Thursday, July 21, 2011

Humongous wasps of hell

I had been to bed late the night before but despite this I was wide awake at 5:30 am.

This was because there was a two inch wasp in my room.

The size of my thumb and then some, the creature's loud buzz alerted me to its arrival, causing me to spring from my sheets before it landed on them and squashed me flat. Its body was covered with dark fur but beneath the hairs I could see the yellow and black stripes.

Those stripes did not say harmless cutie pie.

They said you are going to die.

... right after I've mated with your coat.

Not wishing my bedroom to be the breeding ground for humongous wasp / Gore-Tex hybrids I picked up my umbrella... which promptly broke. I gulped and prodded my coat with the broken end of the brolly, getting ready to run. Fortunately, even Satan's own insects succumb to the common male problem that size isn't everything and --done with my coat-- it left out the window. I swiftly barricaded all the entrances.

Later that day I was describing this horrifying, death defying experience to a friend at work.

"Ah," she said nodding. "If those wasps sting you more than once, you can die."

We're all doomed. Someone bury me under an apple tree.

(Note: for the record, I'm pretty sure what we're talking about it one of these, even though the body seemed less brightly coloured.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dark dealings

The fact that public restrooms do not usually have western style toilets is not normally a problem. After all, even the best facility in a park has people traipsing wet and muddy feet throughout its tiled interior, while its open door policy and au naturale location means the majority of its guests have six legs and do not use toilet paper. As a result, I'm usually less than enthused to place my shiny-clean bare backside down on any surface.

The traditional squat toilet takes away that problem by being specifically designed for non skin to porcelain contact. In fact, one might even describe it as ideal... if I could see.

It was 5:30pm when I wandered into Nakajima park and the daylight was just starting to drop. The restroom actually did have lights --short fluorescent strips above the two wash basins-- there was just no way of turning these on. There were only two buttons in this side of the building and both controlled the water for the taps. Either this was an automatic detection systems that failed to note my stealthy restroom usage or someone had forgotten a key design feature.

Once I had closed the door of a cubicle, I couldn't see much. With no substantial ceramic object to grip, it was a question of crouch ... and hope. Fortunately the lack of light also prevented from knowing whether I was successful.

Bright orange lunches

Sapporo fish market is small. Well, let me clarify the scale: Sapporo fish market is tiny compared to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market but since that is the largest in the world, perhaps that is setting the bar rather high. Compared to the fresh fish counter at Sainsbury's, Sapporo's market is humongous. It is also largely filled with crabs. A Hokkaido speciality, there were huge crabs swimming around in glass tanks, crabs sitting on ice with their legs neatly tucked under them in a crab package and crabs being served up in the restaurants nestled between the stores. It was into one of these that I stopped for lunch.

My guide book particularly recommended not the crab, but the fresh sea urchin and salmon roe. I picked one of the restaurants in the centre of the fish market that had a steady stream of visitors. By trying my usual trick of looking hungry yet solvent, I was guided to a seat and handed a menu with a lot of pictures. After I'd pointed out my selection (a rice bowl with salmon, roe and sea urchin), I sipped my iced tea and looked around. My choice of establishment was one of the larger options with maybe three large tables that could sit about six, another three smaller tables for two and the counter area where I was seated. Many traditional Japanese restaurants are very small, with sometimes just half-a-dozen tall stools pulled up the counter. Somewhat incongruously, this restaurant had Indian music playing continuously through the speakers above my head.

My meal arrived in a spread of florescent orange goodness. Sea urchin in particular looks the opposite of what it is; appearing to be highly processed and faintly radioactive rather than freshly caught that day. It was all excellent. The salmon roe popped in your mouth and the sea urchin had a salty tang.

I left and accidentally walked straight into one of the crab stores opposite. A particularly large specimen snapped a claw at me. I narrowed my eyes; next time buddy, you're mine.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Father, Son, Holy Spirit.... and his wife

Today, I was accosted by a crazy Christian group. This was surprising for three reason:

(1) Firstly, the majority of Japan is not Christian but Buddhist with a Shinto flavouring.

(2) Secondly they kept asking me about Passover which, being a Jewish festival that occurred in April, didn't seem to have an obvious connection to the topic in hand. I tried to explain this, they looked astonished and it was only with the later help of wikipedia that any of this started to make sense[*].

(3) Thirdly, they asked if I knew Obama... I admitted I might have heard of him.

Nevertheless, it was an unmistakably Japanese experience as proved when one girl went looking in her bag for a Bible and produced her iPhone with the appropriate religious text App. Two of the others were also carrying open netbooks. The group consisted of four women; one older lady and three girls who looked to be students. Despite their enthusiasm for evangelising to random foreigners walking across Hokkaido University's campus, the small group's English was only slightly better than my Japanese. This meant than indepth philosophical discussions were even less likely to be successful than with your average megaphone wielding street preacher. To their credit though, they tried hard.

While they spoke Japanese and their iPhone Bible App appeared to be in Korean, the literature they had about their church was in English. Various parts of this were thrust under my nose from which I learnt that this was a Korean-based denomination and one of their main concepts was "God the Mother" as opposed to the more usual, "God the Father". They also held their religious day on Saturdays and were somehow involved with the United Nations and had donated to Haiti. Then I was shown a picture of millions of people all holding up their right hand.

... After which I concluded this was a Feminist cult with plans to take over the world who was not above political bribes and possibly had enough people to be successful.

Later investigations on wikipedia didn't immediately suggest world domination plans but explained that this church believes that there is both a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother which exist as two facets of the same God. Their current leader is a woman who is considered to be the one promised in the Bible. They also believe that the second coming of Christ has occurred but before you get too excited, you've missed it; he died in 1985. Additionally, they keep Passover which their interpretation of the Bible states is essential for salvation.

After many minutes of strained conversation, the group attempted to lead me to their church. I declined, explaining that I had to teach. The fact they believed me on a Saturday afternoon says much for the Japanese work ethic. They did try and persuade me to come back and then asked about what I was doing tomorrow... or next week ... or ... I evasively suggested I taught continuously; morning, noon and night. My commitment to education knew no bounds! In the end, I touched my eyes and told them I would look out for them in the future.

"毎日! We here everyday!" They assured me.

I must find an alternative way to work.

[*] This term is used lightly.
[Author note: I should add that I have a huge amount of respect for all religions and the denominations within them and have a strong set of personal believes, but I'm slightly perturbed by street recruitment.]

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Knowing where one's towel is

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is completely clear on the subject of towels:

"...Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it,
slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows
where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

As opposed to a random western foreigner with sticky, butter covered fingers who just looks plain incompetent. In truth, I did know exactly where my small towel was... it just wasn't in my pocket. Currently, that was particularly unfortunate.

Walking through Sapporo's Odori Park on a Sunday afternoon, I had stopped at a stall to buy a corn on the cob. I sat eating it while I watched a group of teenagers rock out to a jpop dance routine they seem to have prepared especially for the group of girls perched watching them on the lip of a fountain. As I finished and dropped my devoured cob into a trash can, I looked down at my hands. No napkin had been provided with my purchase because Japanese people tend to carry small square flannels (wash cloths) with them for just such occasions. These towel-like accessories were thicker than a normal handkerchief and normally brightly decorated. I had two .... but one was in my desk at work and the other was floating around my bedroom. Sighing, I rubbed my fingers together and turned away.

"Ah...?" The inquiry came from a Japanese lady who had been sitting close by and had bought her own corn shortly after me. She was now holding out a disposable wet wipe.

I stammered out my thanks in Japanese as I accepted it, ducking in the customary bow. "Arigatou gozaimasu!"

She smiled and stood up, "Bye," she said as she walked away.

".... Bye."

Perhaps if I bought another 20 cloths and shoved them into all my pockets, I'd be good for the streets.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Flower power

"You can eat that flower."

I examined the serving dish in the centre of our table. It contained the sashimi starter for the night, including tuna, shrimp and scallops laid out on a bed of leaves and flowers.

As far as I could see, the yellow flower was quite blatantly a marigold.

"In Japan, it is normal to be able to eat everything on the plate," another person at our table explained. "Although, it is worth taking care. Sometimes, the flowers are plastic."

Potentially crunchy. Got it.

I picked up the flower with my chopsticks and examined it closer. Still a marigold.

"The taste is very bitter." The first person who told me that the flower was edible was our head of group. "I don't really recommend you try it."

You just told me it was edible. It's totally getting eaten.

I nibbled off a handful of leaves. The taste was slightly tangy but not particularly strong. Clearly these people just had weak taste buds! I popped the whole thing in my mouth.

Hell, the centre was bitter!

Wincing, I swallowed and took a swig of coke. It didn't help, so I followed it with a scallop. It marginally softened the taste.

Our head of group touched his chopsticks at a large green leave with a sharp point. "These are less strong," he assured me.

.... For the record, that proved to be only marginally true.

Friday, July 8, 2011

More than words

The problem with language --apart from it not always being English-- is that it is more than just words. This means that even the best non-native speaker can sometimes convey a meaning quite contradictory to the one meant.

One such example occurred in my first research meeting with my new group at Hokkaido University. We were discussing a project to model a small spiral galaxy with the astrophysics simulation code I had been using in my work and had now brought to Hokkaido.

"We would like to use a rotating reference frame," our head of group told me.

Yeah? Well, I'd like a pony.

The desired numerical jiggery-pokery which would allow the galaxy to remain stationary during the simulation while retaining the same properties as if it were rotating, was no minor task. It was especially difficult for this particular type of code. To implement it would take months of coding, testings, more coding and frankly, I'd probably screw it up.

However, what was really being asked of me was:

"Is it possible to use a rotating reference frame?"

Which has quite a different tone to it. In the first case, it sounded like a politely phrased demand for the project; the equivalent of telling an architect you wanted a revolving restaurant on the 43rd floor of your new building when he had been drawing up plans for a log cabin. By contrast, the second option is simply a request for information, with no implication that a negative answer will result in the project being unsatisfactory.

So far, I have been able to remember this likely translation error in time to stall voicing my equine desires. Answering the inquiry as if it had been phrased in the second way produced an entirely satisfactory response.

Hopefully, time will allow this to be the automatic understanding so that I don't have to mentally go through selecting breed, coat colour and wing span for my new steed. Not least because Japan might just produce such a mount and then I'd have an awful lot of computer coding to do.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Conforming to type

"In Japan, we think no one in the UK uses an umbrella. Is this true?"

It had been a gorgeous weekend, but on Monday morning I had awoken to heavy rain that continued into the afternoon. It was now lunchtime and the theoretical galaxy research group were gathered in the hallway, waiting for the lift.

I looked around our group.

Every single person was carrying an umbrella. Apart from me. I was in a rain coat.

It was hard to deny with any sense of conviction.

No clothes beyond this point

It's surprising how quickly you can get used to being naked in public. I plopped my small towel on my head as I entered the 40 C outdoor pool at one of Sapporo's city onsen. Around me, other women similarly attired as the day they were born, chatted quietly as they soaked in the hot water.

The traditionally Japanese onsen always feels to me like an cultural oxymoron. Here, where people are reserved enough to bow rather than make contact when greeting one another, everyone is perfectly happy to strip down to their birthday suit and climb into the same bath. The genders are usually separated but my new country has still seen more of me than all of my old ones combined[*].

Onsen are geothermally heated by the hot springs that are prevalent throughout Japan. In previous onsen I had visited, everything you required was provided on entry. There was usually a large pile of bath towels, a smaller one to take into the onsen with you and soap and shampoo at each of the wash stands you use before entering the pools. Perhaps because it was a city onsen, as opposed to a larger resort-type establishment, this facility worked differently. At the entrance was a machine covered with buttons where you could select the options you wanted. This then dispensed tickets that you took to a counter. I pressed the button for an adult admission to the onsen, looked at the others in blank confusion and went into the changing room, showing my ticket as I entered.

Then I came back out again.

Whatever the other options were, one of them involved being able to rent a towel. I approached the woman at the desk and gestured my confusion. She spoke a little English, I a little Japanese and more helpfully, her spiral binder of options and prices for the bath house spoke both. I pointed to the choices for two towels, a shampoo and a bar of soap. She walked over to the machine and showed me which buttons they corresponded to. I tried to remember the combination, realised I was likely to fail, and made a mental note to bring my own toiletry bag next time.

Back in the changing room, I pushed my clothes into a locker, picked a location to conceal with my tiny towel and stepped through into the bathing area. There were a series of pools to choose from; two indoor and one outdoor. There was also a jacuzzi and deckchairs half emerged in water to relax in.  Before entering any of the communal pools, you have to wash at one of the multitude of little stands around the outside of the room. Each place has a small seat, shower and bowl associated with it. I washed thoroughly. Then I did it again because I didn't want to be thought an incompetently unhygienic foreigner. I was half-way through my third rinse when I realised this was ridiculous. I cleaned my area and walked to the outside pool. Later, I tried the chairs, the jacuzzi, the outdoor pool again, the .... You get the idea. I bathed. It was good.

Not all Asian women have model-thin bodies and gleaming hair, but enough do to be slightly disconcerting. However, any feelings of inferiority are masked by the realisation that you are COMPLETELY NAKED in public. Fortunately, you are also quite obviously the only person who considers this remotely out of the ordinary so the feeling of awkwardness doesn't last.

Since my accommodation only has showers, being able to easily drop by a natural hot spring is all kinds of amazing. The only problem was I was so tired afterwards, I only made garbled sense to my parents when I called them. It is feasible they didn't notice anything strange.

[*] OK, so possibly this isn't true of the UK, but if I don't remember those early years, they didn't happen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A call for change

"When the trouble with the Fukushima reactor started, young people in Japan felt that they wanted better information from the Government."

It was evening at DK House and I was sitting on the porch step. Most people came out to this area to smoke. I was there to eat an egg. The speaker was one of my new Japanese friends who was in Hokkaido to take advantage of the cooler weather before returning to Tokyo in the Autumn for law school. He had previously told me that the power saving measures in Tokyo in the wake of Fukushima shutting down meant that the city was uncomfortably hot. Prior to taking up law, he had worked for one of Tokyo's TV companies and had a strong interest in journalism.

"You mean they want the government to be more honest about the situation?" I asked, opening the small container that held three eggs.

My friend nodded. "The problem is that newspapers will not speak ill of their sponsors," he explained. "But the electrical company is one of their major financial backers."

"So the newspapers won't report that Tepco [Tokyo Electric Power Company, owners of the Fukushima plant] has done anything wrong because money from them supports the paper?"

It was a natural reaction; no organisation would want to jeopardise their main source of funding. What it produced was a financially imposed restriction on freedom of speech in the press. Probably in the past, this limitation had not been an issue or it had gone unnoticed. As problems with Fukushima escalated, however, people wanted to know why Tepco weren't being hounded for answers.

In Japan, very few companies are allowed to produce power, giving those that do a monopoly in their region. This means the reach of electrical companies is long and the power they wield (social as well as literal) is substantial.

"They are also one of the biggest donaters to Tokyo University," added my friend dryly.

Oh. OH. So academics were also subject to these bonds.

My friend rose and returned with today's copy of a Hokkaido newspaper. He opened it and leafed through the sheets, looking for a particular section. "This page is very important," he said, gesturing to three or four articles. "It is the newspaper's opinion page." He pointed to a picture of a middle-aged Japanese man in the right-hand article. "Remember this man. He is the president of SoftBank."

Softbank is one of the largest telecommunications companies in Japan. Its president and founder is a man named Masayoshi Son who has the dubious honour of being both the richest men in Japan and the person who has lost the most money in history. He has been previously described as a philanthropist.

"He supports many new ideas, including renewable sources of energy." My friend's hand moved over the article in disgust. "This piece claims he is only interested in doing so for money."

I frowned. "The newspaper thinks he wants to make money for himself by promoting alternative energy sources?"

"The newspaper is largely funded by the electrical company in Hokkaido."


"Hokkaido University may also receive money from the electrical company," my friend said. "You should ask. I would be interested to know." He folded up the newspaper again. "Change isn't easy. But many young people in Japan want to see these things done differently." He pointed to the egg still in my hand. "That will be soft inside. You will need a bowl."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Think I'm gonna eat worms

"Here, have one of these."

A small tin and a pair of chop sticks was passed my way. I had just got back from my first day in the office and was now sitting at a table in the communal area of DK House; student dorm-like accommodation specialising in international visitors to Japan. Peering into the tin's contents I saw a series of small curly brown nut-sized objects suspended in water.

"What are they?"

"Silk worms," the girl next to me declared cheerfully. "They're from Korea."

I instinctively dropped the chop sticks. "What do they taste like?"

"You know those things you can sometimes eat ... and afterwards, it feels like your mouth is full of rotting garbage..."

"You're not selling this to me."

Obviously I ate one. Well, how often in your life are you casually passed a tin of silk worms to nibble on? It tasted .... exactly as you might imagine. Even if you didn't look at the curled up little striped bodies, there was really no way from the texture you could pretend you were chewing on a nut. Or rotten garbage. Nope, it was a worm.

I took a large swig of beer and downed a carton of strawberry milk. Amidst the laughter, one of the other girls leaned across the table:

"Welcome to Japan."

Rice pudding

"Omelette or rice pudding?"

By my watch, it was 1 am in the morning and we were about an hour from touching down in Tokyo. While I am normally cheerfully adventurous with my food, breakfast was a meal for which I found hard to stomach anything out of the ordinary. Admittedly at 1 am EST and 2 pm JST, this wasn't really a morning meal, but I had just woken up so my body seemed to think it might be.

"Rice pudding," I requested.

That sounded like a good plan; gentle on the stomach with perhaps some sugar or fruit...

..... or carrots, chicken and mushrooms.

This was one of the rare occasions I was completely caught unaware at the differences between Western and Asian style cooking. While the 'norm' for meals in the different areas of the globe is substantial, the food usually has a different name. Plus I was on an Air Canada flight so wasn't really expecting any surprises. The stewardess should have knocked me on the head with the food tray and given me an omelette.

In the end, I managed a few mouthfuls and then switched to the more comprehensible melon side dish. I'm pretty sure the two Japanese passengers either side of me were amused. They also both ordered an omelette.