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.