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.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Street wise

The street naming system in Sapporo is confusing.

The most confusing thing about it is that is it on a grid and therefore should not be confusing.

Yet it is.

It is confusing and makes you feel like an idiot for being confused. See, just like that it gets you twice.

Contrary to popular opinion, just because I am British does not mean I can't handle a grid system. I did well in New York until I hit Broadway and I was fine in Florida until I found that 38th Street was followed by 38th Terrance followed by 38th Drive. America tried to confuse me. She failed. I just had to do a bunch of U-turns. Japan, however, saw me standing on a street corner utterly flummoxed.

On paper, Sapporo's street system looks amazingly ordered for a Japanese city. It is a strictly adhered to grid divided into quadrants by the long Odori Park which runs east-west through the city and the river which runs north-south. Addresses then have the format 'North X West Y'. Easy, no?

So how was it I was standing on the street corner of a road labelled '5-South, 12-West' which was being intersected at right angles by another road also declaring itself to be '5-South, 12-West'? What was more, the previous road that had intersected '5-South, 12-West' a block back was ALSO called '5-South, 12-West'.

My new apartment, incidentally, was at '5-South, 12-West'. I had previously visited the building by car (driven by the real estate broker) back in July, but now I had signed the contract and picked up my keys and I was excited to see my new home. Or at least, I had been until about twenty minutes ago. Now I just wanted to kick something.

Since I seemed to be in some kind of crazy magic mirror maze, I decided to scrap actual addresses and go for deduction. I had to be close and my apartment was on the ninth floor. That ruled out all the buildings in my immediate vicinity apart from four apartment blocks.

The first one of these was pink. I would not have picked a pink apartment. I dismissed it.

The second building had the wrong name. My building's name is "Classé", written "クラッセ" in Japanese, and this one was called 'Helio'.

The third building had the name "グラッセ" which is frankly just being mean.

Finally, I went to the forth building. This high-rise was one street over and as I walked, I realised what the street numbering system meant. '5-South, 12-West' wasn't a road or an intersection, it was a block. The roads on three of the block's four sides have the same name. This means that the street address actually marks out a region, not an individual road, and sometimes quite a large region since blocks can be big. It also explained why the taxi driver turned down a street too early when driving me from Sapporo station. I had just thought he was incompetent.

At this stage, I probably would have just broken in but fortunately my key fit the forth building's lobby lock. I walked into the bare apartment and went to sleep on the floor. Directions are too hard; I need a smart phone again.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Catch 22

"Your credit card application has ... this time ... been refused."

Our head of group was scanning the letter I had been sent from the credit card company which was all written in Japanese. I tried to rearrange my face into an expression of polite confusion as opposed to indignant fury. I had filled in that application at the end of July. It has come back to me once with queries about my contact details and now they had gone and rejected me point blank. What was more, it was the university's own credit card system for its staff and students, so credit history (or lack thereof) was specifically supposed to be not an issue. What was their beef?

"I will call them," our head of group promised. He returned a short while later saying that they were due to call him back with an English-speaking representative who could talk directly to me. Security considerations meant that they could not pass on details of my account to a third party. It made sense. I followed him into his office and waited for the phone to ring.

"Is this ... Tasker Elizabeth?"

That'd be me. In a backwards sort of way.

"Can you confirm your identity with your date of birth and office phone number?"

"Erm... could you please hold for two minutes?"

I hasten to add it was the phone number that I had no clue about. I never touch the handset on my desk since (a) fundamentally, I hate talking on the phone and (b) the fact it is likely to be in Japanese does not endear the situation to me. I dig out the phone number from a list of documents on my desk.

"Unfortunately, your application for a credit card has been refused this time."


"We cannot give details of our process."

Well, that clears everything up! I looked around for something to bang my head against.

"What confuses me," I tried again politely. "Is that I know you offer the credit card to foreign students. I am a foreign professor. How can I not qualify if the students do?"

The woman hesitated. "Well...," she said carefully. "It is hard to fill your details into the system when they are not complete. You have no number for a home or cell phone..."

"I don't have either."

"Yes, but that section is blank..."

I got what she was trying to tell me. My credit card application had been rejected because I didn't have a cell phone. That was all well and good except I needed a credit card to get a cell phone.

There was really nothing suitably hard enough to smack my head against in this room.

To be fair, once I'd recovered from my mild concussion, there were solutions to this problem. A credit card was not needed for a prepaid phone, I was just loathed to get one just so I could replace it with a smart phone once I got my credit card. However, I had only asked one company about contract deals and it would later turn out that other providers would accept a bank debit card instead of a credit card. Now the decision became: do I wait for the iPhone 5 later this month or get an android? Then if I went for the latter, there was a shiny new Fujitsu handset due out in November and ...

.... basically, I'm never getting that credit card. Or a cell phone. If you want to contact me, I hear messenger pigeons are great.