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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dead man walking

Japan. The only place where a normal end to a conference is to get naked together in one big bath. 

I was at a three day "Leadership Workshop for Female Faculty" which --despite its rather wooly title-- has consisted of well thought-out sessions covering each of the main roles in a faculty position; conference presentation, academic writing, course design and mentoring. It was held at a Hilton hotel situated at the foot of the Mount Yotei; an active stratovolcano sometimes referred to as 'the Fuji of the north' due to the physical resemblance with its famous southern cousin and the similarly exciting possibility of violent death by lava. 

So far, however, I had not appreciated either the scenery of the luxuries of the hotel. As soon as we left Sapporo, fog had swept over us in an exciting bid for Autumn. When I pulled back the curtains in my hotel room this morning, I had to raise a hand to check I wasn't missing an extra net blind that had turned my view to white. I had not: oblivion was outside my window. Normally, there is a mountain. I've heard it's ace. 

Still, the workshop itself was not for mountain gazers. We were timetabled through until 11 pm (not a typo), where the last session was listed as 'optional' but with a footnote that made it clear it was as missable as potty training. 

Fortunately, everyone treated the long hours with an element of humour that causes you to band together to form a brave front. Plus, they compensated us with food. I'm going to have to be rolled out the door tomorrow.

Wrung through and full of information, I headed down to the hotel's onsen to relax in the hot spring waters. There's the benefit of the active volcano; possible horrifying death, but great baths until then. 

This was the point where I caught up with the rest of my colleagues and I had the very genuine problem of recognising them without their clothes on. 

To go to and from the onsen, the hotel had provided traditional Japanese yukatas; a simple version of the kimono typically worn during the summer or while visiting the onsen. Overheating in the 42 C water, one of my non-Japanese (this fact will become important shortly) friends and I bade everyone goodnight and went to dry off, folding our yukatas around us and tying them closed at the waist. 

As we turned to leave, one of our Japanese friends caught us with an expression of deep amusement:

"You've tied it wrong," she indicated the yukata, where we'd folded the right edge over the left. "That is only for dead people!"

Either it was a mistake, or it was an unconscious reflection of how we felt at the end of that day.

 

--
Photo was the best I managed from my window during a semi-break in the fog.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

You've made me VERY desperate

When I called my parents on Saturday night, I had had a headache for three days.

Or was it four? The details had become vague and I was cranky. 

A heat wave has engulfed Sapporo for the last two weeks, sending the temperatures into the humid 30s which might have been tolerable if anyone had believed in air conditioning. 

The problem --I complained to my parents-- was that this headache wasn't bad enough to stop me in my tracks, but it was sufficiently painful to make looking at a computer screen or book genuinely difficult. 

While I was deeply glad not to be rolling around in agony, it had become plain that if you took away my laptop and reading material, I had no other interests.

So far that weekend, I had cleaned the main room, bedroom, toilet and shower, brushed the cat six times and played dead on the sofa. In short, I was bored. 

"Well, I think we've run out of our news," my Dad said after we'd been chatting for a while. "And I don't think much of yours."

"I have to whine to you," I responded, matter-of-factly. "I don't have the depth of vocabulary in Japanese to go on about it to anyone else."

"How about going to see a film tomorrow?" Dad suggested. "Cinemas are usually air conditioned and you'd be far away from a large screen, so it shouldn't hurt your eyes."

And that was how I ended up going to see 'The Avengers' on Sunday afternoon.

The arrival of Western blockbusters in Japan varies from that of 'Harry Potter' (released the same day as the rest of the world) to 'The Hunger Games' (still waiting). Both dubbed and subtitled versions are usually shown, so the trick is to: 

(a) recognise the movie title in Japanese

(b) get tickets for the showing with the original sound track.

Western words --which extends to foreign movie titles-- are typically written in katakana; the phonetic script for words not originally Japanese. The majority of these words are originally English but reading them is like walking into a parallel universe in which Samuel Johnson was a crack addict. Fortunately, it's an acquirable skill made easier when presented with a limited list of options... although occasionally, mean tricks can be played such as when 'The Iron Lady' was released in Japan under the title 'Margaret Thatcher'. Fortunately, the 'Avengers' was written as literally as possible:

アベンジャーズ
(or 'abenjaazu' in roman letters: trust me, that's pretty good)

leaving me only to worry about subtitling versus dubbed editions. 

At a 50/50 bet, the odds here were reasonable. Plus, 'Avengers' was a movie with an optional plot: there were special effects, a bunch of familiar looking good guys (none of whom you'd select for your side if the alternative wasn't Armageddon), a bad guy with a magic stick and a cube clearly stolen from the 'Transformers' movie. What more do you need? 

In fact, I picked the correct showing due to a tip from a friend who told me to look for the Chinese character for 'knowledge' when hunting for subtitled movies. The same character is also in 'university' so it's an easy one to spot.  

I also therefore got the rather awesome one-liners from the bad guy, which can't have translated well into Japanese since I seemed to be the only one laughing. Alternatively, I was the only person present who was handling the heat quite that badly.

Mercifully, the cinema was air-conditioned. In fact, the multiplex resembled a cinema anywhere else in the world except that the popcorn and soda options on the concession stand menu were listed in katakana. In typical Japanese style, there was the odd, isolated sign displayed in bare English:

"Theatre 4"

Um. Thanks. 

Due to a love of order, you get to chose your seat at the ticket counter and the plastic cups of soda are more sensibly proportioned than their American counterparts. The number of trailers is also much shorter and you are not allowed into the theatre itself until five minutes before the time shown on the ticket. Still, since you already have a determined seat, there isn't the need to get there early. 

I picked up a coke and examined the movie posters for the other showings that day. There was a mix of the usual Hollywood blockbusters alongside Japanese movies starring brooding hot Samurai warriors. 

Damn.

I need to work on my language skills. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fill her up

When it comes to containers, my mother is a pack rat. During my childhood, she would stand in the kitchen and examine the freshly washed packaging that had recently contained a take-away or pickles or some other condiment and ask if it could be used for anything else.

This was an entirely rhetorical question, since my father invariably replied 'No', asking what she thought she was going to do with the first twenty jars that we already had stashed down in the cellar.

One day she filled them all with homemade jam, which rather answered that question.

(A updated retort might have been invented, but everyone was too busy eating to produce one).

Being the king of rubbish sorting, it is perhaps not surprising that Japan has solved the problem of excess waste packaging. Here, everyone is all about refill pouches. These plastic bags with screw top caps are available for shampoo, detergent, soap and pretty much anything else you think you might want to buy twice, along with quite a few things you only bought as an experiment but now feel obliged to use for ever more. 

Once emptied into their mother bottle, the pouch can be scrunched up and thrown out with minimal waste. (I wouldn't totally put it past my mother to reuse such an item, but I do feel that it's more of a challenge). Like so much of Japan, this is the height of benri; convenient.  

I also like the fact the original bottle I did buy for my shampoo has a squirty push nozzle that means I don't have to shake it upside down when it starts getting low. If the best things come to those who wait, I am more than prepared to opt for the second choice.

In my apartment, the only slight side effect of this system is the below-average chance of a container truly holding what its label would suggest. Currently, I would say it is a reasonable guess that a shampoo bottle will contain shampoo, but I wouldn't bet anything you truly cared about beyond that point. After all, variety is the spice of life. 

Or some of us have the sticking power of gnats, depending on your viewpoint. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shutter bug

My phone was set to silent. None of the keys made a sound. Texts, voice calls and emails screamed like banshee in space. I pressed the camera button and…

CLICK SNIIIICK

… and everyone in the public restroom became rudely aware that I had just taken a photo of a toilet. 

Ahh --I hear you say-- but you can just turn the shutter sound effect off in the preferences menu. This is surely an obvious and reasonable assumption since my iPhone does not actually have a shutter. Of course, you would be right...

ANYWHERE EXCEPT JAPAN.

All camera sold in Japan must, by law, make a shutter sound. Options to silence it are therefore removed from all hardware. This is because in Japan there are apparently SO MANY PERVERTS that it is COMPULSORY for a camera to emit a loud noise to announce to everyone in a 5 metre radius that YES, I AM TAKE A PHOTO. PROBABLY UP YOUR SKIRT. 

When I first discovered this, my second idea was to start wearing cycling shorts under my skirts with immediate effect.

The first was to stuff a long flesh coloured sock and hang it from my waist.

This is an immensely annoying law, since there are many legitimate reasons why you would want a silent camera. Photographing wildlife, for instance. Or toilets. Also, while taking photographs of exciting and crazy Japanese products in stores around town. Of course, anyone privy to my photo albums will know that I do this last regardless of the inability to conceal my actions.

Does anyone stop me?

No. 

Why?

Because doing so might involve speaking English. It is one of the advantages of having the sales staff flee behind the nearest rack of goods when they see you coming.

Shoplifting would be another. Just so you know I've noticed. 

So this is why I've rarely post photos of the crazy high-tech Japanese toilets. The ones I've taken have not come out well and I'm only prepared to try once every six months. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Procrastination

I have a confession to make. 

I hate reading research papers. 

I'd love to blame this on the fact I'm dyslexic. But --since I read half of 'Game of Thrones' yesterday on my kindle-- I can't honestly say that really holds me back. 

It's not even that I don't want the information contained within their double-columned depths; I just find the majority of them turgid, somnical toilet roles.

I'm pretty sure this makes me a terrible astrophysicist. 

However, today I was out of excuses. I had a paper that was so overdue for publication, it could have predated Brian May's thesis. The introduction had to be drafted and for that, I had to find out what everyone else in my field had been doing while I was failing to form a world famous rock band. 

Unfortunately, I had the insurmountable problem of not possessing the right coloured highlighters with which to probably annotate the papers. Clearly, they needed to be purchased before any progress could be made and --since I wanted to be sure of a suitable selection-- the store to go to was the one on the other side of campus. If only I had remembered while I was eating lunch in the canteen next door. So sad.

Admit it. You're impressed with my ability to avoid work.

The highlighters in the shop were easy to locate and --in true Japan style-- they had every single shade imaginable to choose from. The difficulty of the selection was being proved by the elderly couple standing directly in front of the shelf trying every single pen.

Every. Single. Pen.

I have no idea what they were avoiding doing, but man! It must have been bad. 

Even the woman behind the cashier was hiding smiles as the couple kept turning away, selection in hand, only to change their minds and continue to block the display. 

I filled in the time by selecting a clear file. Frankly, I don't really understand clear files. They are plastic wallets but are too thin to take more than a few sheets of paper. For incomprehensible reasons, they are immensely popular in Japan and are sold in all different colours and designs. 

Finally, the elderly couple departed and I was able to pick up my highlighters. I tried to dawdle and convince myself that the EXACT SHADE OF BLUE was desperately important but … it just wasn't and I knew that. 

I was finally out of excuses. I returned to my office and promptly wrote half the introduction. Then I stored the papers I had printed out in the clear file. It already felt overfull. I looked down at the design I had chosen; it had a picture of a train track on it. Where is that track going? TO PAPER PUBLICATION LAND. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS! …. Itty-bitty living space.

 "You may have heard that you are included as a candidate for the MEXT grant. It will be a great honor and of huge merit in research fund if you are selected. I have to discuss with you, however, about some possible demerit you would face ..."

I sat back in my office chair and pondered this email. The grant in question I had applied for at the end of July; the details had been scant but it involved a HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY for five years.

… or possibly the details hadn't been all that scant but I hadn't read further than the HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY. 

Either way, it was apparent to all involved that I wasn't aware of the small print. 

Money for academics comes in two types: First, there is my salary which I may squirrel away to spend on a stack of Pokemon plushies if I desire. Second, there is my research grant. This grant money broadly covers items such as paper publishing expenses, conference trips, laboratory or computer equipment and sometimes students. While my salary is part of my job (and I'd have to be sacked not to collect it), research grant money needs to be applied for through different national or international bodies. MEXT is the Ministry of Education in Japan. 

'Small print' in this context usually applies to what the grant money can be spent on. For instance, my last grant allowed me to buy my computer but not an office chair. 

Evidently, comfort was not considered essential for work.

This particular grant, however, turned out to be different. 

"MEXT would take over your salary as well as supply a grant..." It was explained to me at a subsequent meeting with our faculty office. "… the University will be very pleased and this would be a prestigious award for you...

So everybody wins?

… but you'd lose your pension contributions, your annual leave would be halved and you'd get no maternity benefits."

Except my mental health. 

I opened my mouth to make a response and then closed it. Well, what does one really say to that?

The message was clear: people who receive this grant are supposed to RESEARCH NON-STOP UNTIL THEY DIE! 

"However, the Japanese Government has made it compulsory for pregnant women to take 5 weeks maternity leave." The plot thickened as the details were expanded on. "But, on this grant, it is not possible to pay you.

"Well … uh …" I had a sudden image of nursing a small infant surrounded by cans of pickled eggs akin to wartime rations. 

In truth, I had no plans to have a baby but the whole process did feel like a Borg-esque assimilation. You are now 3 of 5: research drone. There was however, some light at the end of the tunnel. 

For a start, the chances of me actually getting the grant were slim. My name had been put forward by the University but my competition was researchers in every area of science all through the country. Let the medics eat the pickled eggs.

Secondly, while the rules surrounding grant administration were strict, a few backdoors might appear. Such as 'work days' at that …. World renowned… astrophysical... institute in the small Leicestershire village my parents happen to reside in.

Of course, I could turn the grant down but it would be rather hard to refuse a HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY when there is no guarantee of getting funds through an alternative source. 

FUNDING… SANITY… FUNDING… SANITY…

DAMN IT.

Feeling dazed, I returned to my office and promptly took a 90 minute lunch break in protest. 

The final part in this stage of the saga came in an email yesterday evening:

"The dates of individual interview in Tokyo at set for September 21 and 22. They ask you to save the both days for the purpose intended in case you are selected."

Where am I planning to be on September 21 and 22? North Hokkaido on a holiday with my parents. I sniffed the air. I smell cubic space ships.   

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Crowminators

Ever wonder what would happen if the Sapporo crows really did get into the garbage?

 

Imagine if 3 year olds became city workers.

And then one tried to steal your motorbike.

 

 

Welcome to the real meaning of 'Skynet'. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

PayPal, we are less than friends

May I just say, I kinda hate PayPal.

Until today, I did in fact hate them. With a fiery passionate all consuming burning-in-all-seven-circles-of-hell-simulataneously kind of hatred. So great was my rage that I was contemplating tracking down the director of PayPal Japan and walking through his house in the dead of night with filthy shoes.

It was that bad.

The bud of my irritation birthed with a tea towel. I wanted to send this particular drying item to my Dad in the UK because … well, who doesn't like tea towels? PayPal allowed me to make the purchase but insisted on the delivery address being either my home in Japan or --rather randomly-- an address I could specify in the USA. Neither choice really hit the mark; in fact they were off by thousands of miles. I contacted PayPal and confirmed this was a "feature" of their service, not an error and proceeded to resolve the matter with the online shop directly. (Who were lovely; go and buy a tea towel. Don't use PayPal). 

A few weeks later, I was in the situation of two people owing me money and being entirely willing to pay. Normally, this would be classified as a GOOD SITUATION. Since neither of them lived in Japan, we agreed PayPal would be the easiest choice all around.

One of these people paid me successfully. Hooray! I'm off to buy a giant pikachu. 

The second person tried and was told: "This recipient is currently unable to receive money."

I can assure you, this recipient was TOTALLY ABLE to receive money. PLENTY OF SPACE in that bank account. 

It turned out I'd hit secret limit (and by 'secret' I mean probably in the terms and conditions I've never once read) that stops you using PayPal until you get 'verified'. This verification requires PayPal users to confirm their identity and home address.

It was a nuisance but according to the first PayPal representative I spoke to (are you getting a flavour of where this is going?), the process was very simple. As a foreigner living in Japan, all I had to do was scan and upload a copy of my alien registration card. 

And done.

I waited.

One week later I receive an email saying they could not complete the verification process since neither my name nor address agreed with those on my identity card. 

Not the same…. yet, all transactions with my bank account have mysteriously always gone through. 

I examined my PayPal account details and my identity card carefully. There were two differences:

(1) In the address field for PayPal, I'd included the name of my building. Since my registration card had been updated by hand, only the street name, apartment number and postal code had been included.

(2) My PayPal account did not include my middle name.

Now WHY does either of those cause ANY SENSIBLE PERSON to believe there is a REAL INCONSISTENCY? The middle name problem I had hit before; it is rare in Japan to have a middle name and there is frequently confusion surrounding how to deal with them on official paperwork. Nevertheless, PayPal is an INTERNATIONAL COMPANY. Seriously, how hard can this be?

I wrote a blunt email and then realised this was pointless. Instead, I went to the PayPal website and deleted my building name from the address field. Then I tried to update my name. To update your name with PayPal, you need to provide them with proof of identity. Naturally, there was no way of specifying you have previously provided identification, so I uploaded my registration card for the second time.

They updated my name.

And put my middle name in capitals.

Hello everyone. My name is Elizabeth JANE. 

I emailed customer support and pointed this out. Nothing changed. Nor did my verification process status get updated. A week later, I emailed yet again. This time, I got a reply saying I needed to upload my identification to get verified. 

It was an online version of Groundhog Day

I emailed them yet again, detailing the dates of all our previous communications, the steps I had taken and how I had every intention of leaving PayPal.

This was an empty threat. I'd already trawled the web for different options but for international transactions, there isn't an alternative. If I quit astrophysics, I'm setting up an alternative.

I uploaded my registration card for the third time. 

Finally, I get an email back saying my verification pin number is being mailed to me.

This would be to the address for which you didn't allow me to include my building name?! 

Miraculously, Japan Post sorted it out and the slip of paper came through. My account is now verified. The sum of money I am owed from this second friend will be spent on analgesics.

PayPal, you and me have a lot of rebuilding to do. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Lord and master

A Japanese maid cafe is the closest you can come to having sex with an anime character.

Before you get too excited about this blog post, I should clarify that it's not really all that close. 

While it sounds like the most obvious front for a brothel imaginable, maid cafes feed off the anime role-playing subculture of Japan and are (reasonably) innocent. They are more accurately bars, where the premise is to pretend you are a Lord (or Lady…. but unsurprisingly, more often a Lord) having a drink on your estates, served by one of your beautiful young maids. They address you as 'master' and --despite your obvious wealth-- you seem unable to provide your staff with entirely adequate clothing. 

These cafes attract the lonely, the curious ...

… and astrophysicists taking their visiting seminar speaker out of a drink.

Don't you all want to come and give a presentation at Hokkaido now? Thought so.

Before I get called up in front of the head of faculty, I would like to say it was all the speaker's idea. He even knew where the cafes were located in Sapporo. I hadn't a clue. 

This particular cafe was small, with about 16 seats lined up along the bar. Anime posters hung on the walls and figurines above the bottles formed a ferocious line-up consisting of ninjas, giant robots, space aliens and high school girls. Two bookshelves of manga stood at cat corners and serving the drinks were three young maids. 

These girls were dressed in something approaching a traditional maid's uniform, but with an anime twist. They wore black skirts and waistcoats, with white shirts and aprons. The frilly extents of the skirts were just about decent, ending a good few inches above where the long black socks started. 

Upon sitting down, we were presented with the rules of conduct. You were not allowed to touch the maids or ask for their address or phone number. Photographs were strictly forbidden. There was an initial cover charge for the first hour and then an added amount for each extra half hour you stayed. You were also expected to buy a drink. In total, I spent 1400 yen (~ £11 or $17) for an hour and a half, which was cheap for a maid cafe and frankly totally worth it.

When I initially sat down, however, I was perplexed. Sure, the girls were attractive and looked like they stepped off the pages of a manga, but doesn't the novelty of that wear off after the first five minutes? Possibly the answer was 'no' for a particular brand of lonely salary man, but maid cafes were popular throughout Japan. What was the attraction?

What I didn't appreciate was the level of interaction you had with the maids. They chat continually to the customers, drifting up and down the bar as if it were the stage of an interactive theatre. We only bought one drink each during the 90 minutes we were there and the rest of the time chatted with the girls and each other. 

As well as bringing you a beverage, you can also ask your maid for a picture. One of the maids had a collection of photographs of herself in different anime-related costumes that you could buy for a few extra hundred yen and all of the maids would draw you a picture on a coaster. When I told my maid I like the anime show, Prince of Tennis, she drew me a picture of the progenitor. 

Of course, the main skill in being a hostess is saying what the customer wants to hear. In my case, this was clearly "Can I draw you a picture from the anime you are obsessed with?" but for others it was more about the pretence of the relationship with the maids. 

This is probably because they have never watched Prince of Tennis. 

Seated next to us at the bar were a couple of young men. As they left, one told a maid that he had no friends. She replied that she did not either and would be delighted to be his friend. He went away happy, but it was really a business transaction; he would keep paying to come to the cafe and she would make sure to be pleased to see him when he returned. 

My companions --having translated this conversation for me-- were highly dismissive.

"The ones that come with people are weak," one of them informed me bluntly. "They want to come alone but they dare not, so they bring someone."

Well then. I was just enjoying the atmosphere but apparently my friends were all about judging all the other customers.

Still, I had the temptation to return for quite a different reason; feeling obliged talk to each customer and not speaking a word of English makes the poor girls excellent subjects to practise my terrible Japanese. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wish upon a star

I had lost my student.

This was unfortunate, since I wanted to blame him for our group's analysis computer suddenly and mysteriously dying. 

Walking into the last office at the end of the hallway, I found my other student dutifully working. (This was quite impressive since I'm fairly sure each and every time my supervisor crept up on me, I was reading the BBC news). Stopping this productivity mid-flow, I asked if he knew the location of his counterpart.

"He saw a star last night," came the explanation.

… and so …? Left the field of astrophysics in shock? Was kidnapped by aliens? Made a wish for a real job and is even now on a flight to Tokyo? 

My present student made a whooshing motion with one arm. "He saw a…. comet?

He'd been crushed by a falling meteor. That would definitely make a fairly original excuse. 

Then a more likely explanation occurred to me. "Oh, he was watching a meteor shower; shooting stars?

"Yes," my student nodded as I filled in the correct English term. "All night."

Aha!

"So… why isn't he in?"

I'm a bad ass supervisor. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dirty experimentalists

"Look." I stood at the boundary between two areas in the Faculty of Science. In front of me was the building's foyer with rooms leading off for the office staff and mail room. Behind me was the ground floor of one of the adjoining twin towers; an 11 storied building containing physics and chemistry laboratories. My own office was on floor 9.

The foyer area was sparkling clean; gleaming floor tiles in a peachy marbled design reflected the attractive ceiling lamps and white washed walls. A central stained glass window depicting symbols of Hokkaido University splashed coloured patches of light across a collection of tables and chairs.

In the tower, a bulb in the dimly lit corridor crackled and went out.

"Why don't they clean past here?" I asked. "We get grimy grey flooring with foot deep grit embedded in each corner and there is clearly the ability to keep it nice!"

 

"It's because there are experimentalists here." I was told. "It's not worth it."

Dirty experimental scientists.

I knew it.

Theory needs a new building.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Drowning sorrows

"わすれてもいいですか。"

I gestured at the cluster of delicate tables over to one side of the cake shop. The woman behind the counter blinked at me, looking slightly surprised, before giving her consent. Clearly --I decided confidently-- she was amazed at hearing a complete sentence in Japanese from the mouth of a foreigner. 

That was one interpretation.

A second conclusion could be formed by noting that switching the first two characters in the verb above would result in: 

すわってもいいですか。 
May I sit down?

compared to what was actually said, which was:

わすれてもいいですか。 
May I forget?

However, I do not believe in admitting to such mistakes. Therefore, I claim "May I forget?" was EXACTLY what I meant and it was merely a polite way of ordered enough sake to knock me under the table. 

Perhaps this was why it was a surprising request in a cake shop. Still, I was not fussy:

Enough sugar to induce a coma would have been equally acceptable.

After all, it had been a tough week. If it was not a deliberate statement then it was most certainly a Freudian slip. 

BRING ON OBLIVION. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

… hello

It was 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon when I finished the last part of my class preparation for the following day. Looking at the clock, I felt almost irrepressibly excited; I had finished early enough to go grocery shopping AND clean the bathroom!

… it was shortly after this that I realised I was failing at life. 

Arguably, the cat-biscuits-in-the-rice-cooker incident was an earlier indication but I've never been one for dwelling on events. 

I was planning to write long, insightful posts about my experiences as a first year faculty member. They were to be filled with thought provoking statements about the balance between research projects and teaching commitments; the rewards and difficulties, the pain and the pleasure. It would undoubtedly be nominated for a Nobel Prize and become a white paper for future developments in higher educational resources. 

... if only it were possible to move a touch further away from the odor of RAW HYSTERICAL PANIC that filled my mind each time I attempted to rationalise my situation into coherent thoughts. 

Guys. It comes down to this:

Teaching.

Is.

Hard.

Who knew? Well… teachers. But who believed them? No one. 

I am now half-way through the year (Japan is a half-year out of sink with the West, so I've completed one semester and taught one course and still have a second semester and a second course to go) and have been sent a cheerful reminder that my first tenure-track assessment will be next month. 

Picture the gateway into Mordor.

ONE DOES NOT SIMPLY WALK INTO MORDOR.

Because one must teach a class. Then, the gateway is behind you, that small box in the top left corner of the form is ticked and the rest of the assessment will be on the WORLD CLASS RESEARCH YOU'VE SURELY DONE TO FIND THE ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL.

Frankly, I'm holding out hopes for big marks allocated for keeping on top of things to the extent of not posing a significant health risk to the rest of the department.  

The saving grace is that I WAS in fact told life was gonna be this way. I was assured that first year faculty was tough but --unless you had the grievous misfortune of teaching a different class the following year-- the second year was significantly better and you might actually get to do research. Or shower. I'm hoping this means my review committee have seriously low expectations. 

Meanwhile I have six teaching-free weeks. I'm thinking 6 research papers. Or 60. Aim for the stars! Because if you fall short… I'll be doomed because I'm an astrophysicist. Darn. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Goodbye sanity

Friday night I came home about 10 pm. It was late, but I was hungry and keen to relax for a bit before going to bed. I put the rice cooker on and then stepped out to the nearby convenience store to pick up some juice, which I'd run out of the night before. Convenience stores in Japan are 24 hours which is nothing short of wonderful for late-night working researchers. 

I came back to a terrible smell.

My first thought was that I'd turned the stove on and left a tee-towel or plastic container resting on the heated ceramic surface. My second thought was that the rice cooker had exploded. The third was that the cat had exploded. 

None of the above proved to the true. The stove was turned off, the rice cooker seemed to be bubbling normally and the cat appeared fine, as did her litter box. 

I sniffed.

Everything.

I stuck my nose down the sink, in the rubbish bins, behind the sofa, in the fish tank and in the fridge.

Nothing.

Admittedly, for something of that ilk to have kicked up such a stink while I was at the shops, some crazy mutant bacteria would have had to be at work. However, after eight months living in Japan, nothing really surprised me anymore. 

The only point I could conclude was that the stench was coming from the kitchen. Perhaps my downstairs neighbours were trying to determine which of their waste was 'burnable garbage' in the most obvious fashion. I opened the balcony doors and tried to breath through my mouth until the rice cooker finished. 

It was only then that I discovered the source of the smell.

I'd put cat biscuits in the rice cooker.

I'd love to tell you there was a typo in the above sentence, but there is not. I had put cat biscuits in the rice cooker. 

For the record, Hill's pet science diet should not be cooked in a rice cooker. What is more, I'm prepared to postulate that this would apply to any heating device. I can confirm categorically that it was not a good choice to put with the sea food stir fry I was planning.

I stared at the vomit-coloured lumpy mess and realized there was only one possible conclusion.

Teaching has sent me insane.

It's sad, people. But it's true. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Fishes

Meet Bonita and Manchas. 'Bonita' means 'pretty' in Spanish and 'manchas' means 'spots'. Manchas is the fish with black… yes, you guessed it. 

How did I end up with two goldfish with Spanish names?

Well, I'd acquired them from a Chinese friend in my Japanese class. Obviously. 

Finding herself leaving Japan in the switch from postdoc to faculty, my friend had been unsure what to do with her fish. Taking a cat and dog on an aeroplane was one thing but…. had people even written import regulations for fish? Live ones?

Despite the obvious problem (pictured in the lower pane above), I had volunteered for adoption services. Regardless of my best efforts, I had failed to lure birds to my ninth floor apartment and thought that the fish might provide something in the way of feline entertainment. How long this would last depended partially on the strength of the tank lid.

My friend came over with the tank and water filter, I watched a youtube video on how to clean a fish tank and rested a book on European history on the lid. The lid promptly buckled. I swapped the book for one on American history. 

This was a few weeks ago and I still have two fish. This means that:

(a) my cat has not eaten them.

(b) I narrowly avoided killing them through the temptation to dump them in a tea pot of tap water while I cleaned the tank. It's a good job I tweet my important intentions. 

Tallis hangs out by the tank from time to time during the day. She's never attempted to remove the lid, either because the watery contents filled her with horror or because I placed a large stuffed cow on top of the history book. She does occasionally bat the tank with one paw when she feels there isn't enough action. The fish are unmoved. Often literally.

The fish themselves are surprisingly interactive. I never actually thought fish acknowledged (in a distinguishable manner) the world outside their tank. Once the glass was clean, I experimentally placed a photograph of the galaxy by one wall. It was an attempt at a Total Perspective Vortex but it apparently just confirmed was great fish they really were.

Each morning when I appear, the fish come to the front of the tank and glare at me. You wouldn't think fish were capable of demanding breakfast, but apparently there is no limit to what can bully in my household.

I am going to take my revenge by eating my seafood dinner on the sofa beside their tank. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bugs & birds

I stood in my new office and looked around. Everything was big. The room was big, the white board was big, the bookcases (and their number) were big, my desk was big and my desktop computer was big. 

Then there was me in the middle wearing jeans and a baggy 'grape Fanta' sweater. Ho hum.

Until last week I had been sharing an office. While slightly unusual for a faculty member, I had not minded the situation. My office mate was friendly, spoke great English and --perhaps more to the point-- was never there. He was involved in the design and construction of astronomical instruments and spent most of his time at various observing sites preparing his mechanical off-spring for their deployment. 

Unless observational astronomers are vastly different from their theoretical counterparts, I could see why getting a new instrument to the stage it could be safely left was a prolonged process. 

The previous owner of this office had retired. In academia speak, this meant he had accumulated the addition of 'emeritus' to his professor title and moved to a different building. As I examined what had been left in the drawers and cabinets, I wondered if retirement happened through choice or was something that was foisted upon you once your office contained a critical number of floppy disks. By the time it is my turn, that unit of measurement will probably be USB thumb drives. 

In addition to the large box of floppies, I discovered a collection of astrophysics books in Japanese and a variety of small magnets of the type used to pin cards and notes to metal surfaces. I picked one up and attached a card to my white board. There. Much more homely. 

Most of these magnets were a standard round shape in a solid colour such as blue or red. However, two were shaped as pink hearts and four were miniature lady birds. I raised an eyebrow. 

When a couple of students rolled into my office, I pointed out these surprisingly aesthetic additions. The ladybirds were promptly stacked on top of each other and attached, pointing outwards, to my board. It looked like an erect org--- Well, never mind. 

"In Japanese, we say 'tentoumushi'. 'Mushi' means 'bug'." I was told. "What are they in English?"

"Ladybirds," I supplied. "In UK English, 'Ladybird' and in US English 'Ladybug'."

"Bird?" came the surprised retort. "But they are not birds, they are bugs!"

I opened my mouth and then closed it. Then I scratched my head and examined the magnets. "Look, " I said at last. "It doesn't happen often, but sometimes the Americans get it right."

"And why lady? They are not ladies!"

I scowled. "Because ladies are pretty and delicate unlike boys."

Sometimes, even professors need to resort to school-yard insults. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Do the iRobot

"MEEEOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW."

I looked down at my feet in time to see my cat's teeth almost pop out of her jaw through her impassioned screech. I knew the sources of her distress:

We were currently experiencing a magnitude 6.0 earthquake.

And she was being pursued by a robotic vacuum cleaner. 

"Have you seen that thing? Is it a robotic cat? Why does it bump into walls? LOOK! ITS BUMPING HAS MADE THE WHOLE BUILDING ROCK! HOW COULD YOU HAVE LET IT IN HERE?"

Up until that evening, I had been using a cordless stick vacuum cleaner I had bought second hand. That particular device had many good points; it was light and easy to maneuver, it didn't take up much space in my apartment and it had a built-in dust buster than was great for cleaning up cat litter. What is truly failed on was carpet.

The study area of my apartment is almost entirely covered by a thick rug I bought from Ikea in Canada. This is the location where Tallis uses her scratch pad and rolls around in a box filled with cat nip. It is also where I normally eat dinner while watching an episode of 'Naruto'. The stick vacuum can take this area from 'major biohazard' to 'probably won't kill you if you leave quickly'. I can't honestly say I've ever found this totally satisfactory, although there are some weeks where the thought I might not make it through the month acts as a ray of hope. 

Buying a new vacuum cleaner was therefore on my list. However, the choice wasn't obvious since the machine had to be able to clear a carpet but not be so bulky that storing would be a problem. After deep consideration of many models, I went for the most logical compromise:

Screw the practicalities and get something amusing. 

An amazon review then made the choice of a Roomba iRobot cleaner obvious: "Smart technology, no work for me, drives the dog nuts - what's not to like?!

It sounded perfect

I confess, I was skeptical as to its real cleaning powers. What I actually required (apart from a good laugh at my cat's expense) was a machine with better suction than my stick vacuum. It seemed to me that the amount of oomph you could get from a Roomba's spinny centripetal motion was never going to rival a large upright cylinder with room for all kinds of exciting upward air currents. 

Yet, amazingly enough, it does the job. 

OK, its cleaning random walk is sometimes a little too random. Rather like me, it needs to be boxed into an area for maximum efficiency to ensure it doesn't wander off into the kitchen and leave patches unfinished. Sometimes it loses the location of its docking station. Sometimes this is because I accidentally locked it in the bedroom. Once it found its way under a chair but then couldn't escape. It kept devotedly cleaning the same purple square of carpet until I came and rescued it. 

It is a little too loud for comfortable background noise. Ideally, I'd turn it on and then leave the apartment but I'm reluctant to do this until I'm certain it won't have a show down with the cat.  

Its instruction manual is in English which I feel disproportionately grateful for after the difficulty with buying a microwave. I have made full use of this good fortune by storing the manuals safely on my bookcase and then just hitting the vacuum's large central button labelled 'start'. Ideally, I'd move onto the more advanced options, but it's hard to summon up the necessary effort when you can get so much for so little.

Now my carpet is clean and the cat is exhausted. It's really one big win all round. 

 

In other news, please excuse my lack of updates… teaching is eating me in one mega goat gulp. 

 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The world in pink

I was trudging through the rain back to my apartment when I saw it. 

A lone tree between the supermarket and the car park.

A lone tree covered with blossom.

The sakura cherry blossom had finally reached Sapporo.

Down in Tokyo (where blossom festivities had finished a month ago), the sakura is preceded by several weeks by the plum blossom. Here in Sapporo, where the snows only stop for about 20 minutes, the trees have to get a move on and both plum and cherry blossoms appear together in a riot of spring pinks and whites. Since these tender tree flowers last only a precious couple of weeks, I took off to Sapporo's main shrine in Maruyama Park as soon as the rains shows signs of abating.

As did the rest of Sapporo.

Literally Every Single Person. It was a miracle the subways were even running.

It had rained solidly from Thursday to Saturday, but on the last Sunday of Golden Week (so named for its multiple national holidays), the sun peaked out between the showers. I reached the park to find the lower ground had become the land of a million BBQs while the upper blossom grove swarmed with people and cameras. Mainly cameras.

If one were to paint the scene, a grey sandwich for the threatening sky and photographic equipment with a thick pink and white jam splurge in the middle would capture the moment. It was beautiful and the atmosphere of excitement was contagious. 

So contagious that I bought a giant squid on a stick and half a sweet potato from a nearby stand. 

The arrival of the sakura is a major event in the Japanese calendar. Weather forecasters plot the advance of the cherry blossom as it moves across the country and everyone gets ready to eat, drink and be merry. It's like Christmas, only outdoors. I strongly suspect every Japanese family photo album is 3/4 full of identical close-up pictures of the tiny pink and white flowers. 

Just as I sat down with my sea creature and spud lunch, the skies opened in a downpour. People ran for cover and started moving the picnic tables into the shelter of the food stands. Except they couldn't move the one I was sitting at since I hadn't budged. I am British after all.

One of the women working at the food stalls came up to where I was nonchalantly seated and tucked the spare chairs underneath the plastic table. "Are you OK?" she asked me.

Are you dying? Is that why you haven't moved? Don't you know if you DON'T MOVE OUT THE RAIN YOU WILL DIE?

I peeked out of her from underneath the hood of my rain jacket. "I'm good!" I told her with a squiddy grin.

She looked astounded. 

I finished my grilled squid. Typically, the rain then stopped. It really was just like being back at home.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Towing the line

I approached the woman behind the counter at the 'Tokyo Hands' department store and put my purchases on the counter. I had done this exact same action the day before. Same time, same store, same goods. I hoped very much it was not the same shop assistant. Does it count as deja vu when you really have done it before? 

One of the first adjectives I learned in my Japanese class was 'benri' meaning 'convenient'. At the time, it struck me as an odd word to have come up so early (how many times do you use the word 'convenient'?) but that was before I understood more about Japanese culture. 

The ideal Japanese life is perfectly described as benri and nowhere is this more apparent than inside a Japanese apartment. While small, apartments in Japan are designed extremely efficiently with every inch constructed with a specific activity in mind. If you are able to curb your rebellious streak, it is indeed a very convenient lifestyle. The built-in cupboard by the door is for shoes (a fact that escaped me until my movers tried to put my foot wear in there when they unpacked), the one above the washing machine perfectly fits a bottle of detergent and not much else. Flushing the toilet runs water into an integrated wash basin as it fills the tank and any Japanese homeowner believes the kitchen cupboards should be filled in a very particular manner. The balcony, meanwhile, is a place to hang out clothes to dry. 

The presence of a small balcony is a common feature in Japanese apartments. While --with a bit of a squeeze-- you could put a chair and small table out there, it is obviously not what the architect had in mind. The barrier that stops you plummeting to your doom is normally a concrete wall high enough to block any view a seated martini drinker might enjoy. It also boasts two built in racks designed to support a pole on which to hang washing. 

It is normal for each apartment in Japan to have its own washing machine, but not its own tumble drier. Potentially, you could buy a two-in-one device (there is no space for a separate machine, the apartment design completely forbids you buying one) but most people hang their laundry outside during the warmer days. In Sapporo, this actually means a few scant months when the place isn't filled with snow, which explains why this was a new venture for me. 

'Tokyo Hands' offered a range of sizes for washing poles and, while I had measured the length I required, I wasn't sure which pole would be best. This goes someway to explaining why I ended up buying two poles on subsequent days; the first pole was a success so I went back to buy a second. I also hadn't bought enough pegs, which explains the second repetitive purchase. 

I attempted to break this strange real deja vu sensation by going up two floors, rather than one, to use the bathroom after I'd paid. This plan was flawed by the men's and women's restrooms alternating floors. I resigned myself to a predictable afternoon. 

It must be said that drying clothes outside basically rocks. Of course, I had done this many times at my parents' house but since then I had either not had an outdoors area, or lacked a fail-safe way of erecting a make-shift line. Now, however, I could put my wet clothing neatly out of the way on my balcony, go about my day and when I returned it would be all air dried and wonderful. 

…. I was just congratulating myself on my purchases when it started to rain. You would think my memories of the UK would remind me of this obvious drawback. Since I had hung items out on my single washing pole, I expected to return to find a soggy mess. Instead, I discovered the balcony above had protected them from the light shower and they were perfectly dry. How…. convenient.  

 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Close encounters

There is only one elevator serving the eleven floors in the physics department. This makes any trip from my 9th floor office to the Great Outdoors one to be considered carefully, since the wait time on the return journey can turn even the quickest trip to buy a soda into a day's expedition. 

On Wednesday, I had gone outside for two reasons: the first was that I was hungry and my computer monitor was starting to look like a large slab of extra dark Lindt chocolate. The second was that it was a beautiful afternoon and the rest of the week was forecast for nothing but rain. 

The rest of the week was also a national holiday. That, people, is what we call UNFAIR.

On my return, I chewed on the straw of my grapefruit juice and waited for the elevator to make its round-robin way to the first floor. I was just regretting not purchasing more food (maybe dinner and tomorrow's breakfast) when the doors slid open to reveal a young man standing in the centre of the elevator. His phone was flipped open but rather than looking at the screen, he was staring at a spot on the floor just in front of my feet. 

He did not move.

I hesitated. Clearly, there were two possibilities for what was going on here:

Either the elevator had become a stasis chamber or its occupant was a cyborg.

I almost didn't step inside. Then I realised that my hesitation might mean the cyborg knew his cover had been blown. No doubt he had been programmed to open his phone while updating, thinking this the ideal cover in a country where everyone is permanently glued to their handsets. YOU GOT TO LOOK AT THE SCREEN, MORON CYBORG. Yet another classic example of why computers won't take over the world. For others, see my published research. 

However, revealing I had discovered his ploy would undoubtedly result in alien abduction and probing and memory reassembling that would wipe my preparations for my next class and the whole thing would be in Japanese, so I wouldn't understand and therefore couldn't even blog about it!

Besides, I was meeting representatives from a nearby high school at 5:30 and an abduction was bound to over-run.

I stepped into the elevator. Time appeared to run normally. I flipped open my phone and tried to blend in. This was pointless since I had no signal while we moved. SEE HOW DUMB YOUR SCHEME IS, CYBORG BOY? After three floors, the cyborg looked up, then down again. This time, his eyes found his phone screen. 

I escaped on level 9. The cyborg continued going to level 11. Particle physics is probably history. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A fowl problem

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A few doors down from my apartment complex is a small shop that sells plants. I've never been inside since --being a small place-- there would be the obligation on the shop keeper's side to make polite conversation and only appropriate word I know the Japanese for is 'tree'. The conversation would therefore progress something like this:

"Good evening. Are you looking for a particular plant?"

"Tree."

"I'm afraid we don't have anything as big as a tree. How about this small shrub?"

"Tree."

"No, I'm sorry, we really have nothing larger. What about a herb garden?"

"Tree."

"Are you on day release from a unit for the mentally disturbed?"

"Tree."

"If you say that to me again, I'm going to be forced to call the police."

"… tree?"

Clearly it was not a good idea to go inside. I therefore have always just passed by, looking at the small array of pots on the pavement. Last night when I went out to get a pint of milk, one of the pots had become the perching ground for a crow.

Sapporo crows have two main distinguishing features. Firstly, they are the same size as my cat. Secondly, they are ballsy feathered fiends who fear no man or beast, probably because there is no man or beast they wouldn't consider eating. That said, they usually at least take a hop back if you get within touching distance. Undoubtedly, this is because a head on attack requires the room to spread wings.

This crow, however, did not move. I stopped before it and wandered whether it was stuffed. Its shiny black eyes implied it was the real article but it made no move to get away. I debated touching it but thought I would probably lose my hand.

This concern transpired to be a real fear of the shop owner since, upon my return journey a few minutes later, the crow was being interrogated by not one, but FOUR police officers. Most likely they had been called out due to fears that said fowl was scaring away customers / preventing the owner leaving the premisses / a look-out for a pot plant heist. The officers had the bird surrounded but appeared unsure about the next step. How do you handcuff a crow?

While the crow was remaining mum on all subjects, I personally felt its cock-sure attitude in the face of armed forces spelt a clear message:

"You got nothing on me. I've got friends in high places. REAL high places. And your eyes? They're breakfast."

I moved along in case I was about to bear witness to a terrible crime.

The next morning, both crow and police had gone. It remains uncertain as to who got rid of who. Notably, I have not seen the store owner since.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Snowflakes to baseballs

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I woke up on Easter day and it was spring.

Despite the fact it had been snowing the day before, I was only halfway into town when I had to unzip my winter coat and stuff my hat into my bag. Then one of the snow grips on my shoes snapped off. The message was clear:

It is now spring. Residents are supposed to dress accordingly.

And that was that. It never snowed again. The next day was a monday and I walked into campus to find the piles of snow rapidly melting. In the more sheltered areas between buildings, workmen were taking pickaxes to the larger chunks of ice so they would disintegrate more quickly. By Tuesday, the snow blowers were on the sports courts clearing them ready for the spring season. I walked to class on Thursday to the rhythmic twang of tennis balls on rackets as the clubs swung back into action.

Around this time, I began to suspect Japan was actually a giant reality TV show inside a climate controlled dome. I hoped it was more in line with 'The Truman Show' and not 'The Hunger Games'.

I read the Hunger Games to prepare just in case. I find it suspicious there is no release date for the movie in Japan yet.

Within a week, the snow had all disappeared. The white and grey frozen ice mountains have been replaced by newly seeded grass. The risk of falling flat on my back each time I step outside has gone...!

…. switched for death by bicycle or by flying baseball. Both road and pavement are packed with biking students and every square of grass has at least seven others throwing baseballs in some complex catch pattern that always seems to cross the path I want to take.

In short, there is never a season for which it is inappropriate to wear a hockey helmet.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

On a Thursday

"Eleanor!"

I recognised the person who was shouting from the bike racks next to the international student centre. He was an Indonesian student in my Japanese communication class along with (among others) a woman named Eleanor. I therefore did not take much notice until he jumped in front of me.

"You are from England!"

I struggle with my surprise while trying to compose an answer that consisted of something other than 'I know'.

"Um, I …. yes."

"I know someone there. Laura. Do you know Laura?"

"……..."
In my imagination, I freeze the scene and turn to the camera that I know is making my life into a prime-time TV drama. I lift an eyebrow in disbelief.

"Ahhh." Back in reality, my accoster was nodding wisely. "There are many Lauras in England."

"It is a country of … millions ... of people," I say weakly.

"I assumed you were studying Earth Sciences! In my country, we have an exchange with England for Earth Science!"

... and therefore every British person does Earth Science? I suppose that would make them the number one country to do a study exchange with but rather harder to find anyone to feed you upon arrival.

"I'm actually faculty in Physics," I reply. "What are you working on here?"

"In my own country, I am an assistant professor!" came the declared answer. "Here I am working on my PhD!"

Did that mean he was a professor without a PhD?

Thursdays. Arthur Dent was right; you just can't get the hang of Thursdays.

I escaped to have lunch.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bath time

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Baths used to be more relaxing.

I lay in the bubble laden water and watched the source of my stress step carefully along the damp edge of the tub. This had been the first time since I had brought Tallis to Japan that I had taken a bath[*], a fact I hadn't appreciated until the panic stricken cat call reached my ears.

"YOWL!"
HOLY CRAP. YOU'RE COVERED IN WATER! AND IT'S DEEP! COME OUT! COME OUUUUUUUUUT!

I had ignored the cry which had resulted in a furry form leaping precariously onto the bath's ledge. Being a cat, Tallis' balance is naturally excellent. Excellent… but not perfect. Her paws slipped dangerously as she made her way towards the taps. I sighed and reviewed my options. An additional complication in this situation was that I was holding a large book out of the water.

(Yes… the ideal relaxing evening… a soak in hot water while reading my novel. Currently, it was more stressful than the battle I was reading about.)

If Tallis would fall in the tub, I would doubtless have to sacrifice my tome to a watery grave and fish her out. While I doubt she would drown, I strongly suspected the water would run red. From my blood. This was not part of the evening I had planned. I therefore settled for holding the book (a meaty hardback) in one hand and encouraging Tallis to jump down (in the right direction) with the other. This success lasted all of two minutes before she was back up.

"Yowl?!"
You're still alive! Maybe it's not so bad and …. SO MUCH WATER! WHHHYYYY??"

She was no more impressed the second time. Or the third. In the end, she jumped onto the floor and I covered her with a gobbet of bubbles. The indignity sent her fleeing from the room. However, the peace was shattered, not least because I couldn't rule out the possibility of a flying feline leap into the tub from a spot outside my sight. NOT RELAXING.

Since attempting to do the washing up while the bath was running had resulted in somewhat luke warm water, I abandoned the venture. Next time when I want to chill out, I'll just go and stand outside in a gale. MUCH more relaxing.

--

[*] I hasten to add my apartment has a shower

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Cooking pizza in Nippon

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Today I completed a task that I've been attempting for six months.

I bought a microwave.

Now you might think --logical readers that you are-- that purchasing a basic kitchen device in the land of futuristic electronics should not have been a half-year quest. Indeed, a stroll through any electronics store would reveal a multitude of promisingly shaped food heating devices. Since a typical Japanese kitchen will boast a hob but no oven, microwaves are big business. Walking from one end of a shop's kitchen utilities floor to the other will take you from the most basic food heating box through to full portable steam ovens capable of cooking everything from bread to roast chickens.

What I was after was something in the middle of that range. I was no master chef, disappointed in my inability to produce seven tiered cakes as bribery to the snow gods (although with still no break in the weather, I was more seriously considering it). I just wanted to re-heat food and maybe cook a pizza or bake a handful of cookies from time to time. In short, what I wanted was a convection microwave.

While I wasn't able to read the majority of the descriptions beside each device, it was fairly easy to narrow down the aisles of black boxes to the ones focussed on the product I had in mind. Familiar brand names such as Sharp, Panasonic, Toshiba and Hitachi met my eyes, known world-wide for exactly these microwaves.

Whipping out my phone, I made a note of several promising serial numbers. Back at home I planned to google each one, grab their English manual and check out the reviews on UK and North American sites. Easy no?

After all, there was surely NO WAY that ALL THESE MICROWAVES, manufactured by international companies, were ones SOLELY FOR THE JAPANESE MARKET? With not a single one of them having an ENGLISH INSTRUCTION MANUAL?

… I think you can tell the way this went down.

If you feel this is truly unbelievable, try google on the 'Sharp re-s204' or 'Panasonic ne-s264'. It turns out these companies are all secretly Japanese and do not offer any of their home country selection anywhere else in the world. Who knew? You can't even write 'Sharp' in kana, the Japanese phonetic script. It would have to be 'Sharupu'. Yet, it is a closeted Japanese corporation.

So completely unlikely did I find this entire situation that I kept re-trying and searching for different brands and models. For six months. So when I tell you it can't be done, be assured that this was a thorough investigation. I even looked at pictures of the microwaves available in Europe to see if the model number just changed because the front panel was printed in Japanese. A cunning idea, but unyielding in its productivity.

The problem was that with the more complicated microwave ovens, I strongly suspected I needed an instruction manual I could read. If I was happy with something that just required a time to be set I could certainly manage, but without access to an oven, I really wanted something more advanced.

In the end --after realizing that the snow was never going to stop and hot food would be needed year round-- I searched for the simplest design and alighted upon another Panasonic model with a grill, oven and microwave function. Most notably, this microwave had an amazon.co.jp review from a foreigner who said he could manage it without being able to read the instruction manual. I clicked 'this review was helpful' and hoped I wasn't foolish to place my faith in a man named 'Raymundo Jr'. Also encouraging was a translated review on a second site which stated that it was so easy to operate, it could be managed by the elderly. I remain hopeful that the quality of the translation had no baring on the un-pc nature of that remark.

That settled, I showed it to my parents who had offered to buy such a microwave as a Christmas present. Christmas… Easter … it's very easy to get these Christian holidays confused. However, when they tried to buy the microwave, their credit card was refused.

This is quite clearly because SECRET JAPANESE MICROWAVES ARE NOT FOR FOREIGNERS.

I put down my own (Japanese) credit card. They have responded by declaring the item is not yet ready to ship. If I emerge from the likely secret service investigation with a microwave, I'll let you know. Else, I'm putting a BBQ on my balcony.

 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

April

In case you were wondering whether anything had changed since April began...

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…. it hasn't.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Stopping the rock

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Today, I bought something awesome. Strips… of plastic. Thick clear wedges with a similar consistency to a child's chew toy. I did not gnaw on them.

But I did think about it.

As you can tell from the photograph, these wonders of engineering are not teething toys shaped for animal-fearing fruitarian children. Rather, they provide the equivalent force of FOUR baby elephants in an acrobatic combination to hold your furniture fast against the force of an earthquake.

My first quake since returning to Sapporo happened only a couple of days after my arrival. I was seated fetal-style in front of my gas heater, with my eyeballs pressed into my kneecaps. The aim of the game was not to fall into a deep jetlagged-induged slumber at 6pm and --as you can undoubtedly tell-- I was totally winning.

Being in an earthquake is like being on a boat or suffering from a sudden dizzy spell. I looked up groggily and tried to determine if my brain was making it all up.

Bowls rattled. I saw the cat turn tail and try to flee before realising the danger seemed to be EVERYWHERE. She froze and mewed.

This quake was not in any way serious, but it was prolonged, shaking the apartment for several minutes. It was even long enough for me to produce some kind of reassuring response to my petrified feline. I held out my arms.

"Yo. I can hold you but it won't help. We'll just sway together."

This transpired to be completely satisfactory. Possibly Tallis' longstanding enforced role as my dance partner as I bounced around the apartment was paying off.

No earthquake can beat Katy Perry.

I meanwhile, was watching my crockery. It sat on an open bookcase with stylishly misaligned shelves. While fairly secure during normal operations, being shaken about always came with the slight risk of COMPLETE AND UTTER DESTRUCTION. I yawned and tried to get my fogged-up brain to think. It produced the single thought:

Which garbage day would be for broken crockery?

You can see why I thought I might be imaging an earthquake. Fortunately, nothing broke.

Now however, we have SUPER ELEPHANT POWER CHEW TOYS to fix all the problems! Shaped as long wedges, they slide under the front of furniture to tilt them backwards very slightly. This means that if they are rocked, they are more likely to tip back against the wall than throw your plates at your cat. The bookcase feels considerably more stable, so much so that I moved the complete "Lord of the Rings" hardback volume I had been using for stability from its bottom shelf. It's now across the room holding the cat tree in place.

For some reason, I never finished reading that book.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The city God forgot to colour in

Japan is celebrating the arrival of spring. Last week contained a public holiday to mark the Spring Equinox. Pink plum flowers are appearing throughout Tokyo and the city is preparing for next week's hanami celebrations where hoards of people will descend on the parks to gape up at the famous cherry blossoms. As I walked to work this week, I wondered if I too should be celebrating the arrival of the warmer weather...

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… and decided, on reflection, no.

To be fair, the weather is showing signs of changing. It no longer snows all day, every day. It now snows all day some days and some snow all days. The periods of heavy fat flakes are shorter and a bold attempt at rain in the form of sleet has started to appear.

With only the smallest of considerations to confirm that 'The Day after Tomorrow' was indeed a movie, I can honestly say this is more snow than I have ever seen before in my life. I mean, the last time I saw a whole pavement must have been the best part of five months ago. If I had started building snowmen in November, by now I could have created an UNDEFEATABLE ARMY with which to rule the WHOLE WORLD.

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Except the sticky heat of Florida. But that's going under water soon enough.

Then I googled images of Sapporo (to try and determine if we ever even had pavements) and discovered that the annual snow festival had already had the same terrible idea.

So enjoy your spring, Tokyo, but be warned: we're coming.

P.S.  Please send sweatshirts.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On Balor's Needle

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In my teens, my favorite author was Tamora Pierce. Pierce writes historical fantasy books about --and I quote the author-- "girls who kick ass". In one of the later books, her heroine Keladry is forced to confront her fear of heights by climbing down a rusty iron staircase that winds around an observation tower named 'Balor's Needle'.

I couldn't honestly say that the outside staircase to my apartment bore a strong resemblance to the decrepit death trap in the novel, but it was close enough to make me cling to the hand rail. While the concrete steps and their high outer wall did not suffer from rust, I was fighting large patches of ice and snow that always seemed to appear at the critical point where the stairs narrowed to turn the corner.

The reason I was taking the stairs was because the elevator was down for maintenance between 11 am and 12 that day. Why I was home at all during that one key hour when I am never usually near the building, was because I had forgotten my access number for the super computing system in Tokyo. It was the only time since I started my position in Japan that I had ever returned home for something. It was also the only time the elevator had been out of use. Since I had started that morning with my trousers on back-to-front, I couldn't honestly say the day was going all that well.

There is no inside stair to my apartment, just the elevator and the outside steps I was now slowly plodding up. Such a design is popular in Japanese apartment buildings, possibly because the probability of such an exit becoming unusable because of fire is low. That said, with Sapporo's snow fall, it seems likely the stairwell would become blocked by snow for half the year and dangerously icy for panicked getaways. I made a mental note to either wait for such a fire to take hold sufficiently to melt the outside snow or for the bodies of my broken neighbours to pile up in the stairwell to break my own fall. I am all about practical planning.

As I reached the 9th floor, I looked across at the opposite apartment building to where the giant Sapporo crows appeared to be attempting a break-in through the top story door. You had to wonder how those birds got so large. Was it from feasting on people escaping down outside staircases?

The problem with climbing stairs is you have far too much time to think about ice, rust and … death by crow.

I arrived at my apartment to find an immensely guilty-looking cat. The source of her crime never became clear however, so possibly it was reflected remorse at my wasting time to return home at such an hour. If so, her emotional pain continued since I decided my mental health couldn't take the walk down the stairs, and I lurked until the lift came back into action.  I replied to a few emails to make it look like I was really in my office … with the door locked just … hating the world… I'm sure that will give the best impression at work.

When I returned I discovered acquiring my access number was only half the battle to gaining entrance to the desired computer. After a frustrating afternoon installing a variety of programs and burying at least three toads in wiccan sacrifice, I discovered I wasn't allowed to begin using the system until next week.

Mondays. They're just there to annoy you.

Monday, March 26, 2012

How to glue your iron

curtains

Today, I covered my iron with glue. Twice.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give this idea no more than a 3. It misses the bottom score purely because it did come off and the first coating peeled away in a single layer, which was satisfying in a similar manner to popping bubble wrap.

This whole sticky scheme started with curtains. I feel I could be forgiven for not correctly predicting the outcome.

The main room in my apartment has a set of patio doors which lead onto a small balcony. In Japan, it is normal for every apartment to have a washing machine, but rather less common for them to have a tumble drier. People therefore hang their clothes out on their balconies which have built-in racks for exactly that purpose. If it ever stops snowing, I'll be able to give that a go.

Since I like looking at the city lights, acquiring curtains for these glass expanses has been low on my job list. The neighboring apartments near me are also not as tall, so I've been blithely waving away the possibility that my indecent state in the mornings can be seen by half of Sapporo. If anyone sees that the site 'www.nakedhokkaidogaijin.co.jp' has been registered, let me know. Nevertheless, the windows do look rather bare without curtains at least framing their perimeter and their absence is often commented on by visitors.

This weekend was not the first weekend I set out to correct this negligence. What had thrown my previous attempts asunder was the difficulty in acquiring the appropriate length of material. My measurements indicated I needed a 188 cm curtain, but the curtains on offer were either 178 or 200 cm. This was particularly perplexing because almost everything else in Japan is a neat standard size, so why on Earth couldn't I find the perfect fit in window outfitting? The architect for my building was clearly a rebel.

Anyone about to suggest I make my own curtains should finish reading this post first. You will then abandon such a notion.

After confirming that a 178 cm curtain would make my home look like a gangly teenager after an unfortunate growth spurt, I reluctantly purchased the 200 cm curtains. My bold plan was to hem these up to the appropriate length. Judging from the time it had taken me to raise the back of my trousers so they didn't trail in the mud, it seemed likely this project would be finished around Christmas.

2013.

Then I would do the second curtain.

On the look out for pet food, I found myself in a haberdashery. This happens when you can't easily ask for directions. Taking advantage of this discovery (since I had no idea what 'haberdashery' would be in Japanese), I hunted down some matching thread for said shortening project and then spotted a truly awesome solution: the no-sew tape for hemming. While I had never used this before, I understood the idea. You only needed an iron. I had an iron. It would shortly be covered in glue.

At home, I hung one of the curtains and pinned it to the length I wanted. I then examined the instructions with the no-sew tape. They were brief… and in Japanese. Still, it wasn't like I really ever read instructions even when in English. I looked at the picture. It appeared to show a strip of no-sew tape being placed just inside your desired hem and then this tape sandwich being ironed. Between curtain and iron there was a second wad of cloth, which I assumed was to protect the curtain from the iron's scalding surface. I shook out the pack and found the roll of no-sew tape and a separate bundle of cloth. This cloth was CLEARLY the curtain protector.

… or more no-sew tape in a sheet rather than tape form.

Sadly, the second option did not occur to me until I had pressed the hot iron down directly onto this second cloth. All layers of it.

For those not familiar with this product, it transpires it works by the finely spun tape or cloth becoming a glue when heat is applied. If it is correctly placed between two layers of material that need to be joined, it fixes them together. If it is in direct contact with an iron, it covers the iron in glue.

This was unfortunate. I unplugged the iron, ran it under the cold tap and began to scrub once it got cool enough not to melt my sponge. This had no effect whatsoever but the glue had been sufficiently thickly applied to form a pealable layer once cool. Pulling it off was a bit like removing dead skin after sunburn. Thought you'd enjoy that analogy.

Once the iron was clean, I went back to the task in hand. Since my curtains were made of machine-washable cotton, there wasn't really a problem with ironing them directly.

… Except for the fact that one end of them was also covered with glue from where the other side of the no-sew cloth had been resting.

Disappointingly, I forgot this until I pressed the iron to that area. We were back to square one, except this time there was much less glue so removal had to be achieved via elbow grease. This was annoying.

Fortunately, this second glue-your-iron experiment had burnt off the last of the outside glue. By the time I had reached the end of the first curtain (I had re-started on a clean patch after scrubbing my heart out), the remaining dregs were sufficiently dry to allow me to re-iron the failed beginning and seal the hem. The second curtain went much more smoothly. Ah, the great gift of experience

The end product is at the top of the page. Please feel free to add copious amounts of admiration below. And yes, that is a giant crayon in the right-hand corner. Why do you ask?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Revenge is a dish best served cold

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Trouble with getting out of bed in the mornings is hardly an unusual complaint. The difference is that while most people don't want to leave the warmth of their covers, I physically couldn't. Carefully, I attempted to extract the leg that was bunched up by my chest. The knee emerged, but the shin was still trapped under my second leg. This limb was stretched out, but prevented from moving away from the wall by the stone-like object positioned perfectly centrally on the blankets.

My cat had found her revenge.

In the end, I tipped forward and fell ungraciously onto the floor. Tallis deigned to open one large yellow-green eye and yawned.

"Do you know how uncomfortable I am?" I demanded. "All my muscles are scrunched up!"

This didn't receive any form of verbal reply but somehow the image of the cat carrier was projected into my brain.

You would think one half-decent kick would shift Tallis along to a more acceptable position but somehow her body mass seems to increase by a factor of 100 when she goes into ball-mode. Remember the Pixar movie, 'The Incredibles' where their youngest son, Jack-Jack turns himself into a canon ball so the villain can't fly away with him? Yeah. Tallis recalls that too.

Perhaps to fully appreciate this problem, I should explain about my bed. When we lived in Canada, I had a Queen sized frame and mattress. To be honest, this was too large (or so I thought at the time) for what was normally just me and a cat. I had opted for that size to match the bedding I had bought while living in a furnished rental in New York. That apartment had a Queen bed, so when I came to buy my own furnishings, I matched the dimensions and reused the sheets. Despite the fact I loved the mattress, I knew a Queen bed was never going to fit in a Japanese apartment. I'm pretty sure that if you put such a mattress in my bedroom, you wouldn't be able to open the door. Actually, you would not be able to have a door at all, since my bedroom door opens inwards. It would have to be unhinged and propped up against the bathroom preventing me from ever using the toilet.

So, it was sell the bed or lose the kidneys. I went with the former.

Since my furniture took three months to ship from Canada, buying a new bed was actually a pretty good move. After some research, I discovered I had three main choices for bed design:

(1) The normal western-style bed with a frame and mattress. This is very common in Japan and almost all of my friends sleep on such a bed.

(2) The traditional Japanese-style futon, which consists of a thick foam pad on a tatami mat floor.

(3) A hybrid option, whereby you have a bed frame with a solid tatami mat top surface on which you then lay down a futon.

My apartment does not have any tatami mats, being pseudo-wood flooring throughout. However, I was reluctant to buy a normal western bed. For a start, I might not find a mattress I liked as much as my old one, which would cause me to SULK each time I went to bed. Secondly, I was IN JAPAN! It was exciting, new and I wanted to integrate by sleeping on a futon!

… Even if no one else was.

I therefore went for option (3) and, after some careful measuring, purchased a 'semi-double' tatami mat bed. A semi-double is in-between a single and double bed in size, with a width of 124 cm (49 inches). It is often the size newly wed Japanese couples buy, before they can afford a double bed. This brings me to one obvious conclusion:

Cats take up more space than husbands.

Or maybe they are just harder to kick.

A Japanese futon is somewhat different from the Western product of the same name. For a start, the term 'futon' refers to both to the foam pad underneath you (the 'shiki futon') and the blanket on top (the 'kakebuton'). The Brits would call a kakebuton a 'duvet' and the Americans… well, I'm going to go with 'comforter' and you'll have to live with the fact it just isn't the same kakebuton fluffy cloud of awesome. The shiki futon is thinner than a Western futon and can be easily folded into three sections for storage. Futons are often sold as a set containing both parts.

An advantage of opting for the tatami mat bed over a straight futon, was that I could have drawers underneath the bed for extra storage. When my bed was delivered, the men assembled the frame but not the drawer set. When I asked why, I received a monologue in Japanese until I decided I would just go and buy a screwdriver. As any Ikea fan will not be surprised to learn, I had to assemble the drawers twice; the first attempt having a key early panel placed backwards.

As a final touch, I purchased a Japanese style pillow which is filled with beans rather than feathers. It's a slightly odd sensation to lie on but it's not uncomfortable. I quite like rolling around on it as a DIY scalp massage. I confess though, that when my feathery pillows arrived from Canada, I did switch them over and leave beany pillow as the optional extra.

So there we had it; one perfectly Japanese bed. Tallis tells me it is exceedingly comfortable. Perhaps I should take the hint and move to the couch.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Jumbos


On the day I was born, my Dad went out to buy me my first toy. He chose a cuddly elephant; a simple design for infants with two big ears, a trunk, two feet and a rattle. The staff at the hospital were dismissive of this gift, informing my parents that babies were not interested in soft toys for many months.

THEY WERE WRONG.

Dad was later to say that this elephant was the most successful gift he had ever bought anyone. It became my constant companion and when I was old enough, I named it:

Jumbo

(Friends party to a recent discussion in which I attempted to name my iPod shuffle 'iPod shuffle' will now realise my inspired christenings began at an early age. Just be glad my cat isn't named 'cat').

As the months went by, concern started to grow that the loss of Jumbo might mean irreversible psychological damage. For my parents, that was, since it seemed likely I would scream for the next 20 years in such an eventuality. Since Jumbo came everywhere with me and had an adventurous spirit with a love of water, insanity was looming on the horizon.

In an effort to protect against the inevitable, Dad went out and purchased a second toy elephant. This one looked exactly the same as Jumbo, but its rattle had a different tone. I named this one:

Jumbo 2

Jumbo 2 was a popular addition but suffered from one very obvious flaw: She wasn't Jumbo 1.

In a desperate second attempt, a third elephant was purchased. This one sounded just like Jumbo 1 but was a different colour, having orange ears and a white coat rather than white ears and a yellow coat. Clearly, he too was also not Jumbo 1.

Oddly, while the second two Jumbos had clearly defined genders, Jumbo 1's gender remained ambiguous. Possibly this is deeply significant. Could these two Jumbos never replace THE Jumbo because of Jumbo 1's unique transsexual life perspective? Did Jumbo 1 feel constrained by the psychological pressures surrounding children's toys? Or perhaps the neutral colour of its original box left it without a feeling of identity that only intensified as I grasped my own. DID JUMBO 1 JUST WANT TO BE FREE?

... that would explain the number of times Jumbo 1 got lost.

Dinner guests at our house would often have to be introduced to the three Jumbos. I would stand by the door to our sitting room and hold up the first elephant.

"This is Jumbo 1."

There'd be the customary murmur of what I deemed was approval, but on later reflection was probably sympathy: This poor mundane child. She would probably grow up to became a physicist. Oblivious to this remorse, I would then proceed to hold up the second elephant.

"This is Jumbo 2."

A polite laugh would eminent from my audience. I would then hold up the third elephant.

"This is..."

"Jumbo 3." They would always chorus.

HOW WRONG THEY WERE.

".... New Jumbo," I would say, astounded at the stupidity of the people before me. What sort of completely ridiculous name would 'Jumbo 3' be? Good grief. These people were supposed to be adults.

Nobody understood my genius. UNTIL NOW.

May I point you all to:

iPad 1, iPad 2 and the NEW IPAD.

When it was launched, Dad sent me an email asking if I'd secretly been appointed Head of Naming at Apple. I replied that my bank account suggested I had not.