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.