Old Christmas, New Year  

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Christmas is done and dusted for another year, and despite my pre-Crimbo gloom, it turned out to be quite an enjoyable one. Perhaps prompted by a bit more explanation of the deeper meaning that Christmas carries with it for us gaijin, the wife made a big effort to make it a fun time for all of us. And indeed it was, despite the absence of that special Christmas Day feeling. It is totally unreasonable to expect that we will ever fully replicate the feeling of a “true” Christmas as far as I am concerned. Nevertheless, and as the missus pointed out, their family traditions are no less valid than mine. What I think of as a proper Christmas is just my opinion; that’s all. What I’ve always wanted is to try and bring a bit of extra magic and a bit of depth to their day. And I think it’s fair to say that this was achieved. Well, as much as can be expected anyway.

Now we are in the full throes of preparation for O-Shogatsu, the Japanese New Year. In contrast to Christmas, the Japanese take New Year very seriously indeed. The house has to be cleaned from top to bottom and all duties and obligations discharged by the end of the year, so that everyone can start the New Year afresh. It’s a nice thought and one that I am more than happy to go along with. It is customary to visit a Jinja (Shrine) to pray for good fortune in the coming year. In the past we have visited the massive Sensouji temple in Tokyo on New Year’s day. But it gets very crowded, so I think this year we’re going to sample the delights of our local jinja at the end of our street. They’re planning some special events so it looks like fun.

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A stiff drink  

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Spotted in Kichijoji

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Great expectations  

Sunday, 21 December 2008

I have just returned home from my first Bonenkai – the Japanese version of the Western Xmas party. Bonenkai means “forget the year”. While there is no tradition of Christmas here, as my last post explains in great detail, great store is placed in the year-end/New Year. So it’s a time to bring the year just gone to a close and to begin to look forward to the year ahead with renewed spirits of comradeship and shared endeavour.

Naturally, this is best accomplished with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol.

This evening’s do was courtesy of my iaido dojo. I say the word “my” with a good deal of pride, because I have today been formally accepted as a member of this dojo. This is actually a real honour and one that I am personally very thrilled about. I won’t bore you, dear reader, with the details but suffice to say, the lineage of my teacher – and therefore my own learning – can now be traced back over 450 years in a direct, unbroken line. It means a lot to me that I have been allowed to share in this treasured heritage.

But aside from all that, tonight was fun. I feel like I have joined a new little family. And I feel that I am a genuine part of it rather than just the “token gaijin”. I have read blogs by other western martial arts students in Japan – some of them in reference specifically to my dojo – where they have expressed a sense of bitterness about feeling “excluded”; of being allowed to participate, but not feeling part of the group. I am a bit perplexed by this, as this has not been my experience. It appears to me there can be only two explanations: Either I am too dumb to have noticed that I am being “excluded” or the person complaining of such exclusion has had a different experience to me. I genuinely feel it must be the latter, although I feel at a loss to explain why that should be the case. I suspect, however, that it’s something to do with people’s expectations.

Before joining this dojo, I had read on a particular blog about the “intense” sessions; the remorseless training regime that allowed no respite. As a middle-aged bloater, the words “intense” and “training” used in a single sentence are a genuine cause for anxiety. But as someone who prefers to make up his own mind, I went anyway.

The first class was tough: My legs hurt like crazy for a week afterwards and I had no skin left on the toes of both feet. But this is not unusual – I’ve had the same experience in England many, many times. It’s called a normal training session. It’s what I would expect from following any martial art discipline. Nobody said much to me while I was there – it didn’t bother me because I was there to train. So I went again, and again, and again. Slowly, people respond to the fact that you are serious about what you are doing.

The act of willingly putting yourself through a physically difficult routine is really the essence of martial arts. What you are doing is conditioning your mind as much as your body. But of course, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Unfortunately, this seems to have become the case with iaido in some parts of the world – the UK included. In some quarters, the perception of iaido appears to be – as with some Aikido schools – that it is a purely esoteric/spiritual pursuit, completely abstract to a real physical confrontation or a life-or-death encounter with an opponent armed with a razor-sharp sword. Consequently, the attitude in some quarters appears to be that if you don’t feel comfortable with a technique because your knee hurts or you are too fat to sit in tate hiza or you don’t like doing breakfalls, you can adapt the technique to suit your liking. Of course, this is utter nonsense.

In the UK, for example, it is very common to see people performing kneeling techniques from a standing position, even during a grading or in competition. I have not seen that done once here: either you do the technique properly, or you don’t do it at all.

There is a reason for that: It is the act of deliberately throwing yourself at the ground, or relentlessly practicing the same sword technique, even though your toes are bleeding and your legs are killing you that is training your mind to cope with difficult physical situations. The discomfort is the very essence of martial arts practice. Some people just can’t deal with that. Perhaps it is a sad reflection of our something-for-nothing western culture that some of these kind of people appear attracted to iaido because they see it as an easy route to a dan grade in a martial art. That maybe true in some places. But not here.

Personally, I am very happy to have been given the opportunity to spend 3 hour sessions under the gaze of an attentive and extremely knowledgeable teacher. I don’t expect anything in return – fancy certificates or impressive titles -  nothing except the hope that my technique will improve if I work hard and that I will enjoy the companionship of my fellow students while I practice. And perhaps even a few beers afterwards…What more could any martial artist want?

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よBloody ほほ (yo bloody ho ho)  

Friday, 19 December 2008

It’s Christmas time and here in Japan, like everywhere else in the known universe, that means streets festooned with decorations and Last Christmas blasting out from every shop PA system. However there is one major,major difference between Christmas here in Japan and the rest of the world: While the rest of the world will be enjoying a fun-filled, relaxing Christmas Day on December the 25th, in Japan all the decorations will be gone; the Christmas CDs shoved in the drawer under the counter until next year and all trace of Christmas spirit erased. The commuter trains will once again be packed to capacity during the morning rush hour and all over the country it will be very much “business as usual”.

 

The word superficial doesn’t even begin to describe the shallowness of Christmas here. This is not the first time I’ve been in Japan for Christmas, but there is something very different about this year in that I am actually living here rather than merely choosing to visit during the festive season as has been the case in the past. Previously, I guess like most Westerners, I was simultaneously amused and bemused by the Japanese approach to Christmas. As in everything else they do, the Japanese throw themselves at it with a vigour and enthusiasm that few other people could match. Every street, every shop and every window is lit up with galaxies of fairy lights. Yet they have absolutely no concept of why or what it’s all for. The meaning is utterly lost on them; like a middle-ager dropping some highly inappropriate Yoof buzzword they’ve picked up into a conversation, without realising its true obscene meaning – Christmas in Japan is amusing but at the same time, a bit disturbing.

 

The thing that is the most disturbing is that they really don’t care about the meaning – it’s just an excuse to put up lights, buy presents, eat cake and Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve. Once that’s done, that’s it. There is no significance whatsoever in any of it – it is as false and plastic and contrived as the Santa-suit clad Colonel Saunders figure that stands outside KFC.

I don’t consider myself to be a religious person as such, and if I was, I doubt that I would be particularly inclined to adopt mainstream Christian belief. Nevertheless, like most people around the world, I do believe that Christmas, Yuletide – whatever you want to call it – is a special time. A time when, just for a day or so, there can actually be Peace on Earth and where everyone, no matter what their beliefs and circumstances, should be able to feel the warmth of human affection, as expressed through family or friends. This appears to be an utterly alien concept to the Japanese - my wife included, who scoffs at the very notion.

According to her, Christmas means nothing – it’s just a shopping festival. My assertion that the festival carries with it a deeper and more profound personal significance for most people was roundly and aggressively slapped-down.

I was quite offended by the arrogance of this. How can someone who clearly has no concept of Christmas dismiss it as being trivial and worthless?

Emotionally difficult for sure, but also a very difficult thing for me to grasp intellectually. How can an otherwise rational and intelligent person fail to acknowledge that the idea of Christmas is – if not one of religious significance – then at least a noble one.

Of course I am very aware that Japan has no tradition of Christmas, and so I held no preconceptions that Christmas here would in any way resemble that in the UK. But in true British style, my natural inclination was to acquire the various iconic Crimbo elements as best I could i.e. Turkey, Crackers etc, and do the best to create a semblance of Christmas Day. Now, after experiencing my wife’s cold dismissal of its significance as a family festival, I have – quite unexpectedly – become a little depressed about it all.

But, after trawling through various blogs, I find that I am not alone. It seems that many gaijin before me have stubbed their toes on this particular cultural rock that lies just below the waterline. The words “depressing”, “shallow”, “bleak” are commonly used to describe the feelings that a Christmas driven exclusively by commercial cynicism evokes in the hearts of many Westerners. Some use stronger language; some even go so far as to return home at this time of year to avoid it.

Perhaps the answer is that there are some things that just can’t be explained or translated without a cultural reference point to relate it to. Christmas is perhaps one.

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If the shoe fits « Margaret and Helen  

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I saw this post, written by an American lady called Helen Philpot concerning George Bush’s “shoe-dodging” incident. I can’t help thinking the views she expresses are echoed by a lot of American people, and certainly one held by this Englishman.

Well, I would have written sooner but I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to type more than a sentence or two.  Oh my goodness but did any of you see the incident with the Iraqi journalist, Muntathar al Zaidi, throwing his shoes at Georgie Boy?  I gotta believe there are millions of us who have wanted to do that very same thing.  It’s too bad Zaidi didn’t hit his intended target because he just might have knocked some sense into that thick Bush skull.  Not to mention the lucrative Nike contract that surely would have followed.

Eventually I did stop laughing, however, because after the initial reaction wore off, I started paying attention to the gravity of the situation.  In truth, it is not funny at all.  Offering someone the “sole of your shoe” is considered a grave insult in the Arab world.

But even more sobering is what  Zaidi said as he threw the shoes: “This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.” And after he was knocked to the ground he continued saying, “Killer of Iraqis, killer of children.”

OK. I am not thinking it is all that funny anymore. How about you?

But the way Bush reacted is probably the best example of why our 43rd President should be run out of town on a rail. After the shoe incident, Bush tried to laugh it all off by saying, “It didn’t bother me, and if you want the facts it was a size 10 shoe he threw at me.”

Well it should bother him, at least a little bit.  He is indeed responsible for thousands of widows and orphans. His orders to war did indeed result in the deaths of children.  Now look.  I understand that war is hell and unintended casualties are going to happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them. But this isn’t the first time Bush has displayed an apparent “carefree” attitude towards his presidency.

Three months after the World Trade Center went down, Bush was quoted as saying, “It’s been a fabulous year for Laura and me.” And in a more recent interview last month, he summed up his entire presidency as “a fabulous experience”.

Fabulous? Really? Not so much for the rest of us.

Maybe it’s just me, but when you are President during war time, you probably shouldn’t act like you are enjoying it quite so much.   Maybe more time pondering the consequences of your actions and less time feeling fabulous…

Folks, let me apologize in advance because I feel a big rant coming on. I can’t contain myself any longer. This moron of a soon to be past-President is a disgrace and a stain on the reputation of the United States of America. No that’s not good enough yet. I’m feeling like one of those Dixie Chicks and I think I need to say some more. George Bush is an asshole and a real son of a bitch. And yes, I did meet Barbara Bush once and I am not taking that statement back.

I am making a request of future generations:  The next time a village loses its idiot, please don’t elect him or her President.  Thank you.

There, I feel a better… but only slightly.

My apologies to all you good people out there who stopped by to read what I have to say. You probably deserved better than that last little rant. But I am glad you stopped by and I do hope you will again. I mean it. Really.

If the shoe fits « Margaret and Helen

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A contemporary history of teaching Maths in the UK  

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

(Old Cynic's Perspective)

1. Teaching Maths In 1970

A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of the price.
What is his profit?
2. Teaching Maths In 1980
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or £80.
What is his profit?
3. Teaching Maths In 1990
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is £80.
Did he make a profit?
4. Teaching Maths In 2000
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is £80 and his profit is £20.
Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

5. Teaching Maths In 2008

A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands.
He does this so he can make a profit of £20.
What do you think of this way of making a living?
Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes?
(There are no wrong answers. )
6. Teaching Maths In 2018
أ المسجل تبيع حموله شاحنة من الخشب من اجل 100 دولار. صاحب تكلفة
الانتاج من الثمن. ما هو الربح له؟

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an Englishman in Osaka  

Friday, 12 December 2008

 the gaijin dilemma

It's the stuff of nightmares for the gaijin in Japan. The thought of it is enough to send them running to the toilet. The reality of it is enough to cause profuse sweating and the breakout of an itchy rash in the nether regions.
The dilemma is whether to acknowledge fellow gaijin walking along the street. Don't let any gaijin tell you it's not a dilemma. In fact, the ones who pretend not to notice their fellow gaijin are the ones with the loudest voice in their head and the biggest knot in their stomach. It's written all over their face.
Their internal dialogue usually goes something like this:
"Oh, what a nice day, I think I'll go and.....oh shit is that a gaijin up ahead? Or just a Japanese person with blonde hair? Shit, it IS a gaijin. What shall I do? Acknowledge? Smile? Completely ignore him? If I smile and he doesn't, I'll feel like an idiot, and maybe it looks like I've just arrived in Japan yesterday and I'll look all naive and lost, but actually I've been here nine years and I know everything.
But hey, I'm friendly, why shouldn't I say hello? Maybe he's nice. He probably won't even look at me; pretend I'm not even here, pretend he hasn't seen me.
Shit, he's getting closer. Hey, he's looking the other way in a most unnatural fashion - so he's definitely seen me! He's looking all over the place, everywhere except AT ME. So he's going through the same hell as me right now. Moving into the critical zone now...I'll go for it....Hello."
Other gaijin: "Hello."

A gaijin with a red T-shirt and a red face.

an Englishman in Osaka

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Mt Fuji at sunset  

Sunday, 7 December 2008

We visited my beloved J-Mart DIY store this afternoon. On coming out, I was surprised to see Fuji san silouetted against the evening sky. It's not often that you get to see the mountain due to the cluttered skyline and photochemical haze that hangs over the city during the day. My shaky picture taken on a cellphone doesn't really do it justice. But it was a powerful and unexpected encounter with this most Japanese of icons, made all the more striking by its appearance in the most mundane of settings.

Fuji is an impressive sight. At 12,388 ft (3776m) it is the highest of Japan's many mountains. Even though it is around 60 miles away, it has a brooding presence that makes it seem far closer. I was surprised - and a little shocked - to learn that Fuji san is officially an active volcano, albeit with a low probablility of eruption. As someone who grew up in the comparatively benign environment of the British Isles I must admit to being quite terrified of volcanoes. I sometimes question the wisdom of moving to a country that boasts over 10% of the world's active ones! We Brits are not accustomed to thinking of Mother Nature as anything other than nurturing and obliging in her bountiful gifts. Here it's a different story. Of course it's a beautiful country, but there is an unspoken understanding that it is also a fragile one; for all its rich culture and its technological advances, Japan is completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. Fuji san awakening from its slumbers, for example, would be enough to turn Tokyo into an ash-choked wasteland.

As I gazed at Fuji san, it was a sobering thought that this dark silouette on the horizon had the power to change the lives of literally millions of people at a stroke - not the sort of apocolyptic vision likely to be encountered in the car park at B&Q Canterbury.

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A historic day  

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

We’ve just watched the live announcement that Barack Obama has secured his place in history as the first African-American president of the USA. I feel the American people have done themselves proud, and in so doing have taken a big step towards healing the rifts and bridging the divides that cause so many problems in our world. I have felt from the outset of this campaign that what the world needs is a visionary, a healer and a reconciler of differences. I hope and pray that America has delivered that to all of us tonight.

Of John McCain, much as I have disagreed with his rhetoric, his speech conceding defeat to Obama was that of a true gentleman; a dignified and sincere plea to the American people to get behind the new president. Alas, the same could not be said for some of his more redneck supporters who booed at the mention of Obama’s name. But to my mind, this has what this campaign has been all about: The replacement of Bush’s simplistic, gun-toting, redneck world view with a more considered, intelligent and engaging attitude to the world and its different peoples and cultures. I would say that, judging by tonight’s emphatic vote, the American people agree with that sentiment. Well done America – you exemplify the true spirit of democracy.

Now all we need to do is great rid of those arseholes in Number 10, and maybe we can all move forward to a better world.

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The journey begins  

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

I have now started training at my friend K-san’s dojo in central Tokyo. And what a marvellous experience it is. In the space of just one week I’ve managed to pack in no less than 9 hours solid training – that’s an incredible improvement over what I’m able to do in the UK. I don’t mind admitting a little nervousness at joining the dojo – I’d read some reports that the regime was a little harsh for Western tastes, but I was pleasantly surprised at how relaxed it actually was. I’m not sure what kind of training the guy who’s review I’d read was used to, but despite the fact that I’d not trained seriously for some months, I didn’t think it was too dissimilar to the sessions we are used to in the UK. Although after the first one, my legs were pretty painful and I’m still waiting for the skin to grow back on my feet. Still – it’s my own fault for being lazy, so no sympathy!

The standard of Iaido here is quire simply in a different class to the UK. I have a good friend who lived and studied here for a long time, and he always bemoans the standards in the UK. Now I can see very clearly what he means. I have been extremely fortunate to have had some personal instruction from my new 7th dan teacher, and the effect has been nothing short of dramatic. My cuts have suddenly taken on an expansive, powerful quality that is quite extraordinary. I feel quite sure my skill will increase in leaps and bounds with continued practice.

The class itself is held in an old school gym – very similar to the gym at Simon Langton's in Canterbury where I trained with K san and P last Summer. The only difference is the smell of the yakitori wafting in from a nearby restaurant – makes it pretty hard to concentrate when the old stomach starts rumbling!

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All Japan Iaido Championships  

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Yesterday I travelled up to Sendai with my friend and Iaido colleague K san for the All Japan Iaido Championships. This is an annual event that changes venue each year. This year’s host city, Sendai, lies about 300 miles north of Tokyo, necessitating a rather early start and a long drive – made all the more difficult, incidentally, by our ill-judged decision to dally overlong at Yebisu’s in Nishi Ogikubo last night. But I digress.

EIDO-1660 We arrived in Sendai City after a drive through some pretty spectacular scenery. The Kanda plain on which Tokyo sits is surrounded by mountains that rise suddenly and unexpectedly from the billiard-table flat countryside. It is an impressive landscape – perhaps due to its volcanic origins – quite unlike anything that I’ve seen in Europe; Steep mountains and deep valleys, all carpeted by dense forests. As we travelled north, the leaves became increasing tinged with gold and red – a tantalising preview of the spectacular display to be played out over the next few weeks.

EIDO-1662 The city’s sports hall is quite an impressive facility, and by the time we arrived, the competition was in full-swing. Unlike the Nationals in the UK, this competition appeared to be restricted to just 5th, 6th and 7th dan competitors. Consequently, the standard was – as you’d expect – pretty high. But what really surprised me was the number of very high grades there. In the UK, the highest grade we have is 7th dan and there is only a handful of them. Here, there are lots more, not to mention a surprisingly large number of 8th dans. I thought 8th dan was the highest possible, but apparently there are three 9th dans still alive and one of them gave a demonstration yesterday. Quite amazing – he must have been well into his 80s. There’s hope for me yet.

I met with my new sensei and was introduced to some of the other students and given the official OK to commence training, although it will be sometime before I am given any form of direct tuition. I have to prove I am serous first – just goes to show the limited value of my 2nd dan grade!

Along with the impressive Iaido,there were some pretty impressive toys on display yesterday. Each one of these swords isEIDO-1683A a shinken – a real, razor sharp sword forged in the traditional way by a certified swordsmith. And as you’d expect, each has a price tag to match. This selection started at about 65 man Yen – about £3,200.

By for me – the highpoint of the day was the mass demonstration by 7th and 8th dans. There were far too many great Iaido practitioners to take in in one go, but I did spot some fantastic techniques. Oshita sensei – perhaps the most EIDO-1717 important teacher for UK Iaido – was just below where we were sitting in the balcony, impressive as always. But just one of many, many other great displays.

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Japan:Take nothing for granted  

Thursday, 23 October 2008

One of the most endearing features of Japanese life for a Westerner is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. Food is, of course, probably the first culture-shock people experience here. We are not accustomed to having our dinner arrive still attempting to escape, nor do we share the Japanese enthusiasm for plonking raw egg yolks on everything. But long after these occurrences cease to become remarkable, the country still has the capacity to catch you out with some unexpected cultural roadside bomb.

Take, for example, shower gel. A pretty innocuous household substance, that you would think was fairly universal in its formulation and use. But you’d be wrong, for in Japan they strive constantly to achieve perfection – and those good people at Sea Breeze shower gel are no exception.

Sea Breeze is quite a good name for a shower gel I guess – conjuring up images of bracing sea air, the exhilaration of the briny spray with a hint of wind-swept manliness thrown in. Combined with it’s attractive sea-blue bottle, these factors swayed me in its favour over its – frankly – rather effete competitors. However Sea Breeze proved to be a little more appropriate in its name than I bargained for.

Say the word “congestion” and probably the next thing you think of is “menthol” – of course renown for its ability to clear blocked sinuses and ease the breathing. One can almost picture the chain of thought that led the product designers to that eureka moment where Sea Breeze acquired its magically invigorating powers. Yes, you’ve guessed it. Menthol shower gel.

On the face of it, it doesn’t sound too bad. And on the face of it, it isn’t. However it’s a slightly different story when Sea Breeze meets the slightly more delicate parts of one’s anatomy. If you’re not expecting it, a sudden warming sensation in the nether regions can be a slightly alarming experience. There may be a warning on the bottle I suppose – but there’s no way I could have know. Perhaps I should suggest some typically cute graphic indication of the likely effects of Sea Breeze when applied inappropriately – Miffy the Rabbit clutching his nuts with a pained expression perhaps?

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Byoin ni ikimasu  

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Beerhound locks have become rather unkempt of late and so, after a courage-bolstering trip to Yebi-san’s fine drinking and yakitori establishment near to Nishi Ogikubo station, I decided to take the plunge and have a haircut. The problem was – where to go?

To be more precise, which of the roughly hundred thousand barbers, stylists and hairdressers within a 1km radius I should visit. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of hair-care specialists in such a small geographic area. It’s almost like every other shop is something to do with hairstyling. Having neat hair is clearly a major preoccupation of the good people of Nishi Ogikubo, only narrowly eclipsing their enthusiasm for stamping their names on things – judging by the number of hanko shops.

I finally chose a place quite close to our house. Big M tried to explain to the barber what I wanted: Out came the styling books; in true Japanese style, the conversation ranged far and wide, encompassing every aspect of my life. The hair should be short, because of physical pursuits such as running and martial arts. Yet not overly so because of my professional life and the fact that short hair tends to make me look a little too aggressive (moi?). Inevitably, the delicate subject of my bald spot popped up in the conversation.

Yes it’s true, certain areas of the Beerhound bonce are a little threadbare. Being 6ft 2 means that few people here every get to see it, but for the record, I don’t really have a problem with it. All my angst was worked out many years ago – the Summer I first got a sun-burnt head! However, being the consummate professional, the barber tentatively raised the prospect of “the barcode”

The term “barcode” rather accurately describes the effect on the average Japanese male of what we in England would call the “comb-over” or “Bobby Charlton”.

There is no power on Earth that would ever induce me to indulge in this most transparent of self-delusions. Nothing could look so ridiculous, nor reveal so much about the fragile sense of self-worth of its wearer, than the comb-over.

Not that I need it, anyway.

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Brown should come here if he wants to see how a government dept should be run  

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

After my previous post (see below) I wanted to contrast my experience with the Japanese authorities while applying for residence, and that of Big M’s in the UK. Basically, there is no comparison whatsoever. In the UK, we were treated like criminals – forced to cough up thousands of pounds, forced to enrol in English classes we didn’t need and finally subjected to the totally demeaning and utterly pointless New Labour Propaganda Life in the UK test. The total cost of all this, just for my wife and stepdaughter to stay in the country, was in excess of £2,500. We had to travel twice to the disgusting Home Office Immigration facility in Croydon, carrying a truly ridiculous amount of supporting paperwork that required an entire archive box. We were forced to wait in the cold and rain with no toilet facilities; when we were eventually allowed in the building we were searched like thieves and treated like absolute shit.

Contrast this with Japan. The application for a marriage visa took one visit to the very pleasant Japanese embassy in London. Even though there was an irregularity with our paperwork, the staff were unfailing helpful and polite and the problem was sorted out easily. Total cost: £5

In Japan, the application for residence took just one visit to city hall and about a 20 minute wait while they processed the application. Cost: £0

I returned one week later to collect my card and register my stamp (see below) Cost: About 25p

Just a little bit different to rip-off Britain!

If there is any UK resident reading this that is contemplating settling in the UK with their Japanese spouse (or any other non-EU passport holder for that matter), my advice simply is – don’t even think about it. I would say that trying to start our family life in England was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.  

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Feels like I’m here to stay  

gaijin_card

This morning I went to city hall to collect my gaijin card. This basically is my permission to live and work freely in Japan and it’s what all foreigners who want to stay here strive to achieve. For foreigners arriving here in the hope of getting a job, the gaijin card can prove a major obstacle; you can’t get a job without it and you can’t get a card without a job! But of course for me it’s been pretty easy thanks to the missus.

hanko2 The other major acquisition today was my personal seal (hanko) which people here use instead of a signature. I found a place around the corner that produced mine for about £25, complete with a smart black case with built-in ink pad. While I was at city hall I also registered my stamp so I can now do things like opening bank accounts etc.

With these two bits of personal administration sorted out, I feel a lot more settled and it really is starting to feel like home now.

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The taste of Autumn  

Monday, 13 October 2008

Last night we visited a place called Masa Yakitori. As well as yakitori,the place is famous for its fine selection of sake. we chose the ginjo selection -5 representative offerings from the genre. very tasty. Looking at the picture it appears I missed one of the bottles. Can't image how that happened

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A stroll in the park  

Sunday, 5 October 2008

EIDO-1503 This morning we got up early (for us!) and went for a stroll in nearby Inokashira Park. It was an absolutely beautiful morning. The trees in the park are just beginning to be kissed with Autumn gold, but the weather is still pleasantly warm. There is something about the light here that is extraordinarily beautiful – the trees in the distance are rendered a kind of smoky blue that is extremely evocative of classic Japanese art and paintings. Even though there are loads of people in the park on a day like today, somehow the crowds seem to do little to spoil the tranquillity and elegant beauty of the place. It is quite the most wonderful haven of timeless peace in a sea of frantic urbanisation.

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Following the trail  

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Last night I made contact with my iaido friend and mentor here in Japan. We had a very pleasant evening discussing the state of iaido, both here and in the UK and catching up on all the latest news. He mentioned that he had already talked to his teacher about me joining the dojo, and the teacher has said I would be very welcome. I am thrilled by this. It has been an ambition of mine to train in Japan for nearly as long as I’ve been involved with martial arts, which is quite a long time now. Hopefully this dream will come true soon, although I’m sure I will have plenty of moments when I wished it hadn’t – the training here is considerably harder than in the UK. But you know what they say, no pain – no gain.

On the train home, I got to thinking about the traditions of my school, and the value that such a long heritage imparts to the style. In particular, how fortunate I have been to have struck lucky in the lottery of martial arts instruction; my path leading from humble beginnings in Sidcup all the way to Tokyo and who knows where else.

Embarking upon a course of instruction in any martial art is like arriving by boat in a wide river delta. From the perspective of the visitor, all the little streams and channels look pretty much alike. It’s only once you have ventured down them that you discover whether they are quiet backwaters, silted-up tributaries or whether they broaden and deepen, joining with other streams, allowing you to navigate further into the fertile hinterlands of knowledge and wisdom that lie beyond.

I have indeed been fortunate to have chosen just such a path. I just hope my frail little ship has the stamina and constitution to survive the rigours of the journey that awaits.

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The jaded Buddha  

Saturday, 27 September 2008

“It’s all very well being enlightened, but what I really wanted was a sports car."

Ross Noble

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The British weather renamed  

Friday, 26 September 2008

In deference to The Archbishop of Canterbury and The Royal Commission for Political Correctness:

It was announced today that the local climate in the UK should no longer be referred to as .''British Weather.' Rather than offend a sizable portion of the population, it will now be referred to as 'Muslim Weather.'

 

In other words - 'partly Sunni, but mostly Shi'ite.

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Intrigue & scandal at the post office  

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The tranquility of Shoan 2 has been rocked by a series of scandals involving someone who clearly has a grudge against the Japanese Postal Service. Big M went to post some letters today, but when she got to the post box, it had been sealed up. And it wasn’t just one – they all had. After questioning the bird behind the counter, it appears that they’d been having a problem with somebody who’d been smearing poo over the post office window. But not content with that, they’ve now started shoving it into letter boxes as well. Bizarre – the work of a disgruntled post-stool worker perhaps? Sorry – couldn’t resist it.

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Pie wa tabemashita ga dare desu ka?  

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

In an effort to tackle my burgeoning waistline and get me back into some kind of shape in advance of joining a iaido dojo, myself and Big M ventured along to the local sports club for a look. Like you’d expect, it was very impressive: 3 floors consisting of very well equipped multi-gym, swimming pools, saunas and even an indoor golf practice room. Amazing. We were shown around by an enthusiastic young chap, clearly excited to have a gaijin to talk to.

The culmination of our visit was a detailed analysis of body composition carried out by a machine that looked like Captain Kirk’s bathroom scales. After being instructed to stand on metal plates, clasping an electrode in each hand, the machine proceeded to probe the mysteries of the Beerhound physique, concluding – with commendable accuracy –that I was a fat bastard. Impressive thought it was, I couldn’t help thinking a glance in the mirror would have probably sufficed.

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A new chapter begins  

Friday, 19 September 2008

I’m now finishing my first week in Japan, having being wafted here with Teutonic efficiency by those nice people at Lufthansa. Even getting the sword through customs proved an absolute breeze – however I’m sure getting it back into Britain won’t be quite so easy.

The place hasn’t changed much in my absence – i.e. junk and clutter everywhere. I’m not sure if this decor scheme is actually some kind of post-earthquake look or what. It’s bloody annoying, although to be fair the big problem is lack of available storage space. A shortfall that yours truly and his toolbox has already been called upon to remedy. No rest for the wicked.

Yet, for all the tasks waiting for my attentions, it is good to be back. I don’t know what it is, but I sleep so much better here. Monday night I slept for a straight 14 hours. And I needed it, after the traumas of the last 6 weeks.

Today we went to Suginami City Hall so I can register as an alien and get my infamous “gaijin card”. When issued, all foreigners have to carry this card with them at all times because they can be stopped by the police and asked for it in any circumstances. If you don’t have it, it’s “nick ni ikimasho, watashi no furui chugoku sara” – “let’s visit the nick shall we, my old china plate?”

Our American cousins (and I suspect the PC brigade in the UK) really hate this idea of being “picked-on” to produce ID papers on demand just because you are a foreigner. But I can’t see what the problem is. It’s their country and they have every right to wish to protect themselves from the kind of international miscreants that the UK falls over itself to welcome. I say, good luck to them. If you follow the rules and have done nothing wrong, there’s no problem.

I guess in the UK it’s different insofar as if you jump through all the right hoops (and pay their extortionate blackmail fees) you can eventually “become British” – whatever that means. Here it’s different: You are welcome to come and settle, as long as you obey the rules, but you will NEVER be Japanese. Again, I don’t really have a problem with that because I am not (nor, despite a deep affection for the country and its people, do I want to become) one.

However I can see that this status of “gaijin” might begin to become irritating after I begin paying taxes and medical insurance to my host country (next month!). One would like to think that participating financially in society would allow one to also participate socially and politically as equals. But not so. Mind you – looking at the so-called democracy in the UK, I can’t see much difference.

Oh..apart from the fact, there’s very little crime here, the streets are clean, there’s no stupid laws that penalise the law-abiding, the trains work, the cost of living is reasonable… etc etc

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Time to go  

Monday, 15 September 2008

Well, it’s finally here: After months of planning and weeks of relentless struggle and heartbreak, I’ll finally be on my way tomorrow morning. Assuming the taxi turns up, and there’s no screw-ups at the airport, of course. It’s always unwise to underestimate this country’s ability to scupper the best-laid plans, so until my bum is firmly ensconced in seat 50K bound for Tokyo, I think my blood pressure will remain at the "High” setting.

I feel a bit in limbo at the moment. Not quite here, but not there either. I truly don’t know what’s waiting for me in Japan. I don’t know what will happen with the business over the next 6 months. I really am flying by the seat of my pants; risking absolutely everything on a wing and a prayer. But whatever happens, it’s sure to be an adventure – and the adventure of a lifetime at that.

I keep questioning myself over my motivation; why am I doing it? Why, at 46 am I not content with slippers and the 9 to 5? The truth is, I don’t really know. There is something inside me that just keeps driving me on. I don't know what I'm searching for, or even if I'll know when I find it. But search I must. One part of me really yearns for the stability of the unadventurous, the provincial; craving only routine and the certainty that nothing will ever happen to upset that cosy, safe existence. But there’s no way I could ever live like that; I’ve always pushed further, reached higher and dreamt bigger than my contemporaries. Perhaps foolishly so.

I think the force that overrides the inertia of my passive side can be simply summarised: I want to able to say on my death-bed, that I really did seize every opportunity to experience life; I really did take every chance to learn and grow and expand my mind to take in as much of this crazy world as I could. If attaining wisdom, becoming a more experienced, capable, benevolent and understanding human being is not the goal of life, then I have indeed been a fool. However, I have a hunch I won’t be proved wrong in the end.

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The Last beer in Canterbury  

Sunday, 14 September 2008

I visited Canterbury one last time today. At last the weather smiled long enough to be able to enjoy a beer in a pub garden, and so it was I found myself sitting in the Unicorn's very satisfactory little garden. Today's trip was mainly about shopping - particularly the things I can't get easily in Japan, like shoes. Not to mention trousers to fit my inexorably swelling waistband. I've really got to do something about that. I also bought a couple of cashmere scarves for the girls, and some very expensive chocolates. And finally, I bought a mini-cathedral for Big M's model house collection. All in all, a very pleasant day.

But also a rather strange one. I had to remind myself that home was no longer a short walk from the High Street. I will miss Canterbury. For all the trials and ordeals that I've suffered here, I feel Canterbury will always be "home" - at least in a spiritual sense. Yet it also feels like time to move on. So despite the odd pang of regret, I'm very much looking forward to the next period in my life. I am sure it will turn out to be just as frustrating, bewildering, taxing and punishing as establishing a homestead in Canterbury. I hope it also turns out to have been similarly worth the effort.

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Canterbury from the University  

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Today there's an art exhibition in Canterbury. I saw this watercolour and I bloody wish I'd painted it. Perhaps one day I will.

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Goodbye to an old and trusted friend  

Friday, 12 September 2008

This morning saw the departure of our faithful and long-suffering family car to the great car park in the sky. I was very sad to see it go. Spookily, it actually broke down for the first time since we’ve had it this morning – which I find almost unbelievable. It’s like it knew.

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Only in Japan - Mayonnaise Margheritas!  

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

As reported in the excellent Gaijin Tonic blog.8640-sick%20copy

“Oh blimey, what next? Koji Nakamura, a typically inventive Japanese bartender in Tokyo, makes cocktails with mayonnaise. You might think he was incredibly drunk when he came up with the idea, but Koji is obsessed with mayo and even runs a restaurant in Western Tokyo called “Mayonnaise Kitchen” (the Japanese actually have a name for mayonnaise fanatics- mayolers.)
Koji’s creamy cocktails include the “Mayogarita”, and the “Mayoty Dog” (which has mayo instead of salt around the rim.)
I’d have to be pretty far gone to drink one of these horrific concoctions, and have a sick bucket close at hand.”

That makes two of us - Beerhound

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The illusion of credibility  

The trouble with being a Beerhound is that when Bacchus’ hand weighs heavily upon your shoulder, one is forced to seek sustenance from the nearest hospitable watering hole. In this instance, that happens to be Rye’s 1940’s pub. Much as it irks me to provide any kind of encouragement to such an ill-conceived and – frankly -crap establishment, a beer is a beer and when you need one, you need one. Thus it was that I found myself once again darkening the door of the most bizarre drinking establishment yet encountered in these parts. Actually, in any parts I have yet had the good fortune to visit.

I tend to keep myself to myself in this particular establishment. I don’t particularly wish to be drawn into conversation with the owners or clientele (such that it is) of the place. Privacy is part of that, but mainly it’s because I really quite resent the arrogance of these pseudo middle-class tossers who think they can invade a town like Rye and turn into Islington-On-Sea. And  - my God – they were out in force tonight.

Allow me to set the scene:

A semi-deserted 1940’s themed bar; bereft of customers, except for a couple of dinner guests and a solitary (though ruggedly handsome, wind-swept and interesting) guy sat in the corner. The owner, clad in pristine chef’s whites unsullied by culinary labours, sits drowning his sorrows on the wrong side of the bar. It transpires that the dinner guests are also recent migrants to these parts, and inevitably, the conversation with the hosts turns to where Rye is going wrong with regards to its marketing, and where Manchester is going wrong with its football team. In other words, bullshit about things these idiots have absolutely no connection with, or understanding of.

There seems to be a trend for these pseudo middle class types to associate themselves with football clubs and with regions like Rye – presumably in an effort to give themselves some kind of inverse social cache. They talk about Man U as being “my club” in an accent that has clearly never ventured further north than Fulham. They discuss matters in Rye as if they have been here for generations. They haven’t. Nor will they be.

Like so much in Britain under Labour, it’s all an illusion; The footy-supporting credibility, the business acumen, the ersatz intellectualism. Even their much-flaunted personal wealth relies entirely on a vastly-overvalued property market and bank borrowing, both of which look set to evaporate in the near future. I fervently hope that the coming financial tempests will sweep these idiots back into the mainstream of mediocrity where they belong.

*UPDATE*

My Rye correspondent informs me that the Beerhound crystal ball has proven once more to be unnervingly accurate: The 1940’s-loving owners have disappeared over the horizon, leaving a load of unpaid bills and disgruntled local suppliers. Like I said – Tossers!

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The mysteries of the east  

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

As regular readers will know, I am subject to frequent borrockings from the missus. Some are deserved; some come about due to cultural misunderstandings and some are just unfair. Occasionally, I get ones that are just plain inexplicable, and today saw just such an occurrence.

The Japanese side of the family has been noticeably non-communicative today, despite several prompts. Finally, I just got a cryptic message letting me know what a disappointment I am and nothing else. Why? your guess is as good as mine.

Sometimes its impossible to fathom what’s going on in that head of hers. I’ve racked my brains to try and think of what I might have done wrong this time, but to no avail. So I suspect it will remain a mystery. At least for the time being. In the meantime, I shall rise above it by exercising a Zen-like detachment from the confusion and emotional turbulence of the existential world; in other words, ignore it.

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Where were you when I needed you?  

Saturday, 30 August 2008

I’ve finally found the source of information and support I have so desperately sought over the last 4 years in the shape of a guide book to Japanese women. Kind of an owner’s manual, if you like. The 160-page booklet has done so much to explain the odd behaviour of the wife, and put my mind at rest that I am not alone in experiencing these difficulties. But more than that, it has given me an insight into the relationship from the Japanese perspective, which I’m sure will prove invaluable.

The interesting part is that I can now see much more clearly which of the problems we experience can be attributed to cultural differences and which are just her (or me, for that matter). For example, the gender roles differ greatly in Japanese society – seemingly very antiquated from our modern Western standpoint. And yet, they are not so dissimilar to the standards of behaviour which were the norm here in perhaps the 1950’s. The man is expected to be a man; strong, silent and capable of handling problems with no complaints. The women rely almost entirely on the men to protect and provide for them: there is very little shared responsibility of the sort we’ve grown accustomed to here. Men are expected to take the lead in everything outside the home and act decisively when making arrangements. Looking back over the early part of our relationship, I can remember quite a few occasions where I was far too “Western”; doing what I thought was the gentlemanly thing and allowing the lady to make the arrangements for visits or things like that.

One really interesting example of how the cultural differences can easily be misinterpreted is our habit of holding doors open for ladies to enter. This seemingly genteel behaviour is viewed as anything but in Japan, where the custom is exactly the opposite: Men go in first always. To our Western eyes, images of swaggering bigots barging into restaurants while their demure wives struggle along behind appears extremely sexist. But not so. In reality, this custom dates from Samurai times, when potential danger lurked behind every doorway. The men would enter first so as not to expose his wife and family to any risks which lay beyond. Far from being the act of a chauvinist, it is in fact an act of selfless courage and love. Interpreted in this way, our seemingly quaint custom of holding open doors for ladies appears utterly cowardly and the act of a total cad. This is the perfect illustration of just how complicated things can get when crossing cultural boundaries.

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The possibility of time travel has long been a topic of speculation by sci-fi writers. Will it one day be possible? Well, your humble scribe is thrilled to confirm that time travel is indeed a reality. Venturing out for a quiet pint in Rye, I appear to have inadvertedly travelled through a time warp back to about 1950.

Either that, or I've walked into the most ill-conceived theme pub in the history of licensed hostelry.

All this makes games night at the Phoenix seem positively normal

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The Last Supper  

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

26082008174 Tonight is my last night in Randolph Close. Tired though I am, this was not a night to go unmarked. A trip to the Phoenix was essential, and a very pleasant evening it was too. Now back home, I’m lying on a mattress on the floor of our bedroom, listening to Radio 4, eating Marmite on toast and drinking sake. I can’t think of a more fitting cross-cultural culinary tribute to our time here.

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A lesson learned  

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Another day of toil; a bigger pile of rubbish and more problems. It’s looking increasingly likely I’m going to have to just give away some expensive items like the tumble drier and Little M’s bed because I can’t find any takers. My mum said to just do it and forget about it; “You’ve done your best so you can’t do any more.” She is right.

Although she doesn’t know it, she’s reminded me of one of my most important philosophies – that of letting go of things that don’t matter anymore. In Wing Chun, the striking fist contains energy only at the moment of impact: Too soon, and strength is wasted and the blow becomes slow and cumbersome; too late and the energy contained in the striking limb can easily be turned against you and your whole body unbalanced. Life is a bit like that sometimes. Everything has it’s right time for action; a right time for energy to be focused into it. Like the striking limb that’s too tense, putting energy into things at the wrong time can actually work against a successful conclusion. Holding on to something – expending emotional energy on something - that is no longer of use is just as damaging. I think there is a passage in the Hagakure of Yamamoto Tsunetomo that says something like “Waste no time on useless things.” This is sound advice.

A central tenet of Zen Buddhist philosophy is that all human suffering derives from our attachment to things that are impermanent. Possessions, money – even life itself – are impermanent constructs and will one day slip through our fingers like water. Perhaps a lesson from today is that rather than expending energy on trying to hold onto things that can’t be held, I should be celebrating and be thankful for the good things that they represented when they were part of our lives here in Canterbury.

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A new day brings no relief  

Monday, 25 August 2008

Another day dawns over the wreckage of our home. I was pretty down last night when I went to bed, and now in the cold light of day I’m even more demoralised by the mountain of problems that still have to be overcome. Just 3 minutes with pen and paper has filled an A4 sheet with tasks that must be completed within the next 24 hours. This marathon is taking every ounce of courage and fortitude I possess to endure. Last night I found a picture of me from 2004, slim fit and glowing with health. You wouldn’t recognise me now – burnt-out, haggard, decrepit and out of shape. I must be crazy to put myself though all this. And, I keep asking myself, for what?

I am still really fuming with Big M over her attitude. I have resolved to cut her out of my life until I get everything sorted out. She’s bloody useless anyway, so nothing lost.

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The wrong trousers  

Another exhausting and demoralising day in limbo draws to a close, and I’m sitting here beer in hand trying to make sense of the day and formulate a set of objectives for tomorrow. All this against a backdrop of sniping and criticism from “’Er indoors”. Today’s moral-sapping exchange involved the arrangements for the disposal of our dishwasher. Sorry, I meant Big M’s dishwasher. In our marriage, everything that I own is hers and everything she owns is her own. Seems fair.

Our, sorry, her dishwasher got roasted in an incident with the central heating boiler in our old house. It is the Simon Weston of dishwashers; perfectly functional but a little odd to look at. Consequently, it has a resale value of around £0. Actually rather less than that, as you’d probably have to pay someone to take it away. In that kind of situation, I’d rather it go somewhere where it will do some good. We met a young couple a little while ago. The guy has just finished training as a teacher and is trying to get his first posting. With a young child as well, a financial situation that must be a little challenging. So I thought they’d be able to give our dishwasher a good home. The offer was gratefully received. That was until the news reached Japan.

Now apparently “she will never speak to them again”. And of course, it’s all my fault. Apparently, I was not authorised to get rid of “her” dishwasher, even though she has done nothing to assist in its disposal. Nor with any of the other significant consumer durables that have to be out of this house by 9am Thursday morning. Her parting shot was that, apparently, she has such a hard life, thereby making it impossible for her to take a more active role in the moving process.

Yeah, right.

Apart from preparing three meals, I struggle to comprehend what she actually does all day: But after several days with my hand in the Flash bucket, I can personally attest that whatever it is, it’s not housework. Without putting too fine a point on it, this place is absolutely filthy. The bathroom, the cooker, the cupboards have obviously not been touched for most of the time we’ve been here. This has led me to question the role of the Japanese wife in the marital home; specifically – have I just got a duff one or are they all this bloody useless?

It appears that they are.

Over the last few days – and today in particular, I’ve been privy to some quite frank exchanges with Westerners married to Japanese women. It appears that I am not alone. Many people concede that their Japanese wives are invariably demanding, often dissatisfied, moody, critical, unsympathetic, selfish, lazy around the house and just bloody hard work a lot of the time. Now, I found this quite shocking: Whereas on one level, I was quite relieved that I’m not alone in experiencing feelings of exasperation, on another was the chilling realisation that this bunny-boiling behaviour might actually be considered the norm in Japanese society. It would certainly explain the high number of suicides and drunken salarymen on the late night trains in Tokyo – too scared to go home to face “She who must be obeyed”.

However it doesn’t explain why on Earth such women apparently crave the open-minded Western-style marriage.

And of course the same us true of us; What did I – and do I – expect from my Japanese wife? From my perspective, I am not expecting the values and demeanour of a Western woman, and I’m certainly not expecting the mythical demure and submissive Japanese wife of legend. As a fair-minded, easy-going sort of character, I couldn’t think of anything worse, actually. But by the same token, there’s no way that I intend to live my life as a Salaryman doormat, and it’s really unfair for them to expect us Westerners to do so.

Our attitude is, I think, one of equanimity: we expect to have to adapt our ways to that of our host culture, and we do so out of respect. We, as husbands, expect the same courtesy. We don’t want to become Japanese, not do we expect our wives to become Europeans. But it would be nice if – sometimes – we could just meet in the middle. This can’t happen without effort on both sides. At the moment, this cordiality doesn’t seem to be happening in my marriage.

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Tired and tested  

Sunday, 24 August 2008

I am currently lying on my bed, trying my best to keep a positive mental attitude to the trials and tribulations that lay in the immediate future. For despite Herculean efforts from everyone involved – especially my mum who has really bust a gut to help out – there remains a mountain of problems to solve and very little time left to do so. The pile of trash in the yard has grown to Alpine proportions, with still more stuff to go on tomorrow. Yet I still have a tumble drier, a dishwasher, a sofa and Little M’s ‘Princess’ bed to get rid of. I’m pretty worried that I’ll just have to throw them away. That would seem a criminal waste.

I feel a strong sense of déjà-vu; the same empty despondency that I felt when I had to walk away from my house and all my beautiful furniture in 2001. I know it’s not quite the same this time around, but the feeling of having worked so hard and achieved precisely nothing is extremely, and depressingly familiar. I feel I’ve just travelled in a huge and expensive circle just to end up where I started. I just hope it will all make sense in the end.

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Completely stuffed  

Saturday, 23 August 2008

If they were giving out Olympic medals for packing storage units, we’d have definitely struck gold yesterday. !cid_54D3A5F5F7BC4FBE97101B32CDC71B3E@AdrianPC

More or less the entire contents of a three bedroomed house condensed into a mere 35 square feet unit with not even a fag-paper’s width to spare. Even the guys from the moving company didn’t think we’d do it. But all those years packing trucks on the road clearly weren’t wasted!

There is no way any of that stuff is coming out anytime soon. In fact I think that given the density with which it’s packed, the biggest danger is a black hole forming in the middle!

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The world’s dimmest bank (staff)  

Friday, 22 August 2008

There’s nothing quite like the level of irritation that can be achieved when the thin veil of marketing bullshit is ripped asunder to reveal a reality of total incompetence. Such was the case today with my experience at HSBC – the one that likes to portray itself as the “world’s local bank”. 

The wife has an HSBC account. She is in Tokyo and needs to get some money from her account. Japan has cash machines that work with UK cash cards. Tokyo has a branch of HSBC. You’d be excused for thinking that, in such circumstances, the withdrawal of a few Yen from a local cash machine would present few problems for a customer of ‘the world’s local bank’. You’d be wrong, of course.

It appears that HSBC is only the world’s local bank for people within the UK. Travel beyond the borders of Great Britain and HSBC immediately blocks your card from being used unless you have informed them in advance. How convenient.

Especially if, like my missus, you don’t speak English that well. So it now appears that the world's local bank is only local if a) you are in the UK and b) you speak English.

So basically, the situation is this: The wife is in Tokyo with a bank card she can't use. The Tokyo branch if HSBC can't deal with UK accounts and the wife can't understand HSBC's outstandingly obscure and utterly ridiculous automated phone banking service. And when she does eventually get through to a human being..."Hello, my name is Gupta...." - an imbecile who can barely speak English himself. So, basically, that's the end of the conversation.

I really didn't want to get involved in this, but I felt duty bound to try and get somebody within HSBC to carry out the simple task of unblocking the wife's card so she can get her money. Given that we have between us 4 bank accounts at HSBC, and that I've been a customer for over 10 years, you'd think that would be easy. Wrong again. I hadn't reckoned on the potent combination of the Data Protection Act as administered by the inept pillocks that HSBC refer to (without a trace of irony) as “customer support executives”.

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I walked into the branch: I counted at least six vacant-looking junior bank staff hovering around the “customer support desk” like a bunch of lobotomised vultures. My objective was to carve my way through this cannon fodder as quickly as possible in the hope of reaching someone with a brain. The first idiot was dispatched easily enough: The glassy, uncomprehending gaze that greeted my query showed that with one telling blow I had taken this doorstop well beyond her comfort zone. “I’ll get my supervisor”, she stuttered. Next up was the 20 year old expert. “I’m a customer services advisor, actually”, he sneered as he stood arms folded in front of me. “That’s nice”, I retorted. “Now run along and find someone who knows about banking, there’s a good boy.” Ego crushed, he skulked away muttering. I was ushered into a cubicle, wherein sat a girl of perhaps 24 years, with an IQ to match. “You want to draw some money out in Japan?” enquired the animated vegetable. My eyes turned skyward as I uttered a silent prayer for strength in what promised to be an epic – and as it turned out, pointless – quest to get someone to empathise with my predicament. “No, you don’t quite understand,” I said as quietly and as gently as my rising tide of irritation would allow.

What followed was 40 minutes of pure Victor Meldrew-style mayhem, eventually involving the branch manager (IQ 30) and various drones from the HSBC call centre (with a collective IQ in minus figures). I won’t go into the various tortuous paths my arguments took as I tried to illuminate what was clearly a difficult concept for them to grasp. But essentially, my point was this: My wife would like to get her money;she can’t because you’ve blocked her card. She can’t unblock her card because she can’t understand the instructions that Gupta in your call centre is giving her. As well as effectively being robbed by the bank, this means of course that she also can’t tell them about a change of address, meaning that all her bank statements will now be seen by whoever ends up living here next. They won’t talk to me, citing Data Protection as justification, while completely failing to grasp the fact that their actions will inevitably result in exactly the situation the Data Protection Act was intended to prevent. 

In other words, they are plain bloody stupid. The kind of wooden plank, arrogant stupidity that denies any possibility of responding to a reasoned argument. You’d have more luck talking to the desk. I even tried that at one point, but to no avail.

I find it hard to understand how every one of these morons has probably got a zillion A levels and yet they are functioning at the intellectual level of a turnip. What happened to initiative? Empathy? An appreciation of the fact that rules sometimes need to be relaxed? Why can’t they just do what is obviously the right thing to do instead of repeating the rule book parrot-fashion? The answer is; education, education, education – or lack thereof.

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Freak night at the Phoenix  

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

I popped along to the Phoenix last evening to drop some rosemary and bay leaves in to Auntie Lynda -the product of yesterday afternoon’s gardening frenzy. I was not prepared for what I found.

Monday night is Games Night at the Phoenix.

Now, at its best the Phoenix is an odd pub; An entry on one pub listing website simply notes, “Odd clientele”. But Monday night is clearly when the real hardcore oddballs come out to play.

“One half of lime and lemonade please”, ordered one reckless maverick. Easy tiger. One of his game-playing compatriots went crazy and ordered half of bitter and nearly a whole glass of wine for his wife. Clearly we weren’t going to set any records for wet sales this evening. More misfits gradually slipped into the bar until there were eight or so grouped around the table; warily eyeing each other over their shandies like a bunch of ineffectual, limp-wristed cowboys gathered around a poker table.

As the ginger beer flowed, tongues were loosened, and in that peculiar high-pitched, droning monologue of the terminally dull, the sad, empty existence of these less-than-colourful characters stood starkly revealed. One couple had apparently travelled from as far away as Ashford to chance their luck in the cut and thrust world of Scrabble. That’s what I call living on the edge.

I think if that was me, alarm bells would be ringing if I had to drive 20 miles just to find another couple to play Scrabble with.

Each to his own, and I have no right to criticise what others do for fun. Yet even so I found it hard to fight the rising tide of hysterical giggles prompted by this Python-esque gathering. So with good grace, I retired for the evening and left these hard-bitten gamblers to their devil-may-care entertainment.

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Difficult decisions  

Sunday, 10 August 2008

I have been tortured with indecision about what to do with our cat, Van. The choice of whether to try and take him to Japan or not has been a very difficult one to make. On the one hand, he is a really important part of the family and is much loved. Also, I really wanted the company of another English “boy” in Japan. Sounds daft, but he is the most attentive listener and incredibly conversational. He would be great company.

But this has to be weighed against his welfare: Japan is very hot in the Summer. Van is a Norwegian Forest Cat, and not really designed for that kind of weather. He is fond of the outdoor life and spends most of his time here outside – a lifestyle that would be all but impossible in ‘Joji. Finally, as an extremely conservative character I’m sure he would be greatly distressed by the loss of familiar surroundings and his many cat friends.

Add to that the stress of the journey, and I am forced to conclude that he is better off staying here. So now I need to try and find another home for him, preferably with a neighbour so he doesn’t have to travel far. I feel really sad to have to say goodbye to my boy, but I have to put is welfare first. I would be extremely selfish to do otherwise.

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Winning the cat food stand-off  

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Here’s a tip for anyone with a cat who is a fussy eater. In other words, all cat owners. Anyone who’s ever owned a cat will have experienced the cat-food stand-off: Tiddles’ takes one mouthful of food, then turns around to give you one of those baleful cat stares that says “I’m not eating this slop”. It’s then a battle of wills: Man against beast; a titanic struggle between you and a bolshie little pest with a seemingly iron resolve to starve to death rather than subject himself to your will. You know full well who will win.

As much as you decide to stick to your guns, as much as you refuse to be bullied into it, you know that eventually you’ll end up chucking away a perfectly decent tin of cat food, all the time cursing yourself for giving in. But, not anymore. I have discovered a secret weapon in this primordial battle between the species. Dashi powder.

Dashi is a kind of clear stock that’s used in a wide variety of Japanese dishes. It has an extremely delicate flavour, reminiscent of seafood but not overtly fishy, if that makes sense. Traditionalists make their own, using konbu seaweed and a dried fish called bonito. But most people use the dried version for convenience. 

Basically, if cats could manufacture cat cocaine, I’m sure it would taste something like dashi. The delicate fish flavour really floats their boat; and the effect on the fussy feline diner is dramatic. Dashi sprinkled onto the cheapest cat food instantly transforms it into feline haute cuisine, sending Tiddles into culinary raptures and saving you a fortune in the process. Dashi can be purchased from any Asian food store. Try it next time Tiddles throws a Michael Winner-style wobbler over the catering arrangements in your house.

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The Chinese raise the bar  

I took a break from work today to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Normally I’m not that interested in sporting events, but there has been so much speculation and hype about the opening ceremony that I felt compelled to watch. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Olympics is a significant global event, but this one has a particular importance, as I’m sure it will be seen by history as a watershed in China’s relationship with the world. The day that China truly strode onto the world stage. And what a fitting entrance they made: It was an incredible show. I was genuinely – and unexpectedly – moved by the sheer scale of it; the colossal effort that had clearly been put into it by each and every person involved. As I marvelled at the spectacle, I felt uplifted by the humanity of it all; what a remarkable race we humans are to be able to work together on such a vast scale and with such precision to achieve great things.

Then I had a thought that brought me back to Earth with a bump: Remember Tony Blair’s “Rivers of Fire”? Let me remind you – it was the huge firework display that was supposed to have lit up London on Millennium Night? The one that – with no explanation - just didn’t happen. Not even a sparkler.

The Chinese have laid an enormous challenge for London to rise to in 2012. If this pathetic government couldn’t even organise a firework display, what hope do they have of delivering something on such a vast scale as the Olympics. I have a deep sense of foreboding that just as the 2008 Olympics will be remembered as heralding China’s triumphant renaissance, 2012 will be seen as the event that marked UK’s shambling exit from the world stage.

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Not sorry to leave...  

Monday, 4 August 2008

These are difficult times for your humble scribe. There are a lot of things to organise in the last few weeks I have left here. It's an awesome task to tackle single handed, especially as I also have to keep the business afloat at the same time. But that's all part of the plan so it's not exactly a surprise. What has surprised me has been my feelings about my impending departure.

Basically, I can't wait. Now this has taken me a little by surprise. By now, I had expected to be in the grip of a full-body panic about leaving the familiar surroundings of the the UK. But far from it. The reality is actually quite the reverse. The reason for my keenness is mainly down to just one thing: Everyone is so bloody rude here. People have seemingly completely lost the concept of consideration for others. From the braying pillocks who invaded the Phoenix on Friday night, spoiling everyone's evening, to the screaming children running unchecked around the Miller's Arms (where I am at present) there seems to be no end to the irritations. You just don't get that in Japan. Like I said, I can't wait

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Back to the UK  

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

After a few weeks away, I’ve returned to the UK to finalise the arrangements for our permanent departure. One of my biggest concerns about the move to Japan has been whether I will feel at home there; whether I will be comfortable living away from the UK. After just 24 hours back in the UK, I feel sure I know the answer to that question. Japan wins – hands down.

It’s not until you return here with an outsider’s perspective that you realise what a mess this country has become.

Waiting for me in the post was a letter from the British Kendo Association informing me that I now risk five years in prison and an unlimited fine because I own a Japanese sword. I now have to carry around a certificate, a license and all my insurance details every time I leave the house with my sword to practice my martial art. I can no longer practice in the local sports hall; I can no longer practice anywhere apart from my registered dojo without risking prosecution and a criminal record.

For what reason? I am not a violent criminal and yet I am being punished. Meanwhile, murders, knife crime and violent assaults with weapons are at an all time high. But these new laws do nothing to penalise the criminal element in our society, only the law-abiding.

Japan has none of this legislative nonsense because it doesn’t need it. It’s the same with licensing laws. There’s no need for restrictive laws because people know how to behave and consequently life is both enjoyable and free. It isn’t difficult to choose which kind of society I want to live in.

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Sayonara ‘Joji  

Monday, 28 July 2008

I’m off back to the UK tomorrow morning to finalise the move from Canterbury and to get my affairs in order. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve got to know Kichijoji (known amongst cooler people as simply ‘joji) and grown to love it. It’s a great place to live – its rabbit warren side streets providing enough interesting places to explore to last a lifetime. I’m going to miss it terribly over the next few weeks. But I am consoled in the certain knowledge that we are going to have a lot of good times here, and that I feel we’ve made the right choice. I always trust my gut instinct when it comes to houses, and I got an instant good feeling about this place. It feels like home, and I’m going to be sad to leave.

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Nagasaki visit  

The trip to Nagasaki went well and I managed to get pretty much everything done that I wanted to. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but given that it’s a town built on heavy industry, I did expect it to be a little more, well, industrial. In reality, the first impression is that of a beautifully rugged bay bordered by lush tropical greenery. DSC_0289small The city occupies every nook and cranny of whatever flat space there is. Towering above in all directions are steep mountains, deeply forested and riven with verdant green valleys. Bamboo groves and trees cling precariously to the the steep valley sides; the deep green fastness broken by terraced fruit groves and the occasional dwelling perched on the valley side. The people are friendly and the pace of life seems appreciably slower than Tokyo. In short, it seems a nice place to live.

The peace and provincial tranquility of the place makes it all the harder to reconcile the place as it exists today with Nagasaki’s indelible and tragic entry in the annals of human history. Looking out over this sleepy town, it is difficult to contemplate what fell out the sky on that clear blue August morning 60 years ago, what it meant for the poor people of this town and what it meant for all of us. Of all the places I’ve visited, there is something about this place that makes it absolutely unique. Apart from Hiroshima, I can’t think of another place or another event that had the same pivotal importance for the human race as did the bomb dropping on Nagasaki. DSC_0273 The world and the course of human history changed that morning. As you stand there looking at the city from across the bay, surrounded by the convenience of modern Japanese life, you still can’t get that thought out of your mind nor even begin to understand the enormous suffering that the people of this town endured so that the human race might move forward.

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Off to Nagasaki tomorrow  

Friday, 25 July 2008

Tomorrow will see my first trip out of the Kanda area. I’ll be flying down to Nagasaki on the southernmost tip of Japan’s main island. I’m looking forward to it, but it is a working trip so I won’t get much of a chance to have a look around. In fact, no chance at all. But I hope to at least be able to soak up some of the scenery.

Nagasaki is of course famous the world over for the A bomb dropped there on August 9th 1945. Grim though it undoubtedly is, I would very much like to visit the museum in Nagasaki and see for myself the terrible price paid by its citizens for Japan’s involvement in the Pacific war. There can be a no more sobering testimony to the folly of war-mongering leaders… Blair, Bush and Brown included

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Life in Japan. 4 – Trash Day  

The title to this posting is a little misleading; in Japan, every day is trash day. Today, for example, was “combustible, non-recyclable trash day”. Tomorrow is “recyclable plastics trash day”. Saturday is “non-combustible, non-recyclable trash day”. There is a collection every single day; each targeted on specific products. In short, the Japanese are really serious about recycling. More serious, in fact, than any nation on earth. Incongruous as it may seem in the concrete wasteland that is urban Tokyo, in the country that seems to eschew the natural world, the Japanese people actually care passionately about the environment. Perhaps it’s because there is so little green here; whatever oasis of nature does exist is so cherished and diligently cared for. In my travels around Inokashira Park, for example, I saw not one piece of litter. Not one. Interestingly, there are also no trash bins in the park – people take their trash home with them.

The downside of all this is the unbelievable complexity of sorting our rubbish into the various piles ready for collection on the appropriate day. Every day before 7.30 am, the man of the house has to gather all the trash bags and deposit them in the appropriate place. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. It could just be ruse to allow Big M another 30 minutes in bed in the morning.

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Shake, Rattle & Roll  

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Last night I experienced my first proper Japanese earthquake. At about midnight, the bed started shaking and the doors started rattling in their frames. The whole thing lasted for about 30 seconds or so. A few minutes later we got another little wobble that lasted 20 seconds or so.

Ironically, the first earthquake I ever felt was in Kent, so the experience was not entirely new. In terms of magnitude, I’d say last night’s shake was about the same as the Kent earthquake last year – maybe bit more. The difference is that here it is not an unusual event, so I doubt the local paper will be producing an earthquake pull-out supplement like the dear old Kent Messenger did last year.

Tokyo gets about 200 earthquakes a year. Most of them are fairly minor, but we are overdue for the big one. The Great Kanda Earthquake in 1923 levelled Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people. I would be lying if I said I didn’t worry about a major earthquake striking. But the city seems well prepared for such an emergency. Every household keeps a special emergency backpack and supplies, and there are clearly designated emergency gathering areas in every neighbourhood. The government also has hundreds of warehouses located around the city packed with emergency provisions.

Nobody here seems particularly bothered about last night, or about the prospect of earthquakes in general. I have yet decide whether this stems from a genuine confidence in their ability to cope with such a disaster or simply an unwillingness to contemplate the prospect.

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Inokashira Park 2  

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

As I noted before I ran out of steam last night, Inokashira Park is also home to a small temple – this one dedicated to the vengeful kami (spirit or god) of love, called Benzaiten. Legend has it that this goddess casts spells on young lovers to bring their romances to an untimely end. Couples venturing on to the lake in the many small rowing boats are said to be particularly at risk. However, that didn’t seem to deter the many couples paddling around together.

Whether or not you believe in the legend, there is no denying it is a beautiful spot. 22072008106 Viewed from across the lake, the brilliant scarlet woodwork stands out starkly against the lush greenery surrounding it and the gold embellishments add a touch of regal elegance to the building. I’m not sure how old it actually is, but it certainly looks as is it has stood there unchanged since the days of the Shogunate.

22072008110I thought it prudent to go and say hello to the resident spirit and ask for her blessing in the traditional way. Tokyo is packed full of shrines and temples, and people visit them as part of their normal daily routines. The first step is to wash your hands and gargle using water from the temple spring, like to one shown here. Then you can approach the altar22072008111. The big pot in the middle is an incense burner. You can waft the smoke over yourself for good health.

After that, you can climb the few steps to the front of the altar, make and offering of a few Yen by lobbing into the chest provided and say your prayer, finishing by a clap of the hands to arouse the attention of the resident kami. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can bash the temple gong by pulling on the big rope you see hanging down. But being English, I didn’t want to make a fuss.

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Inokashira Park  

Today was spent exploring a bit more of my new surroundings on foot. Top of my list was a visit to the nearby Inokashira Park. I wasn’t disappointed. It is quite remarkable to find such an island of tranquility amidst the urban sprawl of Tokyo. 22072008099

It is difficult to believe that in less than 5 minutes walk from this spot, you are in the centre of Kichijoji with all its frenetic activity. Yet, under the shade of these majestic trees, serenaded by legions of cicadas, you could be a million miles away.

Inokashira Park was given to the Japanese people by Emperor Taisho in 1913. At its centre is a lake, bordered by sakura cherry and maple trees that give a magnificent display of blossom in the Spring time. It’s a popular spot with young lovers, with buskers and just people wanting to rest their eyes from Tokyo’s relentless concrete vista.

Legend has it that the first Shogun – Ieyasu Tokugawa – used to have the water for his tea ceremony drawn from a spring in Inokashira. The pond is actually the source of the great Kanda river. 22072008115

During my circuit of the park, I discovered what I presume to be the actual spring where the water was drawn. With my very limited understanding of kanji symbols, I was able to deduce that this sign made some reference to tea; However it could have just as easily said “No Fishing”. More on the Park and it’s temple tomorrow.

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Life in Japan: 3 – The food  

As everyone that knows us will testify, we are most definitely “foodies” (and “drinkies” too, of course). As a family we take a keen interest in comestibles, and so we often find ourselves hanging around in food shops wherever we travel, looking for the new, the exotic or the exceptional.

One of the big gripes Big M has about English food is the lack of decent beef. If you’ve ever tasted Japanese Kobe beef, you’ll understand why. By comparison, English beef is about as palatable as old shoe leather. 22072008086The reason is that European beef lacks the marbling of fat that the Japanese produce has. You can see this very clearly in this picture, snapped in one of our local supermarkets. The result is that Japanese beef is extraordinarily succulent and literally melts in the mouth. It also means that it can be cooked very simply. One of the tastiest methods is sukiyaki – cooked at the table in a pot of soy broth.

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You don’t see these in the B&Q garden centre  

Monday, 21 July 2008

The local DIY nirvana, J-Mart, has a well-stocked garden centre. Amongst the more familiar plants on display, I spotted this one; a pitcher plant. Kind-of brings it home that we’re now living in a tropical climate.

16072008066

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Life in Japan: 2 -The remote control toilet  

Sunday, 20 July 2008

One of greatest mysteries I have yet to fathom is the remote control for the toilet. Yes, you read that right. Every throne in our new place is equipped with a multi-function electronic toilet seat (controlled by a com-poo-ter maybe?) that has a bewildering array of functions, most of which I can only begin to imagine. I’m sure Captain Kirk has something similar – presumably equipped with a function for dealing with Klingons.

 16072008063At its most basic level, the humble toilet sea is equipped with a heater. This is one of those interesting ways in which the differences between the Japanese and English psyche are laid bare: To the Japanese, a warm toilet seat means comfort and  convenience; to the English it generates unwelcome mental images of a facility recently vacated by a 20 stone navvy.

Pleasant though it might be to have your cheeks gently warmed, it’s in post-poo mode that the toilet seat really comes into its own, with its ingenious variety of cleansing functions. Now I’ve always been a bit wary of experimenting with this, mainly because the stop button is not always immediately obvious. It’s all very well having a spotless bottom, but the prospect of being stuck on the bog with Old Faithful shooting red-hot water up my jacksy, and not being able to get off for fear of flooding the khazi is the stuff of nightmares. However, following a brief instruction course from Big M, I now feel qualified to go solo. Basically, the controls are pretty straightforward: At the top, the all important Stop button; below it, the ancient Chinese symbol for “Wash Arse”. Below that, “Wash Fanny”. Big M recommends I don’t try the last option. 

So, this morning I had the first opportunity to tackle my chuff nuts the Japanese way. After parking my breakfast, I grabbed the remote control, gripped the seat, voiced a silent prayer and pushed the button. Nothing happened. I felt cheated. The cause of the misfire was a mystery, but I took it as a sign and left it alone for another day.

Postscript:

I can report a successful first encounter with the Japanese grommet-washer. It was certainly a new experience! After the initial shock of a jet of water whooshing up the Khyber, I found it hysterically funny.

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