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.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Surreptitious camera-phone picture while queuing for the ladies restrooms at a motorway service station this weekend. Yes, there is indeed a urinal just off to the left, hidden from view at this angle by a low panel. Can I just say:


What sort of female has the ability to use a urinal, especially with the sort of projection advertised by that sign?! I can only think of three possibilities:

1. Transsexuals.

2. Individuals in possession of a she pee device. (I come from the home of the Glastonbury festival. I make no apologies for knowing about this creation).

3. Small male children there with mothers.

In the former case, is it really likely that you would want to demonstrate your anatomy to a long line of women with their legs crossed, especially when the men's restroom inevitably has no queue? I'm thinking not so much, even more so if you are trying to forget your born gender.

The second case would work, but are such inventions really so wide spread that its worth installing a urinal in a public ladies toilet?

As to the third... well, the figure is drawn in pink.

The mind, quite frankly, boggles.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Shake, rattle and roll

Sunday evening found me sprawled on my bed reading when suddenly my mattress started to shake. Well, I had to hand it to my neighbours. It was only 8 in the evening and they must have been at it like rabbits to make the bed vibrate ... and the desk ... and the TV stand and ... hmm, unless they were mounting rhinos I concluded there had to be an alternative explanation.

Welcome to my new word of the week じしん (jishin), earthquake!

The following day I discussed geological forces with my friends at work. They told me that there were earthquake safe spots where people were encouraged to gather. Unlike the hurricane shelters I had seen in Florida which tended to be sturdy school buildings, earthquake safe zones are areas of open space where nothing can fall on you. The observatory where I work is one such spot due to its specious campus.

"But how do you know when to go there?" I asked.

"Well," I was told. "You wait for the first quake to pass. Ideally get under a desk or table in case something falls on you. Then if a larger shake is likely to follow, you move to a safe zone."

"... how do I know if a larger quake is coming?" I enquired, bewildered.

There was a short conversation in Japanese and then my friend went to fetch her Japanese -> English electronic dictionary. She bashed in the phrase and I looked over her shoulder for the translation.

Sixth sense.

Gee, thanks. Early this morning I got to put my new theories into practice when a larger quake shook me awake at around 6 am. I waited, listening to my apartment complex. As far as I could tell, no one was moving. This was only moderately reassuring since the Japanese are so well organised I could quite easily see everyone sneaking out the complex without making a sound. However, it was early, I'd been up late and well ... fuck earthquakes. I went back to sleep.

I was reassured later that at times when people are supposed to move to safe zones, electronic speakers on the street announce warnings to flush people out of their homes.

At lunch today I asked whether it was likely that there would be more quakes coming.

"Well, we've had two so...."

.... so? That's probably it? They'll be another fifty? I still have no idea.

Despite being only mildly inconvenienced by the earthquakes (and actually finding the concept downright exciting), the quake this morning proved to have been relatively large. Although few people were injured, the major Tomei national expressway out of Tokyo has been damaged, right before the major national holidays.

Japan, mother nature does not think you've been good boys and girls this year.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Guerilla rain

Tokyo in summer has a similar feel to it as Florida; it's hot and humid with dark storm clouds that periodically collect above your head to dump their contents on your sandwich. (Yes, I felt it was aimed).

One such downpour found me mercifully on a bus with a friend as we set off in search of dinner. I indicated the dripping scene outside the window. "Ame," I helpfully provided. Rain.

"Yes," my friend agreed. "We call this kind of rain guerrilla rain."

I looked blank.

"Guerrilla," she repeated. "I am sure this is an English word."

Guerrilla? Gorilla? Neither giant chimps nor terrorists made a whole lot of sense here. The rain was not furry with a perchance for bananas and neither did it (fortunately) appear to be armed with guns.

Later on at the restaurant with the rain still hammering down outside, we remembered this inquiry and a third member of our group drew out his electronic Japanese to English dictionary.

"Guerrilla," he showed me the word.

"It is because it comes unexpectedly," my friend told me. "Like an attack." She viewed her empty sake glass. "I am sorry, I am drunk. I cannot explain further."

And that was the end of that~