Friday, December 30, 2011

I see dead people

It is a strange fact that the best people to visit in Delhi are dead. Since Hindu death rituals involve cremation, rather than burial, only the tombs of India's Islamic rulers survive as monuments to its history. Oddly, there are very few examples of palaces for these ancient rulers with even the Taj Mahal --India's most famous landmark-- being a mausoleum built for the third wife of the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. One is forced to conclude that each ruler dedicated his time to building the most magnificent resting place possible, while camped at the construction site in a degradable mud hut.

The fee to entre the main tourist sites around India is two tiered, with the fee for foreigners typically over a factor of ten higher than that for Indians. Still, even with this discrepancy, the cost was not unreasonable being typically 250 rupees or about $5. (The Taj Mahal was the high exception at 750 rupees for foreigners but then... it was the Taj Mahal). I didn't feel this difference was unfair, since maintenance of these buildings must be fairly phenomenal yet a single price would mean most locals couldn't enjoy their own city. My friend pointed out the only possible problem would be for visitors from countries such as Sri Lanka, whose economy was weaker than India's own. Possibly, the solution would be for them to claim to be local. With 1,652 mother tongues recorded in the Indian 1961 census, it would be hard to prove otherwise.

We started our exploration of India's great dead at the Qutub Minar: a tower 72.5 meters high made of red sandstone with decorative elements reflecting both Islamic and Hindu styles. Its construction was begun by the first Sultan of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din Aibak in 1192 and completed by his slave-turned-son-in-law and third Sultan, Iltutmish (and you thought America was the land of opportunity). The latter's tomb is in the same complex along with a few other Sultan's.

From there, we moved onto Lodi Gardens where multiple tombs from the 15th century lie in extensive gardens where families were picnicking and other... uh, soon-to-be-families... were doing slightly more than picnicking. Like in Chile, children in India typically live with their families until marriage, making the possibility of 'getting a room' rather slim. Also like Chile, there are stray, but friendly, dogs everywhere. Woof.

Next we visited Emperor Humayun's tomb, commissioned in 1562 by the Emperor's wife. Not only does this vast building contain the impressive resting place of the above mentioned deceased, but its plinth houses a further fifty-six cells in which rest over 100 other gravestones. Slightly strangely, these hangers-on are not all neatly stashed away inside the rooms but a select few seem randomly dropped outside the door as if left there by mistake. I suggested this was laziness on behalf of the people charged to do the burying while my friend opted for a building error like in 'Sim City' where you mistakenly place objects with an accidental click of a mouse button.

Some tombs, like the one above, were built by the grieving loved ones of the deceased as either a loving memorial or out of desire to maintain their own status. More tombs, however, were built by their owner during his lifetime. This seems a somewhat morbid occupation for a king, and doubly odd since no sign of where he might have lived in life survives.

The one exception to this is the Red Fort in Delhi. Outside, it appears to be a stronghold in red sandstone but, rather like a cream filled chocolate, once through its forbidding walls you reach an area of extravagant pleasure in white marble. Built in the 17th century, it was the residence of the royal family, with open walled buildings through which waterways ran. Clearly, one was suppose to laze by the pool side and.... think about the tomb you wanted to construct.

[Top image, clockwise from top left: the Qutub Minar, Lodi gardens, the Red Fort in Delhi and Humayun's tomb]

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


We were at one of the main tourist sites of Delhi and I was being mauled by children.


"Take my photo!"

"And me!"

"Us! Us!"

It was good that my friend had warned me this might happen or I might have suspected such enthusiasm was a distraction to lift my purse; not an uncommon occurrence in parts of southern Europe. However, these children genuinely wanted to say hello to the foreigner, shake hands and have their photo taken. Some of them approached shyly in ones and twos and held out their hand with a polite 'hello', but others decided numbers were the key and surrounded me in an excited bubble.

"These are not private schools," my friend explained. "Their families are not so well off so they might not have seen a camera many times before."

I was surprised by this since the children were all dressed in immaculate uniforms that looked better than most of the private schools at home. There were several different schools visiting this site today, with the group currently accosting me wearing western-style white shirts and dark blue sweaters. Another group that were due to jump me in about 3 minutes wore white shalwar kameez --traditional dress consisting of loose trousers covered with a thigh-length tunic-- and a burgundy school sweater over the top.

Presentation, my friend explained, is important in Indian schools and there are monitors appointed to check the children arrive dressed neatly.

It was still impressive. To me, white trousers and a day trip did not equal long standing aesthetic bliss but apparently India manages it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Things never to be experienced

"I finally got confirmation of your room reservation this morning." The friend I was visiting in India told me once we has piled into an airport taxi. "If I hadn't, I would have had to put you in my friend's room but... then you would have had to deal with the toilets."

"I'm sure I could have managed." I told her with cheerful bravado.

"No." She shook her head adamantly. "Some things should not be experienced."

Probably best not to over think that one.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

India welcomes clean people

"We will now begin a disinfectant spray. This is government regulations."

I straightened from the slumped position in my seat that I had gradually sunk into during the flight connection from Hong Kong to Delhi. Sprayed?! What was the implication here? I had showered that morning! Admittedly, given the length of the flight from Sapporo and the different time zones, 'that morning' was a slightly vague concept but I was clean! Probably.

(I was to learn later that no one would think this was true, since there was a belief in India that people from cold countries didn't bother washing nearly as much as they should.)

Flight attendants started to walk down the aisles holding three smoking canisters that resembled the cockroach bomb I had used in my apartment in New York. This unfortunate analogy didn't help my feeling of affrontation. The smell from the smoke was sickly sweet and those with contact lenses were advised to close their eyes. I coughed.

It amused me that such precautions were necessary for India; a country whose big cities battled against congested traffic and pollution. In fact, it seemed more the sort of precaution that Japan might introduce. I hoped no one suggested it to them.

Oddly, the same de-roaching process was repeated on the way out. Seemingly, not only was it forbidden to remove the currency from the country but also any top secret germs you might have stolen while in residence.

However, for now it was over and with a bump, we had landed in India. One plane of squeaky clean passengers safe for admission.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Slippery grips

I have discovered the all-time greatest invention in the world.

... if you live in a snow filled city with an ethos that suggests snowploughs are for the weak.

It is true that the heaps of powdery white flakes in Sapporo interspersed with trees covered in Christmas lights have a story book beauty. But no Disney princess ever stepped outside to slide across the street on her backside and break every bone in her skinny body. After a month of snow, I concluded that this was the most unrealistic part of fairy tales; Cinderella should have attended the ball on crutches and the Sleeping Beauty laid in traction on her bed.

The main roads through Sapporo are scrapped by snowploughs yet, compared to Canada, still seem buried for a large part of the day. I'm unsure whether this is a reflection of the relative quantities of snow in Sapporo versus Toronto or a nature-produced traffic calming measure encouraged by the Hokkaido government.

Pavements, by contrast, are not cleared at all. There is no obligation by home owners to clear the walkway in front of their house and --with the exception of the fronts of some businesses or apartment complexes-- the snow mounts up to form a bumpy slick causeway.

There isn't an easy solution to this. While I lived in Canada, I was legally obliged to clear the pavement around my apartment. This was a good (if tedious) idea in principal, but I often found that the thin layer of ice that would appear a minute after clearing was more deadly to traverse than the snow. Indeed, the hardest area on which to walk in Sapporo are the clearer roads which often are covered in black ice. Typically, within this category, the most treacherous surface are the white lines of the pedestrian crossing; a fact that makes me convinced all the city officials go to the southern island of Kyushu over the winter.

Work has become a dangerous expedition. Lunch, doubly so.

Then I saw the solution. Hanging up in the University's bookstore were a pair of crampon-esque attachments. Consisting of studs affixed to a rubber strap, these snap over the soles of your shoes to provide a better grip on snow covered surfaces. Amazingly, not only do they fit my shoes easily, they also make a significant difference, halving the time it now takes me to get anywhere in the city.

Admittedly, there is not much that can help you with ice on roadways, but for the slippery snow piles on the pavements they are unbeatable.

I was so much in love with this clothing addition, I've brought them to India. You can NEVER TELL when you might need such items. Armageddon? Bring it on.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Covering options

In preparation for my trip next week, I needed to buy travel insurance. Since I would be away from Japan for almost three months in total, health coverage was my primary concern along with an extra boost in case one of my 101 connecting flights left me checking airport vending machines for a turkey Christmas dinner.

Hokkaido University sold such insurance packages and so on Thursday afternoon, I skidded across to the appropriate building. With me, I towed one of my friends to act as a translator, all the while assuring her that buying travel insurance was first class practice for writing her thesis, the draft of which was due the following week.

At the appropriate desk, we examined the brochure of options. My type of trip had a choice of three different packages for coverage. Each of these included a set amount for health costs, lost luggage, missed flight and --on a cheerful note-- compensation for death by illness and death by wounding.

The first three of these categories had different maximum amounts, depending on the option you selected. This was all good and understandable; depending on the number of flight
connections you would make, the value of your luggage and your
propensity for tightrope walking without a safety harness, you might
want more or less coverage in these areas. What was rather more perplexing was that while 'death by illness' had the same fixed amount in all cases, you could select different sums for 'death by wounding'.

Now, let us think about the thought process that must go into such a decision. Presumably, it starts as follows:

"Hmm. Yes, it is rather likely I will be stabbed to death in a dark alleyway on this visit."

OK, there are probably circumstances in which such a conclusion is inevitable. However, SURELY most people would CANCEL THEIR TRIP as opposed to thinking:

"I better take out the extended coverage for death by knifing in dark alleyways."

But no! Apparently, there are a whole class of people who, faced with probable death by violent homicide, consider the prudent course of action to take out more insurance.


I kept to the basic level of insurance for this nicety and pocketed the extra cash. Then I spent it. That's how to live, people.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cutting it fine

One morning I looked in the mirror and realised something profound:

I looked like a hedgehog.

For me, the state of my hair is a step function; everything is just fine until EXPLODING SPINY HEDGEPIGS! It's really not. This is probably more a reflection of my tolerance level than the actual process of hairstyle degradation but then, I only got furniture a couple of weeks ago so I think I can be forgiven for having my mind on other matters.

There was also the fact that I could see a trip to the salon going horribly and awfully wrong. For a start, I wasn't yet at the stage where I could have a remotely useful conversation about such a topic in Japanese. I knew the word for 'cut' and for 'hair' but that much was probably deducible from my presence in the shop. I suspected that, even with a photo, any hairdresser would feel anxious about wielding items with (quickly) irreversible effects without more than optimistic finger snipping motions from their client. 

Then there was the fact that my hair wasn't typical of the local population. Quite how different Asian and Western hair was for a stylist was a mystery. I wouldn't have thought my hair was particularly tricky; it has a slight wave and a cowslick but it's not a pile of tight ringlets. Still, since I had yet to meet the Japanese pop star of my dreams, I hadn't had the opportunity to run my fingers through other locks to find out.

Being as it was the beginning of December, I could have gritted my teeth for another few weeks and just had it cut in the UK. However, this did not really seem like a long-term solution. Instead, I sent a message to a fellow Sapporo blogger who was originally from South Africa. She had an inviting button on her website labelled 'Ask' which was probably designed to instigate insightful questions such as 'What are your views on the Japanese economy?' or 'Is teaching abroad challenging?' or maybe 'Do you miss zebras?'. What she got from me was 'Do you know of an English speaking hairdresser in Sapporo?' Mundane but oh, what an amazingly affirmative answer! I made an appointment the following weekend and a mental note to ask about zebras later.

Rie from 'Earth' salon trained in London and had lived there for ten years. She was therefore fluent in English, used to Western hair and knew some aspects of the Japanese hairdressing experience would take me by surprise. Like the fact they cover your face with a towel while they wash your hair. Had she not warned me, I might have taken that rather personally.

After the shampoo came a massage. This wasn't just a scalp rub during the wash, but a head, neck and shoulder kneading that lasted about ten minutes. To be honest, I wasn't wearing the best sweater for this; it was a thick white fleece that the girl performing the massage declared was 'fuwa-fuwa', a Japanese onomatopoeia (read: peculiar sound) used for all things furry.

"Have you heard of Reiki?" Rie asked me when she returned. "People say it's Japanese, but we've never heard of it! Reiki?" she asked the girl massaging my shoulders. She got a completely blank look in return. "See?"

Rie took over and began to cut my hair. "When I first moved to London," she told me. "I was too scared to go to a salon because I didn't speak English at the time. Did you feel the same?"

... was there something about my current hair style that suggested the answer to this might be yes?

Rie told me that not only is Asian hair a very different texture from my own Caucasian strands but also the head shape is distinct, being typically flatter at the back. This makes the cut a significantly tailored process. She took a brief note of my photo but then went her own direction, sweeping my hair towards the front. I went slightly cross-eyed as a lock fell between by eyes. She gave it a trim.

"Your hair doesn't want to fall in a parting, it wants to go in a swirl."

I hoped this wasn't a new bodily commentary about the state of my life.

At the end of the cut, I was offered another rinse, but since everything had been beautifully styled I declined. Peaking in the mirror on the way out, I thought the result was slightly Asian.... you know, in a blond haired, blue eyed, pointy nosed sort of way. Maybe it will help with my language skills. Beats talking to a hedgehog in any case.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Silver & Rupees

Banks in Japan have not yet taken to the notion of convenient opening hours. This includes CitiBank which, despite being a branch of an American business, has hours only between 9am and 3pm, Monday to Friday.

It was therefore Friday lunchtime when I slipped my way along the snow-packed street to see if I could acquire some Indian rupees for my trip in two weeks.

The answer was no.

But the woman at the branch did give me a map, directing me to the location of a currency exchange two blocks further south. Sliding along the ice and thinking this was almost thick enough for skates, I arrived at the "Travelex" kiosk, which was hidden inside a different bank, tucked out of sight of the entrance between the ATM and toilets, as if it were rather an embarrassing act to want to change Japanese Yen for any other currency.

Given the current state of the Euro, I could see where they were coming from.

"I'd like to exchange Yen for Indian rupees," I told the lady at the counter.

She checked her computer system, but then shook her head. "I'm sorry, we do not offer Indian rupees."

"... Can you not order them?" I could understand not having all currencies in stock, but surely they could be acquired.

Again she shook her head. "We do not offer them," she repeated. "I have Indonesian rupiah."

I appreciated the effort at a compromise, but unfortunately this was going to be an area where I stubbornly stuck to my original request quite beyond all reason.

"I really need Indian rupees," I persisted. "Since I'm going to India."

"Ah," the woman nodded as if agreeing this would be a problem. "You cannot get them in Japan."

No where in Japan?! I didn't quite know what to say to such blanket authority so I thanked her and left. It was only when I was half way back to campus (this taking a considerable period of time due to the weather) that I remembered reading on the website for 'The Rough Guide' that rupees were not supposed to be taken out of India. The guide had focussed on visitors with spare change and had said that, while this rule was not strictly enforced, there were currency exchanges at the airport for this reason. It had not occurred to me before now that such a rule would prevent me taking out cash in advance.

This wasn't a particular problem; since I was travelling to Delhi, any major bank in the city would likely accept either cash or credit card.

Clearly, this was just simply a case where it doesn't pay to be too organised. Literally.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hello home!

I sat on the corner of my bed and debated whether I was pleased that I had understood the last twenty minutes of the moving men's Japanese conversation or disturbed that it had consisted solely of the phrases:

"This is difficult, isn't it?"


"Dangerous, dangerous!"

How the movers had got my office desk into the elevator was to be a mystery for all time. Later, when the movers went back to the truck to collect more boxes, I sneaked out of my apartment and took a look down the hallway. As far as I could see, the lift was unaltered. Maybe, like the Harry Potter Room of Requirement, such feats could only be achieved in times of dire need. Such as when the alternative was nine flights of outdoor concrete steps in a snow storm.

Now though, the desk was wedged between my doorway and the bathroom as it was inched painstakingly around the two right angle bends into my main room. The walls, floors and fitted cupboards had all been covered with thick protective paper. My online dictionary had informed me that string had just been called for, possibly to reattach the fingers of the mover who had just shouted 'dangerous!'.

I was promptly seized by a strong desire to use the toilet.

Instead, I decided to live blog the entire proceeding on Facebook.

Then, two amazing events occurred. The first was that the desk was in my apartment and no one had died. The second was that it was a perfect fit for the alcove by my window. It could have been made for it... by a different architect to the one who had designed the entrance way. The fit was so snug that it wasn't possible for the person lifting the back of the desk to escape once it was in place. Personally, I would have got the desk near enough and pushed, but this was evidently not the slap-dash solution that was acceptable in Japan. Instead, one of the movers backed into the corner and then climbed out through the window onto the balcony, returning through the patio doors.

... then they realised they hadn't put the metal feet back on the desk.

Back the man climbed, the feet fitted and the desk lifted back into position. I could really only gape in admiration. After this came the bookcases, the desk chair, the dresser and boxes and boxes of books.

"I like books," I told the men cheerfully in Japanese.

If I were honest, I'd say the resulting laughter was rather dry.

I sat on my bed with the list of boxes I had been given in Canada. As each new box came in, one of the movers shouted the number out in English. I repeated it in Japanese and we both ticked it off our lists.

There was something slightly odd about that, but I didn't have time to dwell on it.

Finally, everything was in my apartment apart from the sofabed which seemed to be taking 5 in the hallway. Then the men started opening the boxes.

They were going to unpack. Seriously?!


I suppose since the company in Canada had packed, unpacking was part of the service but I was still taken by surprise. Not that I was about to complain; possibly the greatest part of this would be that the movers would take away all the empty boxes. In a place where my trash was already sorted into seven different containers, I did not relish the prospect of dealing with all the cardboard.

One of the men lifted up a collection of small books and studied the covers for a moment. "Japanese," he said in surprise. "Tenisu no Oujisama."

"Echizen Ryoma." Another of the other movers volunteered the progenitor's name in the series.

Oh guys, you have only just touched on my obsession here. Wait until you find the other comics, the CD singles and the fan-made, explicitly drawn, doujinshi manga...

... actually, I should probably find that first. Grabbing a likely looking box, I ripped off the tape.

In another box, my astrophysics texts had been found. One of the men lifted up the copy of "An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics" with two hands and an expression that said he'd found the reason he wasn't going to be able to walk tomorrow morning.

"Tenmongaku," I said cheerfully. "Astronomy."

"Hn," came the disgruntled answer.

My queen-sized duvet had become the flattened size of a pillow during its three months of captivity. I fluffed it about and then left it in a corner to think about air.

Finally (now there was some floor space) the sofabed was guided into position and --just for that final mind blowing effort-- one of the movers polished the floor with a cloth in case he had left a mark. It was doubtful he had; before they started the agonising process of getting the desk into the apartment, all the movers had politely taken off their shoes. Only in Japan.

Japan is a totally non-tipping culture. You don't leave extra money in restaurants, taxis or bars. Nevertheless, these movers had done an extraordinary job and I would have liked to give them something. I dug out my computer from under the inflating duvet and sent out a quick message to a Japanese friend:

"Can I tip?"

She wrote back, "You don't have to, but you can if you think they were really good."

I glanced over at the desk. Hell yes.

As the men prepared to leave, I handed one of the movers a small pile of notes. He stepped back in refusal but took them when I tried to explain that I thought their work had been amazing. Hopefully this means that tipping was OK and not that I have condemned him to a life of HARDSHIP, PAIN and MISERY while he tries to explain the extra income to his boss, his wife and his particularly accusatory pet dog.

Then they were gone. I moved from the cushion on the floor to the sofa and examined the contents of the room. Ooh, hello snowboots, how I've missed you!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The times they are a-changin'

There is a saying among the Japanese that Japan is the only country to have four seasons.

Obviously, this is complete crap

... and yet ...

There is no denying that Japan pays some serious dues to the turning of the year. The most famous seasonal change is the fleeting appearance of the cherry blossoms heralding the arrival of spring. These pink and white delicate delights deck the trees for no more than a few weeks, but are probably more photographed during their brief lifetime than Britain’s newly wed royal couple.

Prior to this year, Autumn for me had been that drawn-out wet interval between summer and winter in which I stopped considering myself dressed without a sweater. At some point during that period, the tree leaves would change colour and and fall, leaving their hosts standing around like forgotten clothes racks for months on end.

In Sapporo, it turned out to be quite impossible not to fully appreciate the spectacular foliage.

This was because every man and his dog was on campus, taking photographs with giant zoom lenses. It was stop or be penetrated in a place that would give both you and the would-be viewers of the picture collection a nasty surprise.

To be fair, the colours were amazing. I am unsure whether it was to do with the number of trees, the fact they were all deciduous or if the range of hue was just particularly large. Trees with bark that appeared almost black were donned with leaves in a uniform deep red. Along one of the main roads, more trees in orange, yellows and pale greens tangled their branches in a mix that gave me an unnatural urge[*] to decorate my entire apartment like a pumpkin. There were areas away from the road where the leaves had been allowed to collect in a carpet of rust and gold; the ultimate honey trap for the visiting photographers.

On my less amenable days when my focus was lunch, not leaves, I did think it was a pity that said leafy ball pens couldn’t be booby-trapped to superglue all the visitors in one place and out of my way. However, their cameras did look passingly like rifles and, given the convenience of Japanese technology, it was probably best not to risk anything.

"Snow next week." I was told grimly when I finally escaped the heaving Nikon mass to reach the department.

Feh, snow! The start of winter is never exciting. Rain that you have to squint sideways at to see that it's actually slush, not even a dusting of white on the pavement. The only disappointment is the likelihood of it knocking the leaves prematurely from the trees.

I woke up on the morning of the expected snowfall and looked out of my window.

Bam. Goodbye Autumn. Hello Winter.

Is this unusual?” I asked my friends once I had bundled on all the clothes I had brought with me from Canada and skidded into work. “Shouldn’t there be.... well... a gap between the height of Autumn and that of Winter?

Actually, the snow is kind of late this year,” came the reply.

"But...." I protested. "They'll be a mix of days? Some snow, then warm then..."

I received blank looks in return.

No, it is now winter. Get with the program.

[*] No one would has seen me wield a paintbrush would consider such an endevour a good idea.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The beauty of tea

teaThere were two handle-less cups in front of me. One was an emerald green on the outside but white within. It was empty apart from a few dregs of damp green leaves stuck to its bottom. The second, wider cup, was made of porcelain in a light brown with leaves etched onto its surface. It held a freshly brewed black tea. Transferring my attention to this more promising item, I lifted the cup by pressing both sets of fingers to its rim and sipped.

"Did we need to change cups?" the woman sitting beside me inquired to our host, a Japanese lady who was the librarian in the Physics department. She had kindly invited me and the other female foreign professor in the department to her house for dinner. We had eaten nabe; a dish in which multiple foods are cooked in boiling water on a portable stove placed at the centre of the table. Our nabe had contained chicken, scallops, tofu and noodles. Removing chicken from the bone with chopsticks while trying to maintain the very greatest of manners was not easy. I wasn't totally sure I had succeeded. Still, no one had reacted in horror and thrown me off the balcony and some days, you have to consider that a success.

We had now moved onto tea, an area where I felt far more confident. I was British after all. The British understand tea.

I had presumed that we had been offered clean cups because the tea blend had changed. I personally would have been happy using the same container, but there was a delicateness to the way our host had added boiling water to a jug before dividing it perfectly between the three cups that suggested such reuse would be a crime against nature.

Our host however, shook her head. "There is no rule," she told us. "But green tea looks best when it is in a cup with a white interior." She indicated the pale ceramic of the empty vessels on the table. This elicited a nod of deep understanding from the other professor.

If I was strictly honest, I couldn't see much of a difference in shade between the inside of my first cup and the one I was holding now. This probably suggested I was barbarically uncultured. I examined my tea. This in itself was a strange act.

Rising from the table, our host opened a cabinet that seemed to contain a wide variety of different crockery. She held out a red cup. "This would be bad for red tea," she told us. "But good for coffee."

I sadly concluded I did not in fact understand tea. There was a whole school of aesthetics that our brown teapot at home had never fully epitomized.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

In defense of tomorrow

"What is the meaning of this Kanji?" Our teacher highlighted two Chinese characters on the sheet being projected to the screen in front of us. One looked a bit like a flower. The other, like a child's climbing frame.

"らいねん," we volunteered as a class. "Next year."
来年 rai-nen.

"And this one?"

The flower was still there but the climbing frame had been replaced by a broken ladder with the bottom-most rung twisted free.

"らいげつ," we replied. "Next month."
来月 rai-getsu.

"How about this one?"

Again, the same flower but now alongside a small chest of drawers.

"らいにち," we started confidently and then paused. "… next day?"
来日 rai-nichi.

"In this case," our teacher explained. "日 (nichi) is understood as if it were 日本 (nihon), Japan. So it means: 'coming to Japan'."

There was a silence as we took this in.

"…. why doesn't it mean 'next day'…?" asked someone at last.
a.k.a. Defend your language, Japanese person!

Our teacher paused. "Well, what is the Japanese for 'next day' or tomorrow?"

"あした," we all chorused.
明日 ashita.

"Yes. That's why."
a.k.a. Silence, you foreigners!

(Note: らいねん, らいげつ, らいにち and あした are written in the phonetic Japanese script, hiragana.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011


shoeI feel so betrayed.

It all began when I set out on an outrageous quest to buy a new pair of trainers. The ones I was currently wearing looked fine, but the sole was thin and I was getting blisters.

While Sapporo is surrounded by high mountains, the city itself is amazingly flat. This makes it great for walking, causing me to neglect all forms of public transport and hop around the city like a teenager without a driving license. The upshot of this was that I had found the location of 101 backstreet Raman bars and had craters in my feet that looked like there were rodent-sized bed bugs hiding in my futon.

I was reasonably sure it was the shoes.

The pair I wanted were in a deep rust-colour and looked more like a fashion shoe than sports equipment. Despite this, they had a proper sole that was used throughout the brand's entire "easytone" range that included designs for serious gym workouts. This --I decided-- should allow me dress as if I were going to check out a few shops, but still provide enough suspension for a 10 mile run around the town. No one would suspect my crazy ways, oh no! At least, not until I hurtle into them.

The first shop I tried was in the indoor mall on the east side of town. They had the shoes in stock, but the largest size was a UK 5.5 (about a US women's 8). I normally take a UK 6, but I gave the 5.5 a try. Two minutes inside that shoe confirmed that I would have to lose at least three toes for a proper fit and somehow I didn't think that would help my walking problems. Peeved, but undefeated, I set off to the centre of town to try another few stores.

... only to find exactly the same problem.

I have never considered my feet large. In fact, I always thought I was a little smaller than average. It turns out this was a mistake.

I clearly have the foot size of an obese yeti.

"Maximum size." One of the shop attendants finally broke it to me, tapping the squiffy 5.5 box with a finger. He held out a different trainer in the 'easytone' men's range. "We have these in a 6."

To be fair, these other shoes were pretty nice. They just weren't the cute, golden brown chestnut delights I had completely set my heart on. The sort of shoes that I had determined it would be impossible to look bad in due to their radiative glow of adorable magnificence.

.... When you're coming from such an angle, it is hard to consider a different design.

A look around the shop did inform me that I was just unlucky with that particular brand. Other shoes for woman went up to at least a UK 6 or 7. Apparently, the 'easytone' shoes were very much focussed on the petit Japanese woman. As I left, I went back and glanced at the box of the shoes I was forbidden to wear.

The brand was Reebox.

A British brand.

Made only for Japanese women.

I feel so betrayed.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nobody could make this up

"Welcome to Japan."

It was a promising start to an email that was from a relocation company in Tokyo, the people who had just taken over the details of the shipment of my possessions from Canada.

The movers had come at the end of August and squirrelled away my worldly goods, whereupon they were taken first to Toronto and then to Vancouver, before being loaded onto a boat to Hong Kong.

I have no idea why we had to go via China. Maybe it was ex-Commonwealth love for Hong Kong or because all goods come from China, so they feel obliged to drop back in once in a while.

Last Tuesday, I was informed the shipment with my beloved artifacts had left Chinese shores and would arrive in Yokohama in a week. Yokohama is south of Tokyo, so still a good 700 miles from Sapporo but considerably nearer than Vancouver. At this point, everything would need to clear Japanese customs.

The relocation company requested I mail them the following documents in preparation:

(1) A clear copy of my passport showing the photo page

(2) The customs form I had filled in when I entered Japan, stating there would be unaccompanied articles to follow.

(3) A copy of my most recent immigration entry stamp.

(4) And finally, a copy of my work visa page which must be valid for at least one year.

The one I was clearly not expected to have was number (2), the request for which was followed by a slightly panicked note saying "Hoping you have chance to complete this form during your arrival in Japan??". There was no need to worry, I had remembered to fill in the appropriate form in duplicate, keeping one copy back for this purpose.

No. The problem was so much worse than that.

I had a visa, but it had been issued for a single year since the start of my position last July. This meant it was only valid for another 8 months.

Hmm --I hear you say-- perhaps you could renew your visa now and ask for the process to be expedited?

Such a course of action might well be worth investigating, if my passport had any free double pages.

It does not.

I have two single pages devoid of stamps, but a visa requires a clear double page. My plan was to renew my passport when I returned to the UK at Christmas, thereby acquiring a whole book full of deliciously blank sheets for inky fingered border control guards to smudge up like kids on a crayola high.

Could extra space be quickly added to my passport? The UK passport office has the following to say on the subject of additional pages:

27. Can the Passport Office add pages to my current passport if it is full?

Well then, perhaps I could renew my passport in Japan instead? It transpires, however, that the British Embassy in Tokyo no longer issues British passports. Rather, you must send your application to Hong Kong (anyone seeing a sinister pattern emerging here?) who then send everything away to the UK. The processing time --the webpage ironically entitled 'Help for British Nationals' informed me-- would take at least four weeks.

I leave Japan in 5.

And I'm not back until February 25th.

With my cat.

If I was just heading off on a single jaunt for those two months, I could probably postpone my trip, clear everything through customs and then leave the country knowing all is well in hand. As it happens, the exit next month marks the start of a round-the-world trip that sees me spending a week in India, home for Christmas in the UK and then onto Canada to work at my old institution for 7 weeks. Awesomely great. Awesomely awful to cancel.

Fortunately, the relocation company I was now dealing with seemed to have a practical mindset. Their suggestion was we send in the documents as if there is no problem and see what happens.

And if they send everything back to Canada…. well, I'll see it there.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Musical chairs

Reversible train seats

I had thought the Shinkansen seats were cool. They had the power sockets, the cybonic up-right chair backs and the leg room needed to satisfy a wookie with no knees. By the time I reached downtown Sapporo, I realised they were nothing more than second-rate, yesteryear designs in the same category as tape recorders and ball point pens.

It was true that the train that dragged itself up to the platform at New Chitose Airport did not look like it had the capacity to rock my world. It appeared as the standard rattly locomotive that did the subway rounds. Motion in general did not seem to be a strong priority, either in getting to our final destination of showing up at the airport in the first place.

I stepped on board behind an elderly man who was using his wheeled suitcase as a cane. We entered one of the back carriages to see the seats all facing the rear of the train. I was unfazed by this. My childhood Hornby model railway set had taught me that locomotives can clip equally onto the back and front of trains, so it was inevitable that sometimes the seats would be reversed. It was perhaps a little unfortunate, since I found that travelling with my back to the engine occasionally made me travel sick. However, since all the seats in this carriage faced the same way, I could probably vomit over the person in front of me and be off the train before they could truly kick up a fuss.

The old man was having none of it.

He released one hand from his suitcase and grabbed the handle on the side of one of the seats. With a squeaking of hinges, the back of the chair slid over the seat cushion to clunk down on the opposite side. The man then sat and looked expectantly out of the window towards the direction we were headed.

Well, that was surprising.

I took a quick look around the carriage and then gingerly stood up and pulled on my own seat handle. With an identical thump, the seat direction also reversed, accidentally crushing my carry-on as it did. I sat down hastily.

Shortly after this discovery, a group of school kids climbed on board. They proceeded to redesign the rest of the carriage, making some seats face each other and others stand in rows. It was possibly a complex reflection of their social network or more probably the result of each boy feeling the urge to move a least one chair before sitting down.

Rather like the desire to use the bathroom as soon as an exam starts, it only now occurred to me that I really wanted to take a photo of a chair half-way through its repositioning. There was the perfect single seat right in front of me but it contained a small girl.

A line of thought suggested that this wasn't really a barrier to me suddenly moving it.

I suppressed the notion.

Fortunately for all, the girl exited the train at the next station and, as we started to move again, I leaned forward and pushed on the seat handle, snapping a photo as the chair back moved. Behind me, the gaggle of boys went briefly quiet. I did not turn around. Travel on a UK train, kids, and you'll be composing Haiku to these by the time you return.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

License to drink

I walked boldly through the partitioned walkway to the security gate at Tokyo's Hanada airport. Nestled within my grey carry-on was one 150 ml bottle of moisturiser and a full sized tube of toothpaste (extra minty). Tucked into an outside pocket of my red rucksack was --bold as brass-- a bottle of fizzy orange soda I'd bought at a convenience store in downtown Tokyo.

Basically, I was armed up to the teeth.

Without hesitation, I dropped my pack onto the conveyor belt for the x-ray machine and then lifted out my laptop from the rucksack. That at least I had the good manners to declare, laying it gently in its own tray to be scanned separately.

"Anything in your coat pockets?" the security guard asked me, glancing briefly at my boarding pass for Sapporo.

Hell yes! My phone, wallet, keys and --just for good measure-- a sachet of liquid bubble bath I'd swiped from the hotel bathroom. I don't believe in doing things by half. Without bothering to list these items, I slid my arms out of the sleeves and slung the gortex onto another tray. Then, without even removing my shoes (possibly for the first time ever in a Japanese public building), I marched through the people scanner.

My carry-on, laptop and coat were already waiting for me at the other end. My rucksack was brought through by a security guard. He tapped the bottle of pop. "Check?" he asked.

I indicated he should go right ahead but as soon as he lifted the bottle he lost interest. "It's not open."

"No, still sealed," I agreed.

Contrarily, he slid it back into the pocket on the opposite side of the bag and handed bag plus bottle back to me. I went over to my gate and crack the top. Somehow it tastes so much better when it's brought from the other side of security.

When my flight came to board, I scanned my own boarding pass at the gate. Not once did I show any of the multiple forms of identification I was carrying[*]. My demonic plans for world domination were now irrevocably set.

Sitting next to me on the plane was a passenger with a stinking cold. He proceeded to buy two cans of beer.

.... might have to put a hold on domination plans until after Christmas.

[*] Note to self, birth records of all family members dating back to 1742 are not required on Japanese domestic flights.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Innovation of the work called programming

The theoretical astrophysics meeting at the National Observatory of Japan in Tokyo is primarily aimed at graduate students and as such, is one of the few science conferences to be held in Japanese. Despite this sounding like a recipe for unimaginable PAIN, CONFUSION and DISTRESS, I was chilled out for two reasons:

Firstly, I was informed my primary directive was to present myself to the Japan astronomy circuit which I pretty much achieved by walking through the door and eating sushi at the evening dinner.

Secondly, it was a theorist meeting. The talks were BOUND to have pretty movies. Words are so overrated. They are what observers need to justify strange grey blobs.

In fact, attending the talks turned out to be a bizarre walk through the babyland world of language learning. Before we left, I had asked my head of group whether the slides were likely to be in English, an occurrence that seemed common practice in the seminars I had attended in Hokkaido University. "Some might be" was the response that was elicited. By this, I presumed a few speakers might do their slides in English and others in Japanese.

This was not the case.

The reality was a completely random distribution of English and Japanese slides within the same talk. A presentation might be given entirely in Japanese but the list of concluding remarks written in English. Others had a sudden English slide buried in their midst and still more were written in Japanese throughout but would have a short paragraph or single phrase such as "Radial migration of disk stars" appearing unexpectedly half-way down a slide. 

No one else seemed to consider this the slightest bit surprising.

Possibly, I reasoned, presenters had borrowed slides from other talks they had previously given in English. However, this didn't really explain the language switch mid-slide. That more resembled the writer getting up for a cup of coffee, becoming momentarily inspired by a line of Macbeth, and returning to type up his presentation in English.

An additional help to my comprehension was the use of katakana. Katakana is a Japanese phonetic script for writing foreign words, a catagory that includes many scientific terms that have been adopted rather than translated. Reading katakana, however, isn't the most straight forward process since while it's often transcribing an English word.... it's English on crack.

"シミュレーション" for example, reads literally "shimyureeshon". It's only by experimentally dropping 'U's and switching around a few 'R's for 'L's and all the while pretending you are eating a gigantic gob stopper does it become clear that it reads "simulation". Likewise, "ユニバース" ("yunibaasu") can just about be crushed into "universe". Similar feats allowed me to extract "dark halo" (mysterious things around galaxies), "dust" (everywhere), "dead zone" (for planets, not people), "Andromeda" (nearby galaxy) and "model" (unrealistic creation that allows the opportunity to produce a follow-up paper). Oddly, one presenter obviously became tired of katakana and just plonked "thick disk" in the middle of his sentence in English.

In terms of understanding what was actually spoken I found my comprehension was inversely proportional to the usefulness of the phrase. Pretty much all nouns and verbs escaped me but I was right on the ball regarding terms such as "there is...", "yes, that's right" and "and after that we...". Basically, if you could take it out of the sentence without affecting the meaning, I was all over it.

The program for the three day meeting was written in Japanese but my head of group had run it through an online translator. The bot for this had done a surprisingly impressive job although I think my favourite talk title is definitely: "Innovation of work called programming". Appropriately, this presentation concluded the conference.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bullet to Tokyo

For my train ride to Tokyo, I was issued with four identically sized tickets; one to take me down to Hakodate in the south of Hokkaido, one to bring me through the tunnel to Shin Aomori in Honshu and two for the Shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo. Standing in Shin Aomori station, I flexed the two card rectangles in my hand and wondered how the duplicate nature of this ride confirmation worked with the automatic ticket barriers. Presumably --I reasoned-- one ticket was a receipt or a seat reservation while the other would allow me to pass through the metal gates in full possession of my limbs. Experimentally, I inserted a likely looking ticket and stepped forward.

This outrageous act produced a squeal of red lights and the appearance of an attendant to see what the stupid foreigner had done stall their efficient system.

It transpired the required secret handshake involved inserting both tickets simultaneously, one on top of the other. To me, such an act should have resulted in a mechanical choking grind, the sound of shredding paper, and culmination with a flashing set of lights marked "DENIED" before ejection of what remained of both ticket and ticket owner. Instead, the machine sucked the paper through its body, stamped the bottom rectangle squarely across its front side and returned both in the exact position I had inserted them.

It shouldn't have been possible.

But it was.

Unnerved, I plucked the tickets from the barrier exit and hastened onto the platform. The Shinkansen carriages have a luxury air to them, with ample leg room for even the most spidery of foreigners and power sockets to charge your laptop or cell phone. The seats are also the most upright contraptions I've ever seen in my life. Mercifully, they recline to allow a position more suited to non-cyborgs.

As its name suggests, the bullet train does not mess about. It had taken me 6 hours to travel the 260 miles from Sapporo to the top of Honshu. I did the remaining 450 miles to Tokyo in 3.

Since it was now dark and I was jealous of my neighbour's bento box, I took a nap in my reclined chair, lifting my head only to squint at the lights of Sendai as we made a brief stop.

The Shinkansen stop in Tokyo is at Tokyo Station, a major station in the inner city but not actually the one I needed to travel out to my hotel. I had to transfer to another other large hub, Shinjuku, by taking the subway across town. I went through the Shinkansen barrier --whereupon one of my tickets was consumed never to be see again-- and found myself inside the normal ticket barrier for the subway. This left me with a conundrum:

Did I need a ticket to reach Shinjuku?

In the "no" corner, we had the fact I had been spat out inside the subway gate, still armed with one ticket, from which there was nothing to stop me taking a train of my choice. At least, not until I tried to get out the other side.

In the "yes" corner, there was the fact that the travel agent with whom I had booked this ticket seemed concerned regarding to which Tokyo station I wished to travel. Since we were battling with language, I told her Tokyo Station was fine and decided I'd easily work out a route to Shinjuku when I arrived. This confidence now seemed positively blaze.

Since it wasn't immediately obvious how to buy a ticket from inside the barrier, I decided to postpone the moment of reckoning until I reached Shinjuku. Then there would always be an fantastical option of jumping the ticket barrier altogether and trying to disappear in a crowd of black-haired Asians.

I walked across the station to the "chou line" and climbed up the stairs to the platform. The evening in Tokyo was its usual heaving self, and people pushed past each other to form lines ready for the next train. Over to one side of the platform, however, I noticed a crowd of people surrounding what looked like a ticket machine. This must be it! Those people were clearly all like me; they had magically found themselves on the other side of the ticket barrier without a ticket and were now trying to remedy this criminal act. I joined the queue and scanned the screen as I reached its front. According to the English guide, I could chose to travel to Shinjuku by 'semi-rapid' for 500 yen. I hesitated, decided it was better safe than sorry at this point in my journey, and bought the ticket.

The problem was the electronic boards were informing me that the next train due at the station wasn't a 'semi-rapid' but a 'rapid'. That sounded like the kind of transport for which my ticket would be invalid. I could have waited for another train but I was tired and wanted to get to my hotel. Such desperate times called for desperate measures. As the train drew up, I approached the station guard:

Is this ticket OK?

The guard looked at my ticket and nodded. "だいじょうぶです。" It's OK.

Ha! Who needs a communication class?

After this promising statement, the guard beckoned and led me across to another guard who looked at my ticket, took it and then handed me back my 500 yen. I was then ushered onto the train.

....... OK, I need a communication class.

This didn't make the slightest bit of sense. The train set off and arrived in Shinjuku about fifteen minutes later. Feeling dazed and confused, I stepped out into the station and decided to try my second Shinkansen ticket in the barrier. If it squealed, at least someone would come and rescue me and for an arrest, I bet they had to take me through the barrier.

The ticket machine took my ticket. The gates swung open. I scuttled away into the Tokyo city. The night was still young and there were undoubtedly another 101 ways I could be confused before midnight.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Underground overground (wombling free)

There are a series of smaller tunnels leading up to the Seikan Tunnel between the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. Possibly this is to allow unexpectedly claustrophobic passengers to disembark ahead of time, grab a pair of water-wings and meet the train on the opposite shore line.

The Seikan Tunnel is currently the longest and deepest operational rail tunnel in the world, although wikipedia informs me the Swiss are about to surpass it. According to the information sheet that was on the back of the seat in front of me, the deepest part of the tunnel is 240 m below sea level and 100 m below the ocean floor. Its total length is 53.85 km with the part under the sea bed running to 23.3 km. Its tracks are apparently of the Shinkansen-type which is amusing since the Shinkansen has yet to run up to Hokkaido. The bullet train's arrival in Sapporo isn't planned until around 2020, which goes to show the extent of Japanese planning since the tunnel was built in 1988 and the current tracks laid in 2005. My hunch is that in Europe, the tunnel would have been found unsuitable for Shinkansen tracks and the whole project would have to be started again. (To anyone who believes this to be overly pessimistic, I recommend looking up the gauge war of the 1850s in the UK. The slower track width was selected as the national standard due to cost.)

I was going through this tunnel because I was taking the train between Sapporo and Tokyo. This trip comes under the category of "an experience" as opposed to "a sensible way to travel". When the Shinkansen does come up to Sapporo, this trip could take as little as four hours by train but currently it clocks in at 9, compared with a 90 minute flight. I totally ignored logic and thought it would be an interesting view of the country.

As the train winds south from Sapporo through to Hakodate in the south of Hokkaido, the tracks approach the coast. Japan's northern island is mountainous, so we pass small seaside towns clustered between the wooded slopes and the water. The train barrels straight through the hills so my view flashed between:


Pretty town!

Dark tunnel!

And repeat. At one point I saw a large collection of multicoloured buoys that looked like a ball pen for adults. In another town, a series of concrete sand castles led down to the waves that were presumably something to do with erosion. In the final small habitation before the tunnel, I saw fishing nets being apparently left out to dry. Do fishing nets need to dry? There is no time to ask such questions on a train.

Dusk is a short lived affair at this time of year. This meant our train dove into the Seikan tunnel as the sun set and emerged to pitch blackness. It was particularly disconcerting since upon arrival on Honshu, the train immediately disappears into a second series of smaller tunnels. This produced the surprising visage of suddenly seeing a lamppost and a group of trees in the gloom before being faced once more with a concrete wall. The first possibility that struck me was that the Narnia wardrobe had moved to Japan.

At different times of the day, there is the option to stop inside the tunnel at the Tappi Undersea Station. Disembarking here must be arranged in advance, but if you time it right, you can take a tour of a museum dedicated to the tunnel's construction. Unfortunately, going on this tour meant leaving Sapporo before my Japanese class this morning which --due to terrible threats regarding absences and the fact I'd be missing class on Monday while in Tokyo-- wasn't possible this time. Hopefully I'll get a second chance before the museum closes with the arrival of the Shinkansen to Hakodate in the next few years. 

Once we reached our first stop at the top of Honshu, I jumped ship and caught the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Enough of this northern island layabouting; it was time to get a move on.

(Picture shows view from the train window as we travel to the edge of Hokkaido and the information sheet on the Seikan Tunnel that was on the train seat in front of me)

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Confession time: I dropped my Japanese communication class.


Although that did make the decision rather less regrettable.

The problem was I wasn't doing any astrophysics; the job for which I was being paid. It occurred to me that sooner or later this was going to end badly.

The full Japanese course at Hokkaido University for international members consists of seven 90 minute weekly classes; three grammar lessons on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, two lessons on the Kanji writing system on Tuesday and Thursday and two communication lessons running after Kanji. Each of those classes has homework for the next lesson which usually comprises of a test.

Amusingly, this was the general language course. There was also an 'intensive' version for students who REALLY wanted to get serious.

Each class is excellent and --for all my complaints-- I was learning a lot in communication even if I had to sit in a dark and silent room for half an hour afterwards. However, add to that a weekly 3 hour group meeting and sessions with my student and my own research became something I tinkered with for a few hours a week. I began to suspect I spent longer cleaning my teeth than writing actual code whereas previously, that activity had only been surpassed by the time I spent on facebook.

Clearly, this was very wrong.

I was also in work at 8 am and left just shy of midnight. Then I was admitted to hospital with a migraine. Could there be a connection? I doubted it but the potential that this could lead to a reduction in internet procrastination was concerning.

So now I'm down one class. To demonstrate that I COULD HAVE STAYED IF I HAD WANTED TO I wrote my email of explanation to my teacher in Japanese. At the very least, this proved I could always resort to a notepad and paper to get my point across at Starbucks if necessary. This had the unfortunate consequence of her writing back to me in Japanese whereupon I had to resort to an online translator to ensure she hadn't told me to burn in the fiery pits of hell. Since the Japanese are unfailingly polite, I'm still slightly unsure about this.

I did promise I would enrol again in April. I think she told me to get to it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rear cures

Suppositories are my new crack.

I was lying in bed, gazing at the waxy bullet shaped tablet that was bathed in morning light on the counter top. Magic.

It hadn't been the best of nights, can you tell? I had to admit, exploration of the Japanese health system would have been rather more fun if it hadn't required certain sacrifices on my part. Like being horribly sick.

The headache had started in the early evening. Since I'm prone to such nasties, I took the opportunity to blame my communication class, swallowed an analgesic and didn't think much of it until I headed home about 8 pm. By the time I was half way across campus and had accosted two lampposts, I was forced to acknowledge I had a problem. At 9 pm, I started an indepth conversation with my toilet. At 11 pm, I called my parents because I firmly believed in their power to do something magic from 5500 miles away. They had the rather more practical suggestion of asking a friend to sit with me for the next few hours. I phoned one of my work friends who appeared and took one look at my face before calling for reinforcements in the form of a second friend. So began an extremely long night.

The problem was I knew this was just a migraine. An incredibly bad migraine that made me fantasize about drilling a hole in my skull, but not one that was going to cause my sudden exit from this mortal coil. By the time we reached midnight, this last fact was nothing but disappointing.

I had previously had three headaches on this scale, two of which landed me in hospital, once in the UK and once in the USA. The first time had sent everyone into a whirl of excitement involving cat scans and suggested spinal taps before I persuaded my parents to organise a break out. The second time, I'd been left in a room to die, optimistically because it was deemed unlikely since I had been sick before. The third time, I'd been in Tokyo with no mobile phone and so had just spent the night rolling around on the floor and trying not to wake the neighbours with my muffled screams.

All of this had led me to the conclusion that hospitals either did nothing or they locked you up for days and threatened terrible tortures. Then there was the fact that I didn't understand how the Japanese health system worked.

Japan has social health care, but unlike Canada or the UK, the Government only pays 70% of your bill. Judging from some of the prices I'd seen in the USA, the remaining 30% had the potential to still be a hefty sum. Add to that the fact my health card was in my office and I had no credit card to put down for a bill, I was anxious about going to a hospital when I was pretty confident I would live to deal with the financial consequences.

So I opted for the cycle of drawn out discussions with my lavatory followed by fifteen minute intervals frozen in my bed. My bed, incidentally, is the only furniture in my apartment. This meant my poor, faithful, uncomplaining friends were on the floor. They tried to get water into me, rubbed my back as I vomited and tucked me up when I was done.

Rinse, repeat.

At 2 am, I was no worse but no better. I agreed we should call for a taxi.

The hospital my friends were familiar with was in the southern part of the city. I was cuddled in the back while I sobbed and the taxi driver attempted the smoothest journey possible, undoubtedly fearing for his upholstery. We reached a brightly lit building and were bowed inside by the waiting doorman.

It looked nothing like the emergency rooms I had seen in the UK or America. For one, it was quiet and only a few people were about. The room looked more like an airport lounge than a medical waiting area. At one end, there was a wooden reception desk and at the other, a door through to the consultation rooms.

I was seen almost immediately by a nurse who took my details, my friend translating as we went along. Either side of me were two small boys, both crying quietly. One had a bandage on his forehead, the other was complaining of a headache. It was clearly a bad night for heads in Sapporo. Shortly afterwards I was seen by a doctor who took another set of notes and prescribed a suppository for the pain and a IV drip for the nausea and dehydration.

The great thing about a suppository is that it's fast acting and you can't bring it up. The worst thing is ... well, I think that's obvious. I'd been led off to a quiet ward and the nurse drew the curtains around my bed, indicating that I should turn on my side and...

... let's just say she was an expert and all I managed was a surprised squeak much to my friend's amusement.

"No 1... 2... 3...?" she asked when the curtains were pulled back.

The IV drip was less successful. Try as she might, the nurse couldn't get the needle to sit in my vein. I am not a fan of needles and a certain level of mental reserve is needed for me to deal well with them. Currently, we had no mental reserves. None. This was somewhat balanced by me being too weak to conduct a good getaway, but my veins had disappeared into hiding. The nurse put this down to dehydration and I was able to weakly agree that this was certainly the reason and not my fault at all. My punishment was to be a wicked bruise on my arm the next morning.

The suppository though was doing its job. Within about 20 minutes I was feeling a lot better. The pain was easing and with it the sickness. I started drinking water like a champ. An hour later I was discharged. Wobbly and sore, but considerably better.

"You look pink," one of my friends told me. "When I first saw you, you were blue!"

Anxiously, I approached the reception desk to be told that I had to pay the full amount now, since I didn't have my health card, but I could claim it back later. They put the bill in front of me: 9,500 yen, or about $100. I handed over the cash. Best $100 I spent this month. I even got medicine for the next few days, should I need it.

"If there is a next time," I told my friends. "Don't take any crap from me. We're going to the hospital earlier."

"I learnt two new English words today," one of my friends remarked cheerfully as we got into a taxi. "Drip and suppository."

Apparently, everyone got something out of this visit.

The next morning I took my second suppository. It's not really the sort of thing you want lying around on the kitchen counter.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

You might like...

There are times when I seriously wonder about the thoughts of web designers. Today, I followed a link to the website "The imperfect parent". It included an interesting article on the Girl Scouts of America welcoming transgender children. The report was brief, simply saying that the Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes any child that identifies as female into their organisation and I scanned through it to the bottom of the page.

Directly below the article were links to four other pieces on the website under the heading "You might like:" I glanced over their titles:

"Beaten, malnourished Oklahoma girl lives in closet - woman allegedly forced 5 year old to drink her own urine and eat feces."

"Parents go to concert, leave baby in trunk."

"California mother arrested for killing baby in microwave."

They were also all marked as "Minor Topics".

I stared at the headings for a moment and .... you know what? Despite the website's suggestion, I don't like ANY of these articles.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Never seen a raccoon fly

The Japanese love to wrap things; presents, beautifully presented boxes of cakes, even coke bottles or hot buns from the convenience store. The last time I purchased a loose apple, I concluded it might be quicker to grow the fruit myself than to wade through the layers of packaging the cashier had decided to bury my snack within.

This obsession is particularly unfortunate in light of the fact that one of the most complicated activities in Japan is taking out the garbage.

Upon taking up residence in my new apartment, I purchased a bin with four separate compartments. That's three compartments less than the number of designated rubbish types, each of which have their own collection day. Mondays are for burnable waste. Exactly what is burnable involves some guess work due to a misspent childhood not engaged in pyromania. It definitely includes food but not paper, since the collection day for that is Wednesdays. However, the Wednesday pick-up doesn't include newspapers, magazines, milk cartons or cardboard which must be collapsed and folded up separately before being taken down to a local store. It also doesn't happen on the third Wednesday of the month which is reserved for garden waste or the first Wednesday which is for all items that do not fit into the other six categories. Tuesdays are for plastic wrappings and containers, except for recyclable bottles which are to be taken out on Fridays. Thursday is a second burnable trash day since food is liable to smell and you can't take it from your apartment between collections, least it be thought you considered your half-eaten strawberry sandwich a plastic bottle and be carted away to a mental asylum.

Burnable items must be put in yellow bags, while everything else must be in white. It must also be taken out on the day of collection before 8:30 am. Under no circumstances must garbage bags be taken outside the night before their designated days.

This is because of the crows.

Crows are Sapporo's version of the raccoon. Disconcertingly similar in size, these giant evil looking fowl gather throughout the city staring hungrily at humans, pets and red, meat-coloured cars. Given the opportunity, your empty crisp packet will be in pieces throughout the city's four corners. It is impossible to know if the smell of food drives the act, or if it is a demonstration of what these black winged inhabitants would like to do to your eyeballs.

While being stalked around campus, I was reminded irrevocably of the signs that used to stand by Florida's waterways regarding alligators. These warning boards alerted the uninitiated to the local reptile's unfussy eating habits, be it child, beloved poodle or indeed, raccoon.

I feel Sapporo would benefit enormously from a similar sort of sign, but with the appropriate adjustments made:

The area for rubbish bags outside my apartment complex actually has a crow-proof net around it. Nevertheless, it is still against the rules to take your trash out the night before.



The upshot of this is that I spend a significant fraction of my time at home standing in front of my bin, trying to decide what container to put whatever piece of trash I have accumulated. Such exertions commonly leave me hungry, which results in me opening a bag of food and promptly being left with...

Not all new hobbies are fun.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Retro desires

Alarm clocks have few redeeming features. For 90% of their existence, they hang out and do nothing. A leech on your bedside's hospitality. They sit and wait until their owner and rightful lord and master is in a deep slumber of blissful relaxation after a hard day paying for their electricity.

Then they strike.

The only justice is that they frequently get clonked on the head.

The worst alarm clocks, in my opinion, are the ones that just beep. Not only is this particularly lazy on behalf of the object you have given houseroom to but it's downright obnoxious. I am forced to respond to such obsessive compulsive behaviour instantly rather a slower contemplation of what life might be like outside these blankets.

While it is rare that such considerations lead to acts of enthused energy, I still prefer to listen to the radio in the mornings. I therefore wanted to buy a radio alarm clock of the type I'd been using ... well ... all my life. I'm sure you know the idea; illuminated clock on the front, alarm and FM radio tuner controlled by buttons on the top.

The electrical system in Japan is similar to that in Canada, but their FM radio station frequencies are not, running from 76 - 90 MHz rather than 88 - 108 MHz. This meant that my previous North American-bought clock would be a paperweight, although not as illegal as USA baby monitors which can result in a year's gaol sentence until your offspring is too old to require such a device.

I assumed that replacing my cheap radio alarm clock would be a simple, easy chore.

I was wrong.

It is not acceptable to purchase a radio alarm clock in Japan.

Technically, it is possible to find these items. After weeks of searching, I located the appropriate shelf in a five story electrical store. They even had an exact replica on the one I had in Canada, purchased only a year previously. The problem was I obviously was not supposed to want to buy it. These clocks were in the 'retro' section of the shop. The area where grandpa drags the kids to show them was life was like in "dem good ole times".

Don't believe me? Allow me to put it in perspective:

On the same shelf, about six inches further along, were tape recorders.

Remember those? No, half of you don't. Consider your childhood twice the length of mine. 

One tape player (middle photo) was of the walkman type; the must-have accessory when I went on a school trip to Paris in 1992. The other (right) was a replica of the type I connected up to a computer when I was five to load games. The process took forever (double that by five year old standards) and frequently failed half-way through a load. Heaven help you if the tape needed to be reversed during that process. I probably played each game I owned twice before turning six and I was seriously into that computer.

So there I was, wanting to buy this radio alarm clock, but feeling far too young to be seen taking it to the cashier. Not only would the purchase be an embarrassment, but clearly the clock would become a forbidden never-to-be-discussed item in my apartment. Like the insane ex-wife locked in the west wing. I could see my future magical relationship with a Keanu Reeves look-a-like ending with:

"I'm sorry Elizabeth... I really like you... but ... we could never build a joint home together. First you want a radio alarm clock, then you'll talk of hunting mammoths and eating our young."


I looked around. Radios in general were apparently perfectly acceptable. There were many either on their own or part of elaborate stereo systems, but none with a clock that could balance on the sole chair --currently doubling as a bedside table-- in my apartment. Judging by the dizzying varieties available, the alternative you were supposed to buy was an iPod dock. Since I had an iPod, in theory this was a match. However, most of my music is bouncy upbeat tunes that makes me run into work. If that blared out at me first thing in the morning, I'd probably break my ankle jiving to the bathroom.

It was all too confusing. I went home, closed all the curtains and flipped open my computer. Alone in the dark, I browsed an online shopping site and I found a radio alarm clock that included an iPod dock (top left photo). If anyone asks, I did not scroll through twenty pages to find one that included a radio.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I have no mouth and I must scream

Excuse me?

It was after my Japanese communication class and I was anxiously bobbing behind our teacher while she packed away the materials she had used during our lesson.


We weren't supposed to speak English in this course, yet I had no idea how to express "Look, I suck. I gotta go down a level." in Japanese. Although possibly my attempt at such an expression would get the idea across. I gave it a go:

"よみ... と... ききーlistening ... だいじょうぶです。あの.... はなし... むずかしいです。"

I was trying to say that reading and listening were fine but anything that came out of my mouth would make even the vocally challenged 'Hello Kitty' weep. The teacher nodded sympathetically, undoubtedly recalling the seventeen handkerchiefs she had soaked through herself after our last lesson.

"I want to go down to 'Japanese Communication I'," I said in a rush. If you speak fast enough, no one will remember what language you've used, right?

The teacher put down her folder and considered me properly. "あなた にとって 'Communication I'のクラスは やさしいすぎています。"[*]

This is where I made a fatal error. If I'd had a bit more quick witted gumption, I'd have looked at her completely blankly and maybe inquired as to why she was talking about sweet potatoes. Instead, my treacherous features showed comprehension of what she had just said. This was unfortunate since she'd just told me the class below would be too easy for me and the fact I'd understood probably confirmed she was right. My shoulders drooped.

"I am concerned that I will hold the other students back," I explained in English, taking in the now empty classroom with a wave of my hand.

Let's cut to the chase; I knew MEAN GIRL was MEAN and I hated adding to her ammunition every lesson. Not that she'd said anything to me that day, but ... but ... SHE MIGHT HAVE DONE, OK? Being bottom of a group basically sucks.

"I think you are OK here," the teacher replied, stubbornly still speaking the language I was supposed to be learning.

I nodded resignedly, but I did feel a bit better. After all, if the teacher didn't mind my stuttering attempts at the exercises, it probably was fine. There was also no doubt I'd learn more in the harder class than going back over the basics and that was rather the point of being in the language school.

... and if I keep telling myself that, I'm totally going to start believing it.

I went to lunch and plotted revenge on mankind while eating noodles.

[*] Not an exact reproduction. If I could do that, I probably wouldn't have any trouble with this course.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The problem with spoken language is that it's horribly time dependent. My Japanese would be infinitely better if it were considered normal to say a sentence then wander off, have a cup of tea and maybe a fruit scone, take in some of the local sites before returning to see if the person you're speaking to has comprehended what you have said.

Such delays are not allowed in my communication class.

Held each Tuesday and Thursday morning, this class is entirely in Japanese and is focused on listening and speaking with dribbling recaps of the necessary grammar. The level is at the limit of my current Japanese which makes it NOT EASY. Add to the fact it's impossible to hide at the back when you have to speak the whole time, and this class is upgraded to HARD. The teacher, however, is cheerful and kind and so this would be fine if it wasn't for someone who will hence forth be known as:


MEAN GIRL's Japanese is better than mine but the jump between the different class levels is large, so such disparity is inevitable. Today, we were split into pairs to discuss our homework; stating what you want to do in response to a variety of different situations. I was paired with MEAN GIRL and we started going through the questions together. My stuttering speech led to overly patient looks and irritation that I'd misunderstood one of the questions. In actual fact, I'd showed this particular problem to a Japanese friend and he'd translated it as I had so it was NOT OBVIOUS, MEAN GIRL.

When it came to our turn to tell the class about each other's answers, I misread my handwriting which caused the teacher to pause and query me. MEAN GIRL mouthed the answer to the teacher behind me with an expression that suggested she had been paired with a retarded preschooler and was bored out of her wits.

This is why we do not like MEAN GIRL.

To be totally fair, this was my first dealings with MEAN GIRL, so some of her supposed distance might be her natural manner rather than a particular vendetta against me. However, I have declared her as MEAN GIRL and I believe she is MEAN.

On the way back to the department, I was accosted by another recruiting Christian group. I told them I was Jewish. Cockerels* or not, there's only so much you can take in one day. 

[*] "This very night, before the cock crows, you will disown me three times." -- Matthew 26:33-35, denial of Peter and all that...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Call me

However hard you think buying a phone is in Japan:

You're wrong.

It's harder than that. It's so hard it makes hard things look easy. Really hard things, like painting an elephant's toe nails or trying to reattach a wing of an aeroplane mid-flight.

The first problem is choice.

There are three major mobile phone companies in Japan; docomo, softbank and au. Docomo offers the best nation-wide signal, softbank offers the iPhone and au offers an android phone that runs on wimax (4G), rather than 3G. Each of these companies have a wide range of plans for their phones, depending on the handset you get and your usage. Amusingly, while all the smart phone plans have a sliding scale that caps out at a reasonable sum for unlimited data, you always pay for calls. In Japan, talking on your phone in many public places is considered rude, so email services run on even the most basic handsets.

Then there was the fact that Japan just doesn't do wifi hotspots. Not in stations, not in restaurants, not even in Starbucks. Nothing. Nowt. Yadda. Instead, people carry little pocket wifi routers that take a 3G signal and broadcast their own wireless hotspot that allows you to link up your laptop, tablet or any other device that has a hungering for internet anywhere where you are. These routers have similar contracts to mobile phones, although softbank were offering their own router in a special deal with their smart phones. On the other hand, an android phone from au would allow tethering to the wimax network which was a potentially faster connection with a single device. Tethering does wear down a battery though, so perhaps it would be better to have two devices and ...

It was hard, ok?

Add to that the iPhone 4S was due out in a week and would be offered by both softbank and au and I had a headache.

The second problem was all these options were in Japanese.

This meant that I had to glean what I could from the websites and then try and corner an assistant in one of the big electrical stores. In a large enough shop, there was a fighting chance that someone somewhere would speak some English. Sometimes my chosen captive had to be encouraged to go and find such an individual and sometimes they failed. Really, however it went down it was painful and I had to go back several times since it wasn't possible to answer all my questions in one go without putting the shop assistant in danger of cardiac arrest.

Ultimately though, I needed a phone. It was difficult to receive deliveries on the weekend, hard to catch up with what my friends were doing and the credit card company had point blank refused to issue a card to anyone who was too ridiculous to not own a mobile. I had to get this sorted and fast.

But I wanted to select the right option. The phone I would delight in using every day. A contract which would allow me to drink 101 pumpkin lattes in Starbucks while hooking up my laptop in a pretence of work. A miricle handset that would...

"Just get a god damn phone!"

That was a friend's comment on facebook after my 800th post on the subject.

... oh right. Bought the iPhone 4. Am delighted with it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Then there was light

Japanese apartments --I was told-- do not have lights.

"You will find this a little strange."

Well, it did sound decidedly peculiar. In a country where the router stuffed in my back pocket gives me a 42 Mbps wifi connection, you'd think I'd be able to read a book at night.

What I had presumed this meant was that Japanese apartments did not have central ceiling lights. This wasn't completely bizarre, since I had seen America apartments which were lit purely by lamps plugged into wall sockets. This gentler 'mood lighting' was sometimes considered preferable to the dazzling illumination of a single main light.

Personally, I wasn't a fan of mood lighting. Either there should be light so I can see what is going on or there should be dark in which everyone disappears and I can get some sleep.

Light. Dark.

Simple binary love. Still, I was sure I would adapt and I went up to my new apartment to check out the possible positions for a set of lamps. Last time I had come up here, I did not have electricity so lights were a rather academic question and I hadn't paid the situation any heed. Now, I discovered two things:

Firstly, I did have normal spot lights in my kitchen, entrance way and bathroom. This was good to know since I saw disaster striking while I fumbled for a lamp to turn on when I came back at night.

Secondly, there were plugs on my ceiling.

Each room had a centrally positioned clip in the centre of its ceiling which was clearly designed to hold something electrical. This suggested it was time for an exploratory visit to a department store. The shop I picked had a wide variety of light fittings but the largest and most common were wide semicircular lights that clearly weren't supposed to stand alone. It was hard to examine the fitting, but it seemed highly likely that it would fit the ceiling plugs in my apartment.

I bought a single one experimentally and zipped back home.

Upon unpacking the light (left image), I found it had a detachable clip that did indeed plug into my ceiling socket (top centre and right images). Balanced slightly precariously on a stool, I plugged it in and then clipped the lamp on around it. There was a single wire to link the central clip to bulb and a smooth plastic shell to slide over the top.

I jumped down from the stool and tried the light switch.

Then I couldn't see anything for about 10 seconds. Probably shouldn't have been looking directly at the light when I did that.

Nevertheless, success! Even if I was now blind. This particular light came with a remote control, so I can turn it off from my bed... when I get a bed. It even has a timer so I tell it to go out in 30 or 60 minutes. Ideal for fooling stalkers who might be hanging outside my 9th floor window.

Light. Dark. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. Light....

Back in a bit.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


There is nothing remotely pleasant about having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). You can eat a perfectly good meal, identical in every way to one you have eaten before, yet by the time you have walked two blocks from the restaurant your abdomen is one rolling mass of cramps. You then have about fifteen minutes to find a bathroom --every second of which will be indelibly printed on your memory-- or you will never wish to wear your current outfit again.

I liked the trousers I was wearing today. A bathroom needed to be located fast. 

So started the near run towards the mall. I contorted myself into various peculiar postures at each set of traffic lights before falling through the doors of a large department store. Since I had no intention of being a paying customer, the anonymity of a multi-level shop was preferable to trying to sneak past the staff at Starbucks. 

Up the escalators I scooted, trying to smile in a pleasant and relaxed manner at the other shoppers and resist the urge to kick small children out of my way. Into the bathroom I fled to discover I was at the back of a line. 

It was okay... the line was moving quite fast... I could wait... probably.

My turn came and I zipped down to the vacated stall to see a traditional hole-in-the-ground toilet. I just couldn't use it. Normally, I shrug and squat but I knew I had to be there for a while. My knees didn't feel up to it. This meant I had to turn away, walk back up the aisle and join the end of the queue. To add insult to injury, this particular restroom had an accompanying make-up area so I had a significant audience of reflected women and lipsticks for my unusual actions. Lipsticks are so judgmental. I glared at one in its black tube, daring it to mock me. I might have been feeling slightly stressed.

The cubicle stayed unoccupied. Evidently, everyone thought that I had not used it because it was blocked or over-flowing or filled with monsters. I thought about saying:

"No, no monsters. I am merely rejected your entire culture by demanding you provide facilities like the ones I have in my own superior country."

Somehow it just didn't sound right. I waited. I tried not to soil my clothing. My turn came again and I silently prayed that the next stall to become free would be one with a western toilet. A door swung open and I stumbled in to see all my --greatly reduced at present-- desires in cream plastic. 

It was all going to be fine and what was more, I could even write my blog post on my iPad while I waited for the fires to abate. I'll leave you to decide if I really did that.

Fun with undergrads

It is a sad fact that my head of group has a penchant for torturing students. It truth, I wouldn't really mind all that much, except that he has picked me as his tool for unimaginable mental pain. Newton's third law[*] tells us that this doesn't do anything for my own well being.

Friday night was the department party to welcome new physics undergraduates to Hokkaido University. The first set of students I would actually teach would be next year's intake, but I went along so that my face was known, senior undergraduates would recognise me as a possible project supervisor and --ultimately-- because I was told to...

... by my head of group

... who is secretly evil.

The form of torture was simple; creep up behind an unsuspecting undergraduate about to tuck into a piece of sushi. Then insist they come over and talk to me in English.

None of them wanted to. Many tried to literally hide behind their friends. Neither of us knew how to end the conversation. It was awkwardness supremo. Yes, I did make that word up. Such vocabulary acts probably didn't helping the situation.

Fortunately, once we got over the initial "Hello, my name is ..." part, things relaxed a little. For a start, I could also manage a basic self-introduction in Japanese which put us on a more even footing. They gave their rehearsed spiel in English, I gave mine in Japanese and neither of us knew what to do next. This sometimes gave them the confidence to ask a question. Eventually, they found a reason to escape (work / friends / dead grandmother / ooh look squirrel!) and we moved onto the next victim.

After an hour and a half things eased up. This wasn't due to a pause in our relentless pursuing of innocent young language sacrifices but due to the fact that said sacrifices were getting hammered. The legal drinking age in Japan is 20, so students in their second year and above were indulging in the large bottles of Sapporo beer scattered liberally around the tables. Since they would inevitably be the ones unable to run, we ended up in enthusiastic --if unintelligible-- conversation with two or three until my head of group decided the lack of terror was not nearly so fun and suggested we left.

Next time we do this, I'm sneaking in early and drinking one of those large beer bottles prior to the party starting.

[*] You push me, you feel the same amount of force back.