Sunday, April 24, 2011

Demon brides

"Is the hat traditional?"

It was amazingly lucky that we had chosen to visit the Hokkaido Jingu Shinto Shrine just as a wedding was taking place. Seated just inside the shrine itself, the bride and groom were being photographed with their close family. I hesitated before taking a picture, not wanting to invade the scene, but since other visitors had no such scruples I tacked on behind them.

One of the major shrines in Sapporo, the Hokkaido Jingu was established on September 1, 1869 by decree of the Meiji Emperor. It is set in a large park which, while not at its most attractive while winter was only reluctantly releasing its grip before spring, was lovely to walk through away from the main city streets. There were several small shrines around the grounds but the wedding was held at the main site.

Like with most western weddings, the bride was dressed in white, but she wore a large semi-circular hat that dropped down over her ears and almost entirely obscured her dark hair. I assumed it was an alternative to a veil, but in fact I was wrong.

"It's to cover her horns." I was told matter of factly.

".... horns?" Was this another part of the traditional wedding dress for Shinto services? If so, I was sorry that the hat had to hide such .... unique .... adornments.

"When they were going out," my friend gestured at the married couple. "Everything was nice between them. But now the woman is a wife, she will become like a demon and will grow horns."

Well, there you have it. There is a refreshingly honest look at marriage in Japan that even the ceremony traditions embrace. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Red pill or the blue pill

It was the moment of choice.

I couldn't leave the cubicle without flushing the toilet, yet if I pressed the wrong button I might be surrounded by half the store's emergency staff. Even aside from the embarrassment, I obviously wasn't very well so the risk of being carted off to hospital before I was able to offer any explanation seemed dangerously high.

It occurred to me just then that I still couldn't differentiate the sound for the Japanese for hospital (byouin) from that for hair salon (byoin). Unlikely to be relevant, but it added to the annoyance of the moment.

Looking wildly around for some form of guidance (English directions, alternative flush button, Japanese-English dictionary...) I suddenly spotted a large red button mounted on the wall behind the toilet. This was marked in both English and Japanese with 'Emergency'. So if that was the emergency call button, than neither of the other push buttons could be for that purpose. In which case, surely it didn't matter which I hit ....

I pushed one.

A flushing sound filled the cubicle. It would have been even more wonderful if it had been accompanied by water actually going down the toilet bowl. I looked back down at the row of buttons mounted by the toilet itself. Most toilets in Japan are accompanied by a button for creating a fake flushing sound; they were introduced because the too-modest Japanese woman would flush the toilet needlessly to cover up any bodily sounds, causing a significant waste of water. However, they are usually depicted by a music note and situated along the side of the seat. Indeed, this toilet was no exception. The button was there which is why it hadn't occurred to me that the larger button mounted on the wall would also have this result. Clearly, the department store had felt that one button was simply not enough and what was required was some kind of surround sound experience where both noise options could be engaged. Perhaps customers like to feel that they themselves were being flushed through the plumbing in some strange variation of the 3D movie experience.

Shaking my head slightly, I hit the second button. The toilet cleaned itself. I could go.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Return of the toiletator

WHY is it that everytime I have a stomach upset in Japan, the only restrooms I can find have the traditional Japanese hole-in-the-floor style toilets?

The potential for this had seemed amusing as I attempted not to bowl over every department store shopper while making for the restrooms. When actually confronted with three empty cubicles containing floor troughs, the entertainment value dropped by roughly a third for each convenience. The forth and final door in the restroom had a small sign on it marked 'western'. It was occupied.

I swallowed. Did I go with the squat pot and deal with the fact I might be crouched down and unable to move for quite a while? Or did I wait for the western-style toilet to become free with all the discomfort that delay entailed?

I really did need to sit. Casually, I lent against the tiled wall, trying to conceal the fact I was surreptitiously doubling over. At the basins beside me, two Japanese women were washing their hands. I felt a stab of regret I wasn't moving to use the traditional ammenities. No doubt I was confirming every stereotype regarding inflexible foreigners right there. However, there are times to worry about impressions. And there are times to worry about not soiling your clothes. Broadly speaking, they are mutually exclusive.

The door to the occupied cubical swung open. I tried not to nose dive through it. Taking only the moment needed to confirm that no western toilet had this many buttons, I collapsed with relief onto the seat.

Beside me on the wall was a button marked 'push'. Undoubtedly, this was the flush... Unless that was the second button directly above it, also marked 'push'. This upper button had a further description of what said impression would instigate, but it was all in Japanese. The only action I could think of was that one of these choices was an emergency help button, a fact made more likely by the necessity of a disabled customer to use this cubicle. So, if I pressed the correct button, the toilet cleaned itself and I was free to go. Press the wrong button, and the store alarm would sound bringing twenty paramedics into my cubicle.

Was it going to be the red pill .... or the blue pill?

Later, I was to acknowledge there were times when Japan was a bit too exciting.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Here's looking at you, kid

"You can really eat the whole thing?" It was a question worth asking. One day, I am sure people will lie to me.

A dinner out in Japan is a sociable affair. Rather than each individual selecting his or her own dish, you gather as a group around a table to share sushi, hot pots, savoury pancakes or some other form of fare. Not only is this fun, it also guards against over-indulgence from a desire to finish your entire plate. Of course, this does require everyone to agree on the type of food and it helps not to be a fussy eater. The fact I was not a fussy eater was about to be put to a whole new level of testing.

Uo-isshin (whose name is possibly poorly recalled due to google being in denial) is a seafood restaurant with a specialty in crab. Hairy crab. It was originally described to me as 'furry' but since said fur sticks in your fingers like a fine-combed porcupine, I fail to find that description accurate. Still, since I helped devour its interior and than drank sake from its dessicated carcass, I guess I had my revenge.

The crab was served alongside a large plate of sashimi which included large king prawns with all body parts attached. Rather to my relief, since these were raw, the heads and tails were removed before eating. This complacency was short-lived since a short while later a plate of just prawn heads was produced, cooked and ready to be eaten; eyes, front legs and all. A basic rule I learned was that pretty much anything is edible if you fry it.

"The Japanese do not like waste," I was told by the students who were clearly having far too much fun at my expense. Admittedly, my memories of having to sort garbage in Tokyo into half a dozen different piles made me sympathise with this philosophy. I bit into the head. Crunchy.

The shrimp heads were followed by a grilled flounder. This looked totally delicious and I watched as one of the students carefully lifted the bones away from the white flesh.

"Don't throw out the bone!" The call came from down the table. "I want to eat it!"

I studied the fish skeleton. It consisted of almost nothing beside the delicate array of hair-like bones, held together only by the grilled membrane of skin. People were reaching forward, snapping pieces off and popping them into their mouths. I'm pretty sure this contradicted everything I had been taught about eating fish as a child: remove the bones or else THEY WILL CHOKE YOU AND YOU WILL DIE. Apparently, the secret was just to chew them first.

It was maybe a good thing that this meal was served with sake.

From the flounder we moved onto entire individual fish that were eaten like candy sticks. Roughly the size of a sardine, these fish were pencil-long silver lengths that you chewed your way down. I watched to make sure people really did eat the heads and tails, then bit. They were extremely good once you got over looking your dinner in the eye.

A huge salmon complete with extra roe concluded the meal along with a surprise; two pieces of cold flounder sushi for the gaijin to try (that's me, folks!). They tasted of lemon with a firmer, thicker texture than tuna. There was also a pickle-like vegetable that looks like pineapple triangles and humongous squid served in their shells. We drank sake from the shells too. It seems that it looked big enough to be a threat, it was worth toasting your victory by drinking from its remains. 

As we walked back to the station, I was told that other westerners had not liked to try so much of the seafood.

"You are very brave." I was told.

Why, yes. Yes I am.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nasty Children

"That is a place for nasty children."

"Nasty children?!" I looked in surprise at the innocuous low-rise building. Could there really be a detention centre for young offenders on the corner of Hokkaido University campus?

"Yes. They are very small."

Well, it wasn't that I didn't agree with the sentiment. Small children were indeed often downright obnoxious. Still, it seemed a surprising comment to come from someone who I knew had a son.

"Do you say 'kindergarten'?" One of the students had noticed my confusion. "No, that's German."

"It is German but we sometimes use that for a school for young...." I made the connection. "Nursery children."

"Ahh, nursery children."

I think I should have left that uncorrected at 'nasty'. Far more accurate.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The hand that rocks the cradle

It had to be asked.

We had covered teaching duties, computer resources, research grants, the hiring of students and language requirements. It was quite likely this final point would never be an issue, but for completeness it really ought to be queried when discussing a permanent position.

"How do maternity benefits work in Japan?"


The person I was discussing the job details with was a senior male professor. His English was good, but not fluent and this was probably a topic that didn't come up too often in places where he would use the language. Like at conferences on galaxy formation.

"If I were to have a baby....?" I made a hand gesture of show a swollen stomach. Either I would be understood, or it would be assumed I was concerned about sudden and chronic obesity from over indulgence in sushi. The latter was possibly a risk, so finding the solution to that too would be no bad thing.

"Ahh, so you...?"

"No! Not now!" I hastened to clarify my current state of being. "But possibly in the future. Maybe." I stretched my arms out to indicate vast amounts of time passing. I received a gratifying nod of understanding.

"My wife was a graduate student when she had our son. She had six weeks off."

Six weeks?! Did she drop the baby, rock the baby and declare it ready for school? The Japanese education system is notoriously hard core, so this was almost plausible.

"But that was twenty years ago. Now, the Japanese Government wants more women employed, so it may have changed."

Hmm. Note to self: look into getting birth control in Japan. I smiled, "Well, this will probably never be an issue."

However, this produced quick reassurance that such a move would be a positive thing:

"Please, do find husband and have babies."

Well... let's not contract that in quite yet.

[As a side-note, this professor very kindly went to find what the current maternity leave protocol was and told me this afternoon that is was 8 weeks (I think...) full pay and up to one year on reduced pay.]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ace serve

There are some situations that are just going to be awkward. Finding yourself opposite a dozen wide-eyes students who are all clearly anxious about having to speak English to this prospective British faculty member is bound to be one of them. I nodded, smiled encouragingly and wished I could help out by discussing my research in Japanese but ... well, I couldn't.

"What does your favourite character in Harry Potter teach?"

The question wasn't put to me but to a master's student who gulped audibly. The idea was a great one; start a conversation about an incredibly popular British-based franchise to kick off the conversation. The problem was that the professor who poised the question hadn't read the books himself and didn't realise that the answer was unlikely to be in a list of common English vocabulary:

'Apple... chair... book... school... transfiguration...' No, I couldn't see it.

Fortunately, this was an idea I could use but with a small twist.

"I like Japanese anime," I volunteered.

"Ah! Which ones?" came back an enthusiastic question.

"Prince of tennis?" I paused. "Tenisu no Oujisama?"

"Tenisu no Oujisama! Mada mada dane!" The response rang down the table from every student.

Problem solved.
Ore-sama no bigi ni yoi na.

("Mada mada dane" is the catch phrase of the anime series' progenitor, Echizen Ryoma. It obnoxiously means "You still have a long way to go". "Ore-sama no bigi ni yoi na" is said by one of the rival team members, translating to "Be awed at the sight of my prowess".)

Please don't flush your sanitary thing down the toilet

My first night back in Tokyo, I slept in a coffin.

Capsule hotels are Japan's answer to cheap accommodation for business men who just want somewhere to sleep. Stacked together in the same room, the enclosed beds have just enough space for you to stretch out lengthways and --in the luxurious versions-- enough height for you to sit up. The pictures I had seen resembled coffins in a morgue but with doors that could be opened from the inside and an internal TV in case the afterlife got boring. Due to the close proximity of the guests, capsule hotels are usually male-only, so I had to hunt around to try out this quintessential modern Japanese experience.

With the help of a couple of friends, I found the Ace Inn; a capsule hotel in Shinjuku, one of the major districts in downtown Tokyo. This place had both mixed and separate floors for men and women with shared bathroom facilities in the basement. Frankly, after being promised a claustrophobic night, buried alive with zombie-fied neighbours, it was disappointingly nice. The capsules resembled enclosed wooden bunk-beds with curtains over an opening in the side. Everyone had a locker for their belongings, but it was a narrow affair which was fine for my valuables, but wouldn't have taken a suitcase. The downstairs showers required a 100 Yen (~$1) coin to operate, apparently to limit the time and ensure everyone has a fighting chance to get clean in the morning. Clearly, some people must have been extremely smelly since I showered and finished before my 100 Yen had run out.

Despite it being 'Hanami' in Tokyo, the traditional weekend to view the cherry blossoms, the capsule hotel was nearly empty. There was a sign pinned up inside the elevator in English thanking visitors for coming to Tokyo during this difficult time and asking them to pass on the message that Tokyo was safe to visit. There is evident concern that the drop in tourism may succeed where the tsunami has not, and drive smaller businesses into bankruptcy.

That particular notice was written in almost perfect English, but elsewhere in the hotel the signs were more entertaining. My personal favourite was the note in the women's toilet stalls saying "Please don't flush your sanitary thing down the toilet". Although, I must say the prospect promised by "If you want to have fun, go to Roppongi or Shibuya!! You can have a hot night there." made me wonder if I should reconsider going to see the cherry blossoms.

There was an earthquake during my brief stay. A 4.3 magnitude shortly after I arrived at the hotel that vibrated the building. Earthquakes are never rare in Japan and the infrastructure has little problem coping with the vast majority of them. There is no doubt though, that the ringing of Japan's main island is a reminder of the all too recent tragedy. As night fell, the usually dazzling lights of one of the world's largest cities appeared at half-mast, both due to the saving of power in the wake of Fukushima's reactor problems and out of sympathy for the huge numbers of Japanese who had lost their homes further north.

In practical terms, the power shortage caused few inconveniences. The express train service running from the airport wasn't operating during the afternoons, but there was a direct bus that took the same amount of time, so it was a non-issue. Even the lack of lights at night was only dark by Tokyo standards; the city still shone with activity. I therefore echo my hotel's sentiments: if you are planning a trip to Tokyo, go. Take a camera. It's going to be great.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A difficult situation

In addition to evil old biddies who think my idea of a fun evening is to have my car breakdown on the sidewalk, there is another lady who frequently passes by my house. She is short with thin greying hair that is cropped to chin level. Her clothes are usually baggy and slightly ill-assorted and she speaks in a pre-occupied manner. She looks to be in her forties and despite seeing her regularly in the same place, I have often wondered if she has somewhere to live.

Regardless of her situation, she is always friendly and treated my stuck car debacal with a great deal more sympathy than the afore mentioned evil biddy. Once she told me she owned a yellow car too. I strongly suspected this was an equally friendly bare-faced lie.

This evening on the way back from work, I saw her not on my road, but near the highway. Crossing the road to head home, I greeted her and asked how she did. I recieved the usual vague answer of "fine, fine", followed by:

"I suppose I can walk back home with you."

I replied that of course she could, took my headphones from my ears and fell into step with her. I noted she was shivering, despite a large sweater and I asked if she was cold, adding that at least the weather had become warmer the last few days. She agreed and started talking to herself in a low tone with words I couldn't make out. We had not gone many steps when her pace slowed and she stopped.

"I think I'm going to walk the other way now."

I should emphasise that this road was near absolutely nothing. Walk twenty minutes and you would reach the cluster of houses and shops belonging to Westdale village, the other side of which the University was situated. Twenty minutes in the opposite direction would see you in downtown Hamilton. An incredibly slow pace alternating directions would see you nowhere, unless you had a particularly favourite patch of highway concrete.

"Are you all right?" I stopped and looked down at her. For the first time, I felt as if I loomed above her stooping figure. "Are you sure?"

She insisted that all was well and started shuffling off along the sidewalk again. Reluctantly, I headed for home.

Technically, I had done my duty, yet there was no doubt that it was within my power to offer more. The problem, of course, is that more personal interventions --for example an offer of money or an invitation to my home-- come with an associated risk. If I gave her cash, it might set a precedent for a continual donation of funds which would deplete my own resources and, if she really was homeless, would not ultimately help the problem. If I let her into my apartment, I left myself open to robbery or worse. Undoubtedly, there are social services who could be contacted, but I'm not at all sure what I could tell them if I called. I should make it clear that never once has this lady asked me for anything, yet self-preservation makes me keep my distance.

It's not that I feel my behaviour is wrong or even unnecessary. It's just damn unfortunate.