, leaving you forced to choose between a bed and a sofa. Many of you will have chosen the sofa with the idea that your Sim can both kip (albeit poorly) and study on said device, enabling him or her to get a job. So you send your Sim off to work as a dustbin man and eventually have enough money to buy a table. Everyone claps.

This is SO my apartment at the moment. Most of my possessions are enroute in a large moving van somewhere between the alligator infested south and the bear patrolled north. I'm fortunately convinced that a desk with bite marks is artistic. With me are the two suitcases I brought to Japan and an inflatable air mattress and small duvet I had the surprising foresight to put aside before I left for the East. Sadly, said foresight did not stretch to the pump so the first night was rather ... deflated.

The cat is frankly appalled by the lack of items in the flat. She walks from one empty room to the other before climbing on the only available item (a.k.a. yours truly) and voicing her distaste. We so used to have more stuff than this...

Yesterday, I visited Ikea in the hunt for some curtain rods my landlord still needed to put up (oh yes, the neighbours are getting to know me very well!). I returned with a large multicoloured rug for the main room and a pump for my bed. If cats had hands there would have been applause.

I want to marry a Canadian

I love Canadian bureaucracy, or rather the lack of it. I am sitting in my new apartment with my newly installed internet connection (from my newly installed phone line) in possession of a work visa, bank account and social insurance number with my car imported and parked outside and my cat imported and parked on my knee. I arrived last night.

Admittedly, I did sort the visa, cat and apartment on my last visit a couple of weeks ago, but the paper work (if not the cat pee) was bogglingly simple.

The Canadians' controversial technique seems to involve informing you in advance that you need to provide easily accessible documents (e.g. passport, car title etc) and then requiring those same documents upon your arrival at border / government office. If they are in order, these crazy people let you in. Don't they know that a real immigration and import process involves premium rate telephone calls, month long appointment scheduling, three documents that could not possibly apply to you, a forth that has not existed since 1776 and queues that aim to define eternity? How are you supposed to feel loyalty to a country where the prospect of reentering if you leave is bearable? Don't they realise that such a lack of stress could make you live a long and fruitful life, therefore adding to the heavy strain in providing social security for elderly people? Are the winters so bad that most people die that way instead?

There was an issue with one broken fax machine, otherwise I might believe I was dreaming. Except that I suspect my subconscious isn't kind enough to give me only a ten minute wait at the social security office.

So on that note, I've decided to marry a Canadian. I see our wedding ceremony going as follows:

"Do you wish to marry?"


And then a everyone gets down to the drinking. Or maybe the ice hockey.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A letter to the I-95

It is said that to get to know a person, you should walk a mile in his shoes. We travelled many hundreds of times that you and I, and yes, I-95, I did indeed feel I knew you well. Perhaps ... too well.

You ran straight and true, taking me from Florida up to North Carolina, and I know you would have carried me still further, all through the greater part of my journey. The problem is, I-95, that although you were swift and simple, I grew bored of your never ending concrete view with only gas stations adding colour to life with you. Additionally, my friends do not live close to your sides which perhaps tells you something deep about your life.

It's not me. It's you.

So I left you, I-95, to go with other, more exciting roads. I moved through many streets, admiring fall leaves and pretty towns. I cannot say I was ashamed of my behaviour.

It is true though, that such indulgences came at a price. I felt that you laughed as my gas meter bleeped red with no garage in sight. Perhaps I took your point. Perhaps you knew as well as I that minor roads north of Washington DC were not for people who wished to get somewhere. Perhaps you just hoped.

Whatever the reason, I-95, I did return to your cement embrace after the capital. I trust you, you see. You were able to guide me, and the eight million other people who flocked to your surface around Baltimore, along the East Coast and up to New York. I noticed your care in doing so; you were indeed painstakingly slow.

Despite the success of our reunion, I confess I-95, that we must shortly be parted again. I want to reassure you that my reasons are different. It is not that I am bored with your appearance. In fact, the entertainment of regularly crossing four lanes of heavy traffic to reach different exits is enough to sate any girl's desires. Rather, it is because you go up to Providence and really, who wants to go there?

I cannot stand long goodbyes, I-95, so I'm going to make this one quick exit as I turn towards the border. This time there is no turning back.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

To the irritable man with the rollerboard suitcase ...

As with this post, it is sometimes necessary to write to people you have only encountered in passing. Such "missed connections" form a popular column in the website craigslist. It is in this style that I offer the following to a fellow passenger at Toronto airport last night:

"To the irritable man with the rollerboard suitcase,

I know you were irritated that night at Toronto airport. I know this because I had been just behind you in the queue, also being told I would have to wait for a seat assignment. I was also just behind you when you shoved your rollerboard backwards, causing me to trip and you ... you to look still more irritated that someone had the audacity to touch your luggage.

It is possible that your day had been harder than mine. Perhaps so much so that it explained why I was innocently heading to find a soda while you were embarking on a departure room rule of terror. If you had decided to ask, rather than ABH, I would have explained that my day had been one of trials and triumphs and I was thinking of selling the plot for a remake of Groundhog Day.

I had headed out that morning at 6 am to meet a potential landlord before he went to work. The apartment was nice and, after a brief consideration, I decided I wished to sign the lease.

Yay! Apartment!

Such an event would have been marginally easier if my future landlord had not lost his phone three days earlier, rendering him incommunicable until his return at 3:30 pm. Coincidentally, this particular time was also that for the last departure of the airport shuttle bus.

Nevertheless, I had happily wiled away the hours by trying to reach one of the three professional pet sitting services who had been ignoring my existence all weekend. They persisted until mid-afternoon when one of them finally broke. After scuttling between Waterloo and Hamilton (~ 1hr drive) to ensure bags were packed and cat briefed for good behaviour over the following weeks, I reached my landlord and agreed to meet him at a coffee shop ... that proved to be closed. A chilled twenty minutes later finally saw me signing a lease in a KFC.

At this stage, it was too late to contemplate public transport to the airport, so I had driven the rental car and dropped it off at the terminal. In their confusion at seeing a vehicle they expected to be in Waterloo, I was ushered into the help desk area. This left me at the back of a long line of customers (did I mention to anyone I'd driven the car because I was late?) who were being personally shown to their rentals by individuals who had mastered speaking English at one tenth normal speed. Finally, I was presented with the bill and ...

".... I'm sorry, you've overcharged me."

"No Ma'am, a large fee is charged if you drop the car off at a different location from your rental branch."

".... Even so, my original bill was $400 .... it is now $1450."

Okay, so perhaps, just perhaps, there was a slight slip. After some consultation, I received a new bill for $800.

"... This is still rather high."

"Well, you have the fee for being an underage driver."

".... I'm 29."

"We have your date of birth as 1985."

"That is incorrect."
(As you could see from my official Government issued driving license that is in your hand.)

"Oh right. Why is that?"

Know what? Not my problem. The fact my flight leaves in less than an hour, that is my problem.

Now running, I had leaped up to departures, sacrificed my toothpaste to avoid checking luggage and made up the blandest version of my life to date so the USA border control would be too bored to prolong our interaction.

So you can imagine, good sir, that I also was not thrilled to discover I was not guaranteed on this flight. However, unlike you, I did not resort to beating up other passengers although I note that, had I been so inclined, I would have at least picked someone with a seat.

Regardless, both you and I made the flight that day. You probably rolled off home without a care in the world. I, meanwhile, had to deal with yet another car rental desk.

"We only have a minivan."

I hate you."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ain't never seen a pussy cat fly

Possibly one of the most daunting tasks involved with moving to Canada was the mechanics of shifting the cat from the hot tropics of Florida to the frozen north. Despite her strong interest in the idea, I dismissed the idea of adding her to my boxed belongings to be stored and shipped. This left me two possible options:

(1) Buckle her into the backseat when I road-trip it up the country in my beetle (a.k.a bad option #1).

(2) Fly up earlier with her when I go looking for apartments (a.k.a. bad option #2).

Since her views on the forty minutes drive to the vets seem akin to the torture of the Spanish Inquisition, neither of these were going to go down well. I opted for (2) on the merit that is was at least shorter.

Fortunately (or so I thought at the time), flights to Canada from the USA allow pets in the cabin, so I scooted to the stores to buy a soft carrier that would slide under my seat. I tried to make the whole situation as easy as possible: I found a direct flight out of Orlando, asked a friend to drive us to the airport so I could hold the carrier on my knee and asked another friend to look after Tallis Canada-side so she would not have to go into a cattery. I then layered the pet carrier with a puppy pad, a tee-shirt I had been wearing for a couple of nights, catnip and love.

Exactly what Tallis thought of this arrangement was made clear by her urinating all over said tee-shirt, catnip and strongly pushing the "love" factor before we were even out the driveway. Gritting my teeth, I changed the liner, shook out the tee-shirt and pushed kitty back into her carrier ..... did I mention she could get out of this? Actually, if it's zipped right to its limit and all the Velcro pushed down, we're good. Any tiny gap, however, and the furry Houdini can insert a paw and pull open the top. But hey, don't you just hate getting bored on flights?

To be fair, after the initial defacing of the carrier, things went as well as could be expected. Cat was not happy and scrunched up her fresh puppy liner and shoved it into a corner but failed to complete her wicked plan by not having the required bowel or bladder content. Cat owner was even less happy and, without a puppy liner to exploit, almost offered said cat to fellow passengers who cooed through the cage. That said, we finally tumbled off the plane in Toronto and headed to customs to present the required paper work to a lady who inquired:

"Is this all?"

Now, I had read the website information on pet transport to Canada (under "Food Inspection Agency") and called the airline to confirm absolutely and utterly that the only paperwork needed was proof of rabies vaccination, which the woman was now holding. Fortunately, I had not believed a word of it and was also carrying a health certificate from the vets and a medical history. I passed these over, which did not exactly seem to be required but satisfied the customs guard's desire to hold more paper and we were waved through.

Cat is now completely recovered and zooms around her new home with her tail held high. I am still in shock and need to sleep for a week. Next time, we're using drugs. And no, I'm not talking about the cat.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What ... is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

My Mum once told me about a PR video she saw at work. It showed a foreign client talking to a receptionist. At the end of the piece, people were asked for their thoughts and they all agreed that the man had been very rude and brusque. It turned out that if you translated his words directly into his native tongue, he was actually being incredibly polite. This was put forward as an example to not take everyone at face value.

I decided to apply this principal when I went through USA border control this afternoon after my return flight from Tokyo. For the questions posed to me, I simply translated their words into those I am sure they meant.

Your J1 visa has expired. What are you doing here?
Welcome back to America; the country in which you have paid taxes and made your home for the previous five years. We are delighted to see you again. What brings you back to us?

When will you leave?
For how long will we have the pleasure of your presence during this visit?

[Muttered] Welcome to America.
Welcome to America!

To which I replied:

[Brightly] Thank you!
I don't like you either.

The process was short though, and not nearly as bad as I thought it might be. You are not supposed to enter the USA as a tourist without a return plane ticket and of course, this was my return plane ticket from when I left Florida four months ago. Since I ultimately drive to Canada, I had brought a pile of paper work including my new job contract to prove my intention to leave, but this was only checked once at the Tokyo end and not at the border.

So hello from the flip side, people! Now everyone has to prey for that bottle I bought in the Tokyo duty-free and had to stuff into my checked luggage at Dallas to be transferred to Florida. If it cracks, my poor Totoro will get soused. That's completely inappropriate for a sweet anime character.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

mada mada

I am fully aware that my limited grasp of the Japanese language leaves something to be desired. However, exactly what my Japanese colleagues deemed that was came as something of a surprise when I received a dictionary of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions.

Put simply, onomatopoeic expressions are words we use to describe sounds. For instance, "meow" is an onomatopoeia for the sound a cat makes. Likewise, "zoom" is a word we use to describe the sound of something moving at high speed.

Hiccup, beep, bang, whir, croak, splat ... English is littered with such expressions. Yet, this is nothing nothing to Japanese. In Japan, onomoatopoeia describe not only sounds, but also sights and sensations. For instance, walking down a street you might see someone who was "keba keba", meaning they were gaudy or garish. This might well cause you to "jiro jiro" (stare rudely) which could attract their attention, leading you to be "oro oro" (flustered). However, then their partner might appear and it would be become plain that they were "atsu atsu" (head over heels in love) which would make you "niko niko" (all smiles).  As any good TeniPuri fan will know, "mada mada" describes "still having someway to go before reaching the goal".

As noticeable in the above examples, Japanese onomatopoeia are often repetitive, with the same phrase being repeated twice.

On that note, I shall declare to be "meso meso" tomorrow as I cry to leave Japan, before moving onto "koso koso" as I try to sneak through Florida stealthily to avoid being discovered by my old advisor. Then it's off to "samu zamu", the cold bleak wintery scene of Canada!

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Before I came to Japan, I read (or browsed, it was more of a picture book) "A Year in Japan" which chatted about the sights and impressions of a Western girl living in Kyoto. One of the experiences she mentions is the all-female musical production company, Takarazuka. Upon mentioning this to a friend, I discovered she was a huge fan and we went to two productions together, one in Tokyo and one in their home town ... Takarazuka ... which is just outside Osaka.

The town Takarazuka is the location of the highly competitive associated music school where students above the age of 15 (i.e. after Middle School) attend to train for the company. Although all female, the students are selected for "male" or "female" roles and they keep their assignment through the school and in every professional performance. The only occasional exception to this rule is when a normally-male actress is assigned to a female part for a particularly strong character, such in the recent production, Elisabeth.

The male roles are considered more prestigious than their female counterparts and as such, the lead "male" star is more important than the leading female. The top stars of each troupe of performers have their own official fan clubs who organise events and turn out dedicatedly to see the actresses entre and leave the theatre. These club members all wear a common item of clothing, e.g. a blue scarf or tartan jacket (see photos), to mark out who they are supporting and this changes from one performance to the next. When their actress arrives (wearing hat and sunglasses) and greets them, they all bow down (*cough* it's a little creepy). It is through these fan clubs and the sale of merchandise that the actresses make the majority of their money. 

Rules for Takarazuka actresses are extremely strict. The "male" actresses have to keep their hair short, only wear trousers, not skirts and speak in the Japanese male form. Female actresses must do the reverse and no one is allowed to date.

Takarazuka has five troupes of actors putting on productions around Japan. We saw "Snow Troupe" perform "Russian Blue" in Tokyo and "Flower Troupe" perform a version of "The Rose of Versailles" in Takarazuka. While in Japanese (and so at varying degrees of incomprehension to me), the productions are extremely well done with good music and interesting costumes and set design. It is fun to watch videos of the rehearsals during the intermission and see the actresses without their make-up (I always think they are much prettier without it since their stage face is heavy on lipstick).

At the end of all such performances, I normally walk around for several hours with my head in the clouds imagining what it must be like to attend a professional acting school and be a star performer. Then I come to my senses and remember, in all likelihood, the real answer is "damn awful". 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


One of the noticeable features of your average Tokyo subway car is the splattering of people wearing white cloth surgical face masks over their mouth and nose. Initially, I put this down to the recent outbreak of swine 'flu, but later discovered that it is considered basic manners to cover your face if you have a cold or cough to prevent it being spread. (Of course, the outbreak of swine 'flu rather extenuated this phenomenon, causing a national shortage of masks for sale).

There is a risk with such masks that you might inadvertently produce a bacteria breeding ground next to your mouth, but with every convenience store in Japan stocking them, switching to a clean one is not a major issue.

A second feature of day-to-day life is the lack of paper napkins, both in restaurants and public restrooms. At restaurants, you are provided with a hot or cold damp towel to clean your hands with before eating, but it is unusual to be given a napkin. Likewise, toilets sometimes have hand driers but never towels. This is because the Japanese carry small wash cloths (flannels) with them to wipe or dry their hands and faces. Because everyone has one, there is a big market in these cloths and you can get all designs and patterns from plain through to your favourite anime characters (I have one with Ghibli's Jiji the cat on it).

It is remarkable useful to have such an item with you. While I still frequently forget to pick one up on my way out, I may try and adopt the habit once I'm back in North America. Oh, by the way, that's Sunday. Man.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Is it terribly wrong to like Nikko more than Kyoto? It is possibly controversial, but I loved the beauty of this national park with its wooded mountains, wide open lakes and crashing waterfalls. It also reminded me a little of home and Scotland ... although possibly the fact is was lightly raining on the first day had something to do with that (^.^).

Kyoto does of course have a vast number of amazing shrines and temples; all of which are uniquely different and memorable. The gripe I had with the city is that it is very spread out and you spend a large proportion of time sitting on buses crawling through the ugly concrete jungle that is its urban centre. Nikko, by contrast, has a handful of pretty shrines nestled in the wooded hills with walks weaving through the countryside.

The largest Nikko Shrine is Nikko Tosho-gu, dedicated to Tokugawa leyasu who founded the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal regime in Japan between around 1600 - mid 1800s. However, the Shrine is possibly more famous for its carving for the three wise monkeys; hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil which form one frame of a story panel showing a monkey's life from birth to motherhood. At the same shrine is also a famous carving of a sleeping cat; nemuri-no-neko.

As a side line, it is interesting to compare Buddhist temples with European churches. Both are beautiful, but very differently styled in their decor and religious emphasis. In Christianity, the human aspect forms the central part of the religion; God became man and had real human doubts, suffered human pain and died a very human death. Where they exist, representations of Christ and the saints show men like you or I. By contrast, deities in Japanese temples are frequently portrayed as vast, gold covered statues with inhuman features such as the thousand armed Kannon (normally represented with rather less arms, but considerably more than your average spider). Such images conjure up feelings of awe and fear of powers beyond human comprehension. Yet, in some ways, I feel that both temples and churches compliment each other. They both point to a force beyond life and offer explanations of what might follow once we leave this mortal coil. Such topics are, by their very nature, beyond that of human experience and possibly only by embracing all these different ideologies do we hope to touch on understanding.

Having been through these deep and philosophical thoughts, it was time to relax. Fortunately, Nikko is also known for its hot springs and our hotel had its own onsen. This has to be what I will miss most about Japan. What I will miss least are eastern-style toilets.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Black rain

Before heading to Kyoto, I stopped overnight in Hiroshima; the city where the USA dropped an atomic bomb on 6th August 1945, at the culmination of World War II (in case anyone dozed off during those history lessons).

To commemorate (... that can't be the right word) this event, Hiroshima has a "Peace Park" with a memorial museum set in its grounds. I confess I approached both of these with a level of trepidation since they came under the category of "necessary" rather than "enjoyable" viewing. I often find myself in two minds about such memorials: On the one hand, events such as the detonation of "Little Boy" should not be forgotten. A huge number of innocent lives were lost and the least we can do is strive not to make the same mistakes again. On the other hand, I wonder whether emotionally draining exhibits act as a beacon to crimes committed by other nations which has the potential to hinder international relations. Surely, the only way to really prevent such travesties is for us to work together and not look at other countries through a "them" and "us" perspective. It is a difficult balance.

That said, I do not necessary believe that Hiroshima gets this balance wrong. For a start, both the Peace Park and the museum are scientifically interesting (as opposed to just emotionally upsetting). At the head of the park stands the remains of the building known as the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was one of the few structures to survive the explosion of Little Boy within a radius of about 1 mile. After much debate, it was preserved in its current statue as a monument and it is incredible to see inside the structure and feel some of the force the bomb must have produced. Inside the museum are examples of melted glass and brick work rescued from the wreckage that are evidence to the intense heat produced after the explosion.

The main focus of the museum is a push for peace and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Tactfully, Little Boy is usually referred to as "the atomic bomb" not "the American attack" or anything too finger-pointing. A cynical person might note that the small section on why the Americans decided on a nuclear attack rather glosses over (or indeed completely fails to mention) the role Japan played in the war that one could argue was a little provoking. Although, as my guide book says, perhaps they have good reason to be biased.

As an interesting comparison point, I have also been to the museum in Los Alamos, home to the origin of the aforementioned bomb. This is a smaller exhibit dedicated largely to the science of nuclear weapons, not to their ethical consequences. It actually does mention that the nuclear attack on Japan was controversial in that it was almost certainly not necessary to win the war at that point. However, I felt overall a conscientious effort had been made in Hiroshima to present the disaster as an event the whole world wants to prevent happening again.

Naturally, scientific interest could only be so much of the museum and the rest was very moving. There were first hand accounts of relatives who had tried to nurse children and adults who had been hit by the bomb's fiery blast. Many said the extreme burns made their loved ones unrecognisable and a crypt exists in the Peace Park for the remains of unidentified victims and those whose entire family was wiped out. Charred clothes, many pieces belonging to small children, were in glass cases along with items such as the remains of a partially cremated school lunch box.

There are also stories of the people affected by the radiation in the aftermath. Possibly the most famous is that of Sadako Sasaki, a twelve year old girl who died of leukemia after the bomb exploded a mile from her home when she was just 2 years old. Sadako believed the adage that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, you can make a wish. She succeed in folding over 1,500 and now people fold them in her honour, placing them in show cases around a monument dedicated to her.

So not exactly one of my favourite tourist spots, but since I've decided to scrap the plans for building my own atomic bomb in the bathroom (hey, the toilets here probably have all the parts), I guess it did its job.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Third time (uses) a charm

One of the best known of Kyoto's many temples is that of Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. The temple is covered with gold leaf and is actually a 1955 replica of the 15th century structure. The original was destroyed by a Buddhist priest in 1950 who was so enraptured by the beauty of the building that he felt it would be exquisite if he burnt it down.

We rambled round the gardens surrounding the temple until we approached the pot of fortunes. I eyed the pieces of paper warily and then moved to a small gift shop close by. This store sold a manner of temple-related merchandise, including charms for attributes such as good luck, exam success, health and fertility. Feeling "good luck" was perhaps more than I could hope for given past experiences, I opted for the more modest charm "against bad luck". Tucking the sealed orange cloth case nearly inside my bag, I dropped my 100 yen into the box and gingerly selected a fortune.

Your fortune: Very good

You owe what you are to your ancestors. Remember this and be kind to others, and you'll be more prosperous and happier even if it were stormy elsewhere. 

Wish: Respect others, and it will soon be realised.
Expected visitor: No problem. He or she will come very soon.
Missing thing: Try and find it. It's easy to find.
Travel: Any direction will do.
Business: All right.
Study: Don't make yourself spoilt.
Speculation: But now, and you make a big profit
Game and match: Take it easy, and you'll win
Love: Do not hesitate. Be positive.
Removal: It's all right, but take your time.
Childbirth: Don't be afraid. Everything goes well.
Illness: Be faithful and you'll get it over.
Marriage proposal: Take your time, and it will be settled as you wish.


Okay, so there's a few cases of "Jap-lish" in there and I honestly can't say I like the sound of "removal" but hey! I think we have an actual good fortune (^.^). Hurray for temple charms! I'm particularly keen on the marriage proposal prediction: "It will be settled as you wish". Sounds like I can still head for the life of random play and debauchery if I so desire! Perhaps I should make that my wish...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Boy from Osaka

"We will not want to be in France long. It might be too hot."

A casual comment that conjures up a variety of images, all of them incorrect and some downright unclean. (In defense of the thoughts that initially sprung to my mind, I'd like to say that my friends have exposed me to way too much Hetalia dojinshi [1].)

Unclean thoughts were perhaps doubly inappropriate given that I was in a public bath. Not a traditional onsen this time (although the lack of clothes was a common feature), but Osaka's "Spa World". In this bath experience, there are two separate floors of hot tubs, one European themed and the second Asian. They alternate gender monthly, with September seeing the women having access to the European section.

We began in Rome, an elegant marble-esque pot with centurion statues rearing above us. Next, we moved on to Atlantis in a blue under-water themed room with an aquarium containing blow fish (not to be casually nibbled on) and Nemo clown fish. From there, we dipped into an ice pool, covered ourselves in mud and then salt before sinking into Spain's outdoor pool with a waterfall crashing over us. Finally we moved onto France which was ... as you might have gathered ... too hot to linger in for long.

Appropriately, there was no British themed bath. Can you imagine the Brits in a naked public bathing room once the Romans has left? No, clearly neither could Spa World.

[1]: Hetalia doujinshi is fan-made manga (normally x-rated) of the popular Japanese anime series in which stereotyped characters represent the different countries.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

An unfortunate series of event

In the temple grounds of Sanjusangen-do, Kyoto, amongst the 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity, I paid 100 yen to have a second attempt at a good fortune. I pulled the slip of paper from the pile and unraveled it to see "VERY GOOD" printed in large letters on one side. Hurray! Clearly, my tying of the other bad fortune to the stands worked well. I turned to read the details....

HEALTH: Lack of sleep may be the cause of a car accident. Be careful!
WORK: Be cautious when making contracts.
MONEY: Borrowing and lending money is to be done with the greatest possible care.
EXAMS: OK, as long as there is enough effort.
LOVE: Arrange things before someone interupt.
JOURNEY: Not good.
FINDING YOU SOUL MATE: He/she will not come
CONSTRUCTION/HOME: Wait for a good opportunity.
LOST ITEM: Unlikely to be found.

.... O.O This is the "very good" option?! Still, on the upside, at least I don't have to wonder whether it's worth waiting around for my soul mate (who, in the last fortune I had, was destined to "show up after a long while"). They ain't showing, so I can go and do something else. Like, see more temples.

Our next stop was the large Kiyomizu Temple which had a whole section devoted to love. I didn't bother with fortunes there. I felt the message was clear enough (~.^)

Incidentally, the 1001 Buddhist deity statues? Yeah, not an exaggeration. Really 1001. All the same, yet strangely all slightly different...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Water gate

The partially submerged Torii (gate) to the Itsukushima Shrine is one of the most popular guide book images of Japan. Commonly referred to as Miyajima, the shrine is dedicated to the three daughters of Amaterasu, the sun goddess from whom legend claims the Imperial Household of Japan is descended from. The daughters are goddesses of the sea, hence the snuggling up to the waterfront concept of Miyajima. The present shrine dates from the mid-16th century, but sits on the same site as buildings extending back to the 6th century, due to the Japanese perchance for rebuilding rather than preserving. (It is possible that the extensive use of wood as a building material makes this a more practical step than for the stone-based European constructions).

Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, Miyajima is a beautiful place to visit. The shrine is located on an island just outside Hiroshima and is reached by ferry boat. The small town is host to a large group of tame deer which have become rather too accustomed to being fed by enraptured tourists. The sign in the square implores visitors to not "tease or touch" the deer, rather suggesting a dangerous deer-tourist hybrid might have arisen through inappropriate liaisons.

Aside from the shrine (for which this is one of hundreds of identical photos I could not resist taking), you can take a cable car up the mountain to enjoy views, shrines and ... monkeys. These red faced, red bottomed numbers are not into waiting for a tourist to offer a tasty snack, but will simply help themselves, prompting the cable car company to provide free lockers for people's belongings.

Assuming you escape the wildlife, a walk along the mountain will take you to the shrine where the Kiezu-no-hi (the eternal flame) has been burning for 1200 years. It is from this fire that the pilot light for the "Flame of Peace" in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was lit.

Back in Hiroshima, I am staying at a JHoppers hostel which is rather like being a student again but with a build-your-own futon that I had to construct from the pile of blankets and mattresses in my room. It was quite exciting.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A beginner's guide to kanji

Of the three different writing systems used in Japanese, the most complex is the use of the Chinese characters known as kanji. Rather than a phonetic script, kanji characters represent concepts that are strung together to produce the larger meaning.

In many cases, the origin of the form of the kanji character can be seen from its meaning. For instance "木" is the kanji for tree and the shape is reminiscent of that object. Likewise, river (川), mountain (山), fire (火) and sun (日) all have obvious origins (Astronomers in particular will relate to the kanji for sun, since it is similar to the solar symbol ⊙ ... especially if you were making it on an old digital panel~).

Placing kanji characters along side each other can then lead to more complex meanings. An appropriate example for this week would be 火山, fire mountain or volcano.

Similarly, more complex kanji can be formed by combining characters (either in their full or an abbreviated form) into a single one. For instance, the combination of two of the characters for tree, 林, means "forest".

See? Simple, logical easy! Let's try some others...

If we take the kanji for "car" (車) and combine it with that for "fun" (楽), we get 轢 ... meaning "run over"!

Alternatively, add "grass" (草) to the top of "fun"(楽) and you get 薬; meaning "drugs"!

Never let it be said the Japanese do not have a sense of humour.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great balls of fire

Sakurajima (literally "Cherry blossom island") is just off the coast of Kagoshima on Japan's south-western island of Kyuushu. It has a population of around 7,000 and is famous for both its (extremely large) radish and (extremely small) mandarins.... oh, and the active volcano that dominates the skyline by the same name.

Sakurajima is somewhat of a misnomer since it now sits on a peninsula due to the erupted lava flow in 1914 bridging the gap to the mainland and Kagoshima. Since 1955, minor eruptions have become frequent, regularly dousing the island and city in volcanic ash. Last year there were around 80 eruptions. So far in 2009, there have been over 380 ... and oddly everyone seems ok with this....

Regular evacuation drills are performed in the event of a serious eruption and there are shelters scattered around that resemble concrete cylinders where people can hide from falling debris. That aside, this ain't where I'm planning my retirement home. Still, a visit to the observation station half way up is fair game. The volcano was coughing smoke when we arrived, suggesting recent activity and it erupted again while we were there. I caught a nifty video of the action in case anyone thinks I totally photo-shopped the above print.

I am considering distributing the fictional account of the city of Pompeii to the locals.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Flower festival

In the small town of Koma, just outside Tokyo, the start of autumn marks the annual flower festival where visitors flood in to view the spectacular river bank fields of red spider lilies or higanbana. Although this was on a local scale, such season-marking events are common in Japan where the spring cherry blossom viewing (hanami) and autumn leaf viewing (momijigari) are major calendar landmarks.

The weather was perfect, a sentiment with which half of Tokyo apparently agreed, making the ratio between flowers to people rather close to a 1:1. Still, since the Japanese patience puts the British ability to queue to shame, this was hardly an issue.

While almost all spider lilies are red, an occasional white one pops up which is invariably marked by a hive of visitors wielding cameras, determined to immortalise this freak of nature in the midst of its red Borg clones. I imagine it's rather like being a celebrity.

At the end of the river bank path, a set of stalls selling green tea, nibbles and pictures of spider lilies on towels and postcards were set up to tempt the awe struck viewers. Meanwhile kids paddled in the river beneath a sign warning them that a Japanese water demon would devour them if they didn't take care. I watched optimistically, but no such luck.

A second anomaly Koma boasts is the existence of a vegetarian restaurant. Vegetarian-ism and vegan-ism is very uncommon in Japan which can be an issue for foreign visitors. Fish and indeed chicken is frequently not considered 'meat' when serving customers who desire such things. This particular restaurant was not run by Japanese people but was extremely good and overflowing with the day's out-of-towners.

I finished the day with a purple sweet potato ice cream. Mmm, ecstasy.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Unfortunate fortunes

If, on your tours of temples in Japan, you find yourself entirely out of prayer requests for the gods, an alternative to keep your hands busy is to have your fortune read. While this is a common feature at Buddhist Temples, it is rather less common for the resulting fortune to be in English. Holding your future in your hands but not being able to understand it might be deeply significant, but unsatisfactory.

An exception to this is Senso-ji in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, the oldest temple in the city. Place a 100 yen coin (~ $1) in a box and you get to select a stick with a number written on it. Playing match-the-Kanji leads you to a drawer from which you take the top sheet of paper with your fortune written on it. My fortune read as follows:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Although you do your best and sincerity to others, it's useless just like burning incense in the sky. Even if it may be a small loyalty, a good deed prevents causing damage. You will spend a long, hard time working on many useless things.

* Your wishes will not be realised. * A sick person will recover but after a little while. * Making a trip will not be good. * Building a house and removal are both half fortunate. * Marriage or employment should be stopped. * The lost article will not be found. * The person you are waiting for will show up after a long while.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Well, what do you know? Fortunes are not random chance at all and it seems the god who handed this one to me had definitely read my thesis. While I rather liked the sound of "employment should be stopped", I admit the rest was somewhat less appealing. I therefore performed the required act of tying the bad fortune (without ripping it) to the rack close by which was supposed to negate the effect of the prediction. I'll let you know how that one goes....

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Japanese folklore tells a tale of an old woman finding a peach floating down the river which turns out to contain a boy whom they name Momotaro (Momo meaning peach and Taro being a popular boy's name, often associated with the first son of a family). Amusing though this story is, it wasn't until I actually saw a Japanese peach that I realised it was entirely plausible. They are huge! Never mind one boy, this could be the Japanese equivalent of the Trojan Horse, concealing an entire army within its fruity interior.  

The fruit above does not really do the subject justice. While it is mutantly large, I have seen bigger peaches that are the same colour of apricots. It does indeed sit in its own little padded jacket, due to an obsessive compulsive complex the Japanese seem to have in regard to wrapping up fruit.

Next to the peach you will see my newest find of an ash-gray ice cream. I have not in fact dropped this milky delight on the path up Mt Fuji to allow it is grow a gravel coating, it is the true shade of a sesame seed flavour ice cream. It is also quite delicious.

A final note on food is a comment on the abundance of raw eggs. It seems entirely normal here to crack an uncooked egg onto your noodles or use it to make an eggy dip for your meat. I'm pretty confident that in the west this is an utter no-no due to salmonella poisoning. Is this an ingenious way to keep the population down? Or are Japanese eggs too high tech to have such a poison in them? Did in fact neither chicken nor the egg come first but a machine to detect bacteria in shells? One can only ponder.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Drop pots

Sooner or later, people who partake in human habits such as food with me will learn that even with the most delicious of meals there is a finite probability that I will have a hideous reaction and have to dash directly to the bathroom; do not pass go, do not collect £200.

On one such charming occasion recently, I had been eating at a favourite noodle bar and had to walk, jog then sprint back to the observatory, calling apologies to my friends. I tumbled into the canteen building and over to the restrooms, before half crawling through a cubicle door and ....

... oh thanks Japan. NOW you choose not to give me a sophisticated lavatory experience but a hole in the ground.

Somewhere up above, I swear there was laughter.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Butler service

Ever wondered what it would be like to be a prominent aristocrat with a plethora of servants waiting on your every whim? In the land of Gundam suits and cat ears, truly anything is possible and last week I paid a visit to the Swallowtail butler cafe in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district.

The concept is that of an elegant coffee house where you are waited on by attractive young men in black-tie attire who attend to your every (coffee-related) whim. While similar establishments exist, including maid cafes, such is the popularity of Swallowtail that reservations have to be made weeks in advance for specific time slots. The exception to this is if you can jump on a cancelled reservation which appear with a couple of days notice. This latter technique (supported by a friend with excellent Japanese) was what we opted for and we deigned to take tea and cakes at our time slot of 11 am.

Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the cafe perhaps because they spoil the ambiance or maybe because it adds to the mystery of the place.  The inside of the cafe resembles an manor house styled dining room with small tables, generously spaced surrounded by high-backed padded wooden chairs. The menu consists of a large variety of teas, delicate finger sandwiches, quiches and pastries. Jen's selection arrived on a three-tiered platter whereas mine was an artfully arranged single plate.

The butlers moved around the room, pouring your tea, moving each plate in front of you (in the case of Jen's three-part situation) and escorting you to and from the restrooms (actually that was a little much, but the idea was great!). Upon making your reservation, you could select a phrase in which the butlers would bow you out with, such as "your carriage awaits". I know we selected a random choice for this, but forget which option we were waved away with!

After this, we went manga shopping whereupon I promptly wished we could have retained a butler to carry my bag.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The Ghibli Museaum in Mitaka, Tokyo is a centre dedicated to the Japanese anime produced by Studio Ghibli. Some of the most famous and beautiful anime films have come from Ghibli, including "My Neighbour Totoro", "Kiki's delivery service", "Howl's moving castle" & "Spirited away". The museum is immensely popular, so much so it is necessary to reserve tickets in advance but it is totally worth this effort.

The museum building is an adventure in itself, with winding metal staircases, stained glass windows featuring characters from the animes and a roof garden with a life-size sculpture of the robot from "Castle in the Sky". Cubby holes and low-roofed passages make this a great hands-on experience for children ... or at least they were probably the ones the designers had in mind rather than the adult Brit who managed to squish herself into pretty much all of them.

On the ground floor, a movie theatre showed a short Ghibli-made film and a second exhibit described the process of animation. This was one of my favourite parts in the museum. The room showed different techniques for animation, starting with physically moving models, then onto flip books and zoetropes (which I made in school!) before showing the effects of strobe lighting. The last one of these was demonstrated with a large wheel of models all in slightly different positions. The wheel started to spin fast, resulting in the figures blurring before your eyes until the strobe lighting was turned on. The wheel then appeared to stop and the models on it moved instead, jumping and skipping on the spot. It was truly incredible, even to someone familiar with the principals of animation.

Upstairs, displays showed further details in the making of anime, including a box that held almost 200,000 sheets of paper; the amount used in the making of a single movie. Overlooked tasks were highlighted, such as the work needed to make grass blow in the wind and scrap books of collected photographs showing water pumps and gabled roofs that are later included in the background sets.

On the topmost floor, the shop proved to be a dangerous place. I emerged with a large Totoro. May have to throw out lab books to accommodate it in my luggage.

Unfinished business

Standing at 3,776 m (12,388 ft), Mount Fuji or Fuji-san is the highest mountain in Japan and possibly the country's most famous icon (yes, even more than "Hello Kitty", can you believe?). Its perfect cone shape and flattened volcanic top makes it distinct from all the rugged mountain peaks surrounding it and about 180,000 people make this climb during the summer months each year.

The saying goes that you are wise to climb Fuji-san once, but a fool to climb it twice. I confess to thinking that such a saying did not bode well for the enjoyment of the experience. However, it clearly had to be done!

The traditional way to hike this route is to take a bus up to the 5th station at the half-way mark (2,300 m) and then climb up to the 8th station at around 3,200 m. At that point you wait until it is the middle of the night and then ascend the remaining 500 m to see daybreak at the summit. My friend and I decided to embrace conformity and the masses and signed on for a tour trip to do exactly this.

Even at the beginning of September, the very tail end of the season, the climb is a popular one and there were forty people on our tour bus and we were far from alone. 5th station is strongly reminiscent of a skiing village, with a handful of chalet-type buildings providing food, postcards and amenities clustered around a central square. From here, gate posts mark the entrance to the official climbing routes.

We set off from 5th station at around 11 am, having stayed for an hour adjusting to the altitude. As all good tourists, we purchased wooden sticks that served the duel nature of being a walking aid and a souvenir for which major check points en-route offered a branding service to mark off your altitude achievements.

The first part of the climb was easy going on wide trail routes but somewhat uninspiring. Clouds masked the view and the ground underfoot was gray volcanic rock. Maintenance work added caterpillar trucks and in many places, concrete structures had been placed to protect against falling rock and help preserve the path from the thousands of tourists traipsing along its length.

Upon reaching the 7th station (2,700 m), all this changed. Glancing behind me, I was greeted with a view that soared over the clouds, dwarfing even the other neighbouring mountain tops. It was suddenly easy to see why Fuji-san is considered a Holy Mountain; you genuinely feel you might be approaching the gods themselves. The climb also increased in difficulty. Between the 7th and 8th stations, the route became a rocky scramble where making like a wolf and using all four limbs became the way forward. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful so the rock under foot (and hand) was dry and sturdy.

While I normally would have balked at the prospect of walking in a large group, there were several advantages: The first was knowing you had the correct route. Balancing my stick between thumb and forefinger while I groped for a handhold might have had me in doubts that this really was the way to go if I'd been alone. The second was the easy pace our guide set, with multiple stopping points that allowed rest and water. Left to my own devices, I would probably have zoomed off faster and then paid for it later. Unfortunately, these breaks were not enough to prevent my friend getting altitude sickness and even the cans of oxygen we had scooped up at 5th station did not relieve the problem. I actually felt very well, which proves such things are just dumb luck.

The 8th stations at 3,200 m consists of a long bunk house with a small attached shop. Into this our group piled, as did many others as the evening went on. It was now between 3:30 - 4 pm and we were to stay put until 3 am before heading for the summit to watch the dawn at 5:30 am. Rest was recommended and beds in the form of huge long bunks were provided. Roughly ten people slept top and bottom in each bed which was .... cozy! Blankets were all shared, so there was no obvious space to mark out as your own, you just had to snuggle up with your best buddies that you almost certainly met for the first time 1000 m below.

Food, in the form of curry and rice, was provided and we were given strict warnings that the next stretch was going to be tough. At night the temperatures drop to below freezing, so waiting for people is not an option; we should therefore think carefully about whether we feel able to continue up to the summit. Sadly, I had to admit at this point that it did not look good for us. My friend had gone a nasty sour milk colour and I didn't like our chances of being reunited if I left her to head down alone come daybreak. We had until 3 am to decide, but I was bracing myself for knowing the summit was out of our reach this time.

By 2 am the whole question became academic; it had started to rain at 8th base which became snow further up, making the route impassable. We all had to head down at 5:30 am.

The gray mist prevented us seeing any kind of decent sunrise, but after 12 hours in a cramped bunk house I was just glad to be moving! Once on the path, the sun brightened and the rain lifted to a light drizzle allowing us to enjoy the view.

Hurray for sunshine!

An exclamation cut somewhat short by a ferocious gust of wind that knocked me clean off my feet. But there, it would have been boring if there were no challenges going down.

On the way back to Tokyo, our bus stopped at an onsen where we could strip off (all) our walking gear and soak in the hot springs. Closing my eyes in the hot water, I admitted it was a great shame not to have reached the summit of Fuji-san. Clearly, this was a sign I had to return to Japan and try again.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's all about the climb

Tomorrow, I wake at the crack of dawn and head off to conquer the highest peak in Japan; Mount Fuji.

This traditional night-time hike to see dawn break over the Land of the Rising Sun is said to be a not-to-miss adventure that everyone is glad they did .... in retrospect.

The actual act is supposed to be god awful.

My hope in posting this is that I'll be too embarrassed to return and admit I shacked up at a raman noodle bar at 8th base and never made the top.

Wish me luck. I may be some time.

A fishy business

In a country whose predominant food source is fish, it is perhaps no wonder that one of the main attractions is to visit Tsukiji Central Fish Market. The largest in the world, about 2246 tonnes of fish is unloaded fresh from the docks to be sold and auctioned here every day.

A visit to see this phenomenon requires an early start. The market closes completely at 1 pm, most of the action is done by 8 am and if you want to see the auctions (where it is not unheard of for a single tuna can fetch 20 million yen) you have to be there well before 5 am. Not being naturally the earliest of risers, myself and a friend set our alarm for 6 am and arrived sometime after 7 am.

While the outer market is easily found from the subway stop, finding the real heart of the fish market was not as obvious as we had hoped. In spite of this being a major tourist attraction, it is primarily a place of business and you have to walk through a chaos of trucks shuffling boxes to reach the right area. We were temporarily stymied before we tried the age-old technique of following other gaijin (foreigners) which, after avoiding being run over and looks of irritation that would have been shouted curses in any other country, let us tumble into the right area. All things considered, it is perhaps not surprising that tourists were once banned from visiting here; frankly, we were a damn nuisance (^.^).

The fish market itself is a vast collection of closely packed stalls with containers displaying fresh fish and seafood in hundreds of varieties. Tuna, octopus, crab, lobster, eel, shrimp, blowfish, squid, hundreds-of-things-I-couldn't-identify-but-would-try-given-half-the-chance were stacked to overflowing and cut up before our eyes. Some of the fish were so big the plastic used to transport the carcasses away in resembled body bags at a scene of a crime.

After taking our fill of the sights, we moved to the next traditional step in this trip of having a sushi breakfast. Restaurants close to the fish market do a thriving business in selling the extremely fresh fish to hungry visitors and we queued for about half an hour before getting a seat at the small bar. The sushi was incredible and we had a selection placed in front of us that was made from fish that was almost certainly alive and splashing only a few hours previously.

Yes; stupidly early but yes; stupidly worth it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Someone's calling ...

Since Japan's mobile phone network is too sophisticated to support neolithic western phones, I got myself a prepaid keitai (cell phone). By the time I decided that loosing all my friends at Shinjuku station was becoming wearing, I was only in Japan for another three months, so I opted for the cheapest phone available. This was a $50 samsung phone that (unlike the toilets) looks innocuous enough; a totally basic handset.

"So, what's your email address?"

Not the first question I was used to getting upon waving a new phone at somebody. I mean, I was all for it, I dislike making calls too, but sometimes having someone's number is useful.... no?

It transpires that all Japanese phones have their own email address. It's not that UK/American phones cannot also check your email, but it is an add-on feature that has a fairly hefty price tag associated with it. In Japan, however, you automatically get a number and email address and I can send and receive unlimited email for 300 Yen a month. That's $3, folks. I assume this is possible because the more sophisticated network allows significantly greater data traffic, so it's no problem for everyone to be emailing continuously. As a result, although my phone does SMS messages, it's an almost unused feature because people simply email texts.

In addition, my incredibly basic handset also displays exciting graphics when it gets an email (the text rolls along the screen and exclamation marks bounce out at you - yay for bounces!), has an infrared port to exchange numbers with someone, can do music and video and operates in both English and Japanese. I do miss predictive text, but typing in Japanese is fun.

The complete obsession Japanese have with their phones has led to two other phenomenon: Firstly, unlike in New York where the subway is the land of the dead, the underground stations in Japan all have reception. Secondly, everyone gets charms to hang off their phone on a hook that a wrist strap might go. Gift shops at temples and tourist sights inevitably sell a selection of these charms for people to collect. Currently, I have two "Hello Kitty" charms (that famous symbol of Japan), one from Gujo-Hachiman where the mouthless cat is performing the traditional steps from the Bon Dance festival and a second from Hakone where the cat is submerged in one of the black-shelled eggs cooked in the naturally sulfurous water there. I also have a small pot of gold from Hokkaido (the northern island in Japan) that a friend bought back for me.

It is also common to personalise your phone with rub-on stickers. Phone shops carry a wide range of designs to suit every taste. I chose a black cat with extra paw prints to walk around the phone's edge.

Riches, kitties, paw-prints and emails all on one $50 device. Calls are rather irrelevant really.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Come here often?

In addition to earthquakes and typhoons, Japan also enjoys being volcanically active. As compensation for the fact that you may be swept away at any moment by a steaming river of burning lava, the country is dotted with hot springs or onsens and bathing in them is a central part of Japanese culture.

My first experience of a Japanese onsen was (and I quote) a "hot springs amusement park" in Hakone, just outside Tokyo. The description, while crude, is rather accurate since the baths were divided into two sections: the "amusement park" section and the traditional baths. In the former, there were a series of medium sized public hot pools that took on a variety of flavours. You could bath in red wine, green tea, sake, charcoal, salt or (rather unpleasantly after the hot water) iced candy. In each case, the baths contained diluted forms of their theme and at certain hours were topped up with their main product. We saw a huge wine bottle being tipped into the red wine bath but just missed seeing the coffee added to the one next door.

After dipping ourselves in all available ingredients, we moved to the traditional section of the baths. These were relaxing, low lit areas with a number of plain hot baths both inside and out.

You were also entirely naked.

In fact, I expected to feel far less comfortable than I did. These traditional onsen are single sex and since they are the most common kind in Japan, no one makes a big deal about the lack of a bathing suit. In Japanese culture, such places are supposed to be ideal for breaking down class barriers, since you could be bathing next to a business executive or a truck driver, there is no way to know.

Upon entering the onsen, you shower and carry a small hand towel (almost completely useless for women, incidentally, since we have two disconnected areas one would ideally like to cover) which you place on your head (or somehow out of the water) when you enter the bath.

Tatoos are also completed banned at onsen, so unless you can cover it up, you can't bath if you've got ink. A friend mentioned to me that this is likely due to the affiliation between tattoos and the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

Naturally, being Japan, even a naked bath has to contain a level of futuristic technology. In this case, it was in the form of wrist bands which open your locker with one swipe near its detector, lock it again with another and can be used to buy food, drink (apparently milk is the way to go after the baths), massages, fish-that-eat-your-feet and so on, while you are in the onsen. Afterward, you drop the wristband into a machine which detects how much you owe and provides you with an exit card to swipe on your way out.

Who'd have guessed even a naked bath in a naturally heated pool could be upgraded?

Friday, September 4, 2009

The end of civilization

Unfortunately, the world is about to be destroyed by giant robots. Well, really, it was only a matter of time. Naturally, they started in Japan. I took photos (hey, I'm a serious tourist, doncha know?).

The official story for the gigantic earth-destroying mechanical monster standing in Odaiba (location of all terrible things, such as that 'Hello Kitty' Ferris wheel) claims it's a monument marking 30 years of the Japanese anime, Gundam. Rather like unfolded transformers, these robots are actually suits which contain a human pilot, enabling him to go out and fight .... really big shit.

The model was really rather large and every hour dry ice poured out around its feet and jet pack, the eyes lit up and the head turned. You could also walk underneath it (because I know you all wanted that image; apparently no gundam children for you).

Supposedly, it was also possible to buy a small model of the model that was a model of the anime... my head hurts.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Most things about Japanese food I have down. I walk into a supermarket, choose what looks good, go to the checkout and say "hai (yes)" to whatever they ask me. Occasionally, there is a slightly surprising occurrence whereby food gets heated and sometimes I acquire a pair of disposable chopsticks, but regardless I escape with my dinner and head home. The eating of said dinner I am ALL about. I have liked almost everything I have tried in Japan from octopus to mochi and am thinking of proposing marriage to my rice cooker. Finally, I'm done, I wash up and .... throw out the trash.

At this last, innocent step, my entire grasp of Japanese culture breaks down and I am left a horrified foreigner. Since space is a high commodity in Japan, garbage is divided into (at least) three sections: "burnable", "non-burnable" and "recycling". Items for each category go in different coloured bin bags and are collected on different days. The problem comes from knowing which items go in which bag:

A pair of wooden disposable chop sticks? Ok, surely burnable.
A dead battery? Definitely non-burnable. Fear my Physics degree.
How about a waxed juice container? ... Probably burnable.
The plastic wrap I had my sandwich in? ... it doesn't look burnable...

This is a large problem since the Japanese like their wrapping. I was presented with a vacuum packed potato shortly after arriving here and it took me ten minutes to release an apple I had bought from a store as a snack. In fact, the situation is even worse that I originally thought. Upon discussing the topic with friends, I received the helpful reply:

"Oh, well, it depends on the incinerator your district has."

Apparently, some incinerators can burn plastic and some cannot. You just gotta know. This has left me with the task of smuggling my garbage out late at night to surreptitiously stuff it in the apartment complexes bins and hope that no one sees me. The Japanese are serious about rubbish. Allegedly, if you leave your trash unsorted outside your house, your neighbours will return it to your door step for you to do properly.

I am wondering if plastic cannot be eaten. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Japanese Home

A bonus of travelling to Gujo-Hachiman for the Bon Festival was the chance to see a town outside Tokyo and (a somewhat more nerve racking venture) inside a Japanese family home.

Gujo-Hachiman is a small town north of Nagoya, a large city south-east of Tokyo. It is set in idyllic surroundings, buried in the heart of the mountains with a river running through its center. Carp fill the streams and the water is pure and drinkable. Drinking fountains in the form of pumps and waterwheels sit on every corner. It is also famous for manufacturing the plastic food that is on display in nearly every restaurant window in Japan. Inside one shop, a demonstration of this process was underway while in another corner variations on the usual display food were for sale, including a spilled bowl of noodles and a rice plate with beetles on it. The postboxes (far right photo) are an unnatural union between a British postbox and an American fire hydrant.

Being invited into a person's home in Japan is quite an honour and I was downright terrified of doing something horribly wrong. However, the friend-of-friend's family who we stayed with were extremely friendly and had their two small grandchildren staying with them as well. Kids, I concluded, were the same somewhat barbaric creations wherever they were from. However, it was hard not to be impressed when the five year old approached me and said in clear English "My name is Masaki". She then fled, leaving her three year old sibling, Yuki (gender indeterminable), to offer me a pair of mouse ears.

Like everywhere in Japan, shoes are removed before entering a home. In this traditional styled house, rush mats covered the floor and we sat on cushions around a low table. The walls are all panels that can be slid or removed to make a single giant room, or put in place to divide the house up into different areas. That night, we slept on futons, although they were the slim kind that can be stored easily for guests and I did not see what the family usually used. The shower room was separate from the toilet and did not have a tray but rather fed down to a drain on the floor.

As way of thanks for the hospitality, we brought a gift of sweets to which I added a picture frame I had bought in Florida. The giving of gifts is an important act in Japan and I had brought a number of small items with me to give away for just such occasions. As far as I could tell, it went down ok.

The family's kindness extended to a generous amount of food, most of which I was now familiar with. At the end of the meal, we were all given a plate for dessert.

"You will need to show Elizabeth how to eat this. She will not have had it before."

I looked down at my plate to see an innocent slice of watermelon there.

"S'ok," I assured my friend. "I've got this one covered."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dance to your ancestors

The Bon Dance festival or "Day of the Dead" is a Japanese Buddhist event in which people honour the spirits of their ancestors. Many Japanese travel to their family home during this time and party the night away performing traditional dances in yukatas or, in some cases, shorts and luminous mouse ears (hey, I'm just telling what I saw!).

Tradition has it that during this time, the spirits of the deceased return to earth and lanterns are lit to help guide their way back to the family shrines. Having said that, the Japanese I spoke to seemed somewhat vague on the details and more focussed on the food and dancing.

The festivities last for several nights, but at the festival I attended in Gujo-Hachiman, only over the weekend did the dancing continue until 5 am, on other nights that week it stopped at 11 pm (for I imagine, fairly obvious reasons). The dances are performed in the street in what would be a circle, but is more oval due to the restrictions of the road. I confess to being a hopeless dancer, but the steps were simple and repetitive and even I got the hang on most of them in the end. Stalls similar to those you'd find in a fair ground sold toffee (caramel) apples and toffee grapes (!), fish on a stick (top right photo, I knew you wouldn't believe me) and takoyaki or grilled octopus (very yummy - trust me).

For this event, a friend's mother helped me with my yukata and the tying of my obi. An efficient Japanese woman, it was quite some time after we had arrived home that I was able to extract myself from its embrace.