Long overdue for an update, I realise – I’m hoping to do a full one this evening, as there’s no real point in going to sleep if you’re leaving the house at four thirty.
In the meantime, I thought that I would share a quick story from my arsenal of adventures in Japanese supermarkets. I saw a folder in my local 7-11 that looked pretty convincingly like a letter sent from abroad – battered paper effect and airmail stamps and all – and it amused me and cost 200yen, so I bought it to keep my letters in. (I love getting letters, but more often than not I find out that there’s one coming to me by means of being asked if I’ve had someone’s letter yet, and that just makes me upset. At last count there are about three letters somewhere in the world with my name on them, and I haven’t got them yet. I want my letters, world.)
Now, living in Japan means you see some pretty weird signs most places (I still haven’t gotten over seeing “Lube Now” every time I walk past a petrol station; there’s just no hope for me. I’m doomed to adolescent maleness), and there are some pretty famous warning labels from Japanese products. But I’ve yet to see one as beautifully crafted as this:
“This envelope will increase your working efficiency up to 120%. But working & studying too much will harm your health. Sort out your bother and don’t go overboard for study or work.”
Dearly would I love to meet the person who first threatened legal action against Kokuyo stationery because they had a nervous breakdown from overwork. Damn you, Kokuyo! Don’t you know that power corrupts?
Merry Christmas, one and all!
I’ve spent the last few days travelling around Kyushu, and I don’t have a great deal of time, so – who wants to see some wacky Tokyo Christmas lights?
Of course you all do!
I’ll briefly explain about Doctor Nakamatsu’s House. (This is not a translation – the name of Doctor Nakamatsu’s House in Japanese is Dokutoa Nakamatsu’s Haos. Why is beyond me, as no Westerner that I’ve met has heard of him.) Doctor Nakamatsu is something of a local celebrity in Setagaya – he’s our resident genius inventor, and every year those who live in the area drive past his house to see his Christmas lights.
Yeah. His house. As in, the house that he lives in.
I do not have a car. Luckily, it’s only about fifteen minutes’ walk away.
I took a lot more photos than this, but this connection is very slow and I have to be downstairs in – oh – one minute. So here are some of my favourites. (Please note that while I was out there, Doctor Nakamatsu himself came out to admire his handiwork. He was very nice about the strange gaijin girl hanging around his house at 10PM, taking photos.)
Here they are! (Remember: PEOPLE LIVE IN THIS HOUSE.)
My baby computer is very, very sick. This makes me sad.
It’s weird how even though I’ve only been here ten days or so – it feels like much longer, but in a good way rather than an “oh my god, only ten days?” way – I’m already spotting details of Japan that I’m going to miss when I get back to London. Not that I don’t miss the UK – more on that later – but next winter I’m going to miss, say, being able to buy hot coffee or tea or cocoa (yes) from a vending machine on pretty much any street. Costs about 150yen – a quid, maybe a little more – and warms you right up, even if it is a bit on the sweet side.
On the other hand, I miss London cafés. This might well go away once I’ve got a handle on the language a little more, and some more stable finances (it’s coming!), but the days when I could just walk into a coffee shop and spend half an hour or so nursing a cup of something hot in a warm place seem to be gone, and I miss them. Technically I could do it – my Japanese isn’t so awful I couldn’t order a coffee, and there are Starbucks everywhere – but I can’t bring myself to, somehow. It doesn’t help that anybody I might have had coffee with in a warm-fuzzies-inducing sort of way is also in London. (You’d better not all be going and having coffee in warm places with each other and without me, guys.) I even miss the Wednesday afternoon trip to the Nero’s in Covent Garden for my Japanese lesson. Yeah. Cafés. Cafés are what I miss.
Also, overwhelmingly, DAIRY. This is not, I hasten to add, a Japanese phenomenon – they love dairy over here, cream especially, so in theory we should get on just fine, Japan and I. But the Small Person with whom I am housed is allergic to milk – and butter, and cheese, and cream – and so there is no milk in this house. I cannot satisfy my occasional cravings for milk; I’ve started drinking my tea black; I have finished the Oreos my Neesan bought me before I left, and I can have no more chocolate in the house. I am allowed butter on my toast in the morning, but that’s it. I miss dairy like crazy. After Ayaka-chan had finished her dinner the other night they brought out the mayonnaise and offered me some to put on my meal. It was like breathing again.
Which brings me smoothly to the two main points of this post: okonomiyaki and izakaya, two very Japanese and utterly wonderful things.
People call okonomiyaki “Japanese pizza”, and I suppose it’s sort of like pizza in, well, no real way, except that it is round. In any case, the Japanese already have a take on pizza, and it is equally insane – more on that later. I’ve wanted to try it ever since I came across the recipe, but for one reason or another I never got around to making it in London. My friends, I have been remiss. I can make it now, and they sell most of the ingredients in the Japan Centre; expect okonomiyaki upon my return.
Basically, it’s like this. You get eggs, flour, cabbage (well, Japanese cabbage – think Chinese leaf), spring onion, shrimp, katsuobushi (fish flakes), water, and possibly a few other things, but that’s essentially it – and you smush them all together in a bowl. This you fry with some strips of pork belly meat. You sprinkle aonori over the top and cover the whole thing in okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise. The resulting article is something like a very fat omelette with pork slices on the bottom, covered in green stuff and white and brown sauce. (I personally preferred Hiroshima sauce to Osaka sauce, although they tasted pretty good mixed together.)
It looks disgusting. It tastes absolutely wonderful.
Unfortunately Hikaru doesn’t like okonomiyaki that much, so it’s not often made in this house; however, Misa and Ayaka are absolutely crazy about it, and Misa seems only too happy to have found an excuse to make it more often. It’s the kind of food I’m looking forward to making for friends back home, if I can only get a big enough pan – a massive okonomiyaki would be a good thing to share, along with alcohol.
Yes, that last sentence was just thrown in to provide me with a link to our next topic; on Friday I was taken to my first (but hopefully not last ) izakaya. EVERYBODY I KNOW has got to come out here so that I can go to an izakaya with them. I’m serious. Dad, Mum, Neesan, every single friend I have who drinks and also Zoe who does not but who would be made very happy in her stomach. I’m sorry, Britain, but one of the things I do miss about you has been done in a fascinatingly awesome way by my mistress.
Izakaya are Japanese pubs. They are bigger-on-the-inside establishments that serve beer, cocktails (ish) and food in a cheerfully cramped space where you can talk with your friends at a ridiculous volume and not get glared at. So far, so pretty similar.
So what’s different? Well, I’ve never been served a pint that I had to use two hands to tip up all the way in an English pub. (That, uh, technically wasn’t my pint, but the guy who ordered it passed it to me as part of one of those ever-popular jokes about our relative sizes and ended up letting me have it when it looked as if I was having trouble saying goodbye.) I’ve also never been to a pub that served edamame, weird ketchup-omelette-wasabi-pork rolls, beef with cabbage, or whatever the kimchee-flavoured stuff was. And that was only a tiny fraction of the menu; had I been a touch less mindful of my wallet, that table would have been a veritable mosaic of dishes. The choco-banana pizza (I told you they did pizza their own way here) was also strangely delicious. More like a pancake than a pizza base, covered in chocolate sauce, sliced banana and whipped cream. Maybe it was just the dairy craving talking, but it was heavenly.
No smoking ban in these either, apparently. Service is also waiter-based, with a little bell allocated to each table with which you can ring for service, and everything gets there pretty quickly. All of this would have been amazing even if I’d actually had to pay my bill – the NaNo types I was with wouldn’t let me, which made me feel a little bad, as I’d mentioned my brokeness at the start of the evening and through it governed my orders. I got everyone’s phone number, anyway, and hopefully I’ll see them again – and this time be able to pay my way.
I’m also on fairly friendly terms with some of the people from my Judo class, who sometimes go out to dinner together. I couldn’t make the one on Saturday, but Hitomi-san has promised to invite me along for the next one, which will be nice. Misa has emailed one of her friends asking if she knows any Brits my age who she can introduce to me – I didn’t know she was going to do that until she’d done it, and it was very nice of her. I’m also going to Yokohama this Saturday to have lunch with Yukiko, which I’m really looking forward to – Yukiko being my first Japanese teacher, and one I’ve missed a good deal. I haven’t seen her in two years.
I was going to go to Akihabara today, but my afternoon lesson turned out to be earlier than I expected, so I didn’t; I’ll be going there tomorrow morning, hopefully. Maybe it’s better this way; this entry is becoming rather tl;dr. Hopefully I’ll (finally!) pick up a camera tomorrow, although until my baby computer gets better I have realistic expectations of being able to upload any pictures…
Ah, well. Time to start on the last of the books I brought with me.
I went to Roppongi yesterday. This deserves mention partly because it was, overall, a very good experience for me, but mainly because Roppongi sounds awesome. Seriously. Say it out loud, rolling the “r” and drawing out the double “p” in the middle. Rrrrrroppppongi. It makes you feel good. (It’s also one of the few places on the tube map – along with Naka-meguro and sometimes Shibuya – that I can read the kanji for.)
Anyway, I was in Roppongi yesterday evening. Tokyo, I have found, is a city that is twice as impressive by night as it is by day – don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty by day, but that pretty takes on a certain sexy, diabolical hue once the sun goes down. Unless you’re in a residential area, ’cause it’s getting on for Christmas and it’s pretty difficult to find Santa sexy. (There is a house in my area that’s so hung about with Christmas lights that I wonder how the inhabitants manage to get any sleep. It has a set of Disney characters in lights along the front fence, the first of which sort of looks like it’s about to attack. If you want a photo of this, you are going to have to wait until I have a camera, which in turn is going to have to wait until I have some reliable means of accessing money. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there when these things have come to pass – I hope.)
I was in Roppongi, as I was saying before I – again – so rudely interrupted me, for a trial Nihon-Jujutsu lesson. Don’t ask me exactly what that is; from what I’ve seen so far it’s Judo for grown-ups, not that I can see what’s wrong with teaching grown-ups Judo. This took place in the American Embassy Housing Compound, which meant that when I got lost (a fate I’ve resigned myself to in this city – there are no street signs and my directional sense was never going to win me any awards), the only thing I knew how to ask directions to was “Amerika no Taishikan” – the American Embassy.
…turns out they’re not the same thing.
I had many, many fascinated security guards gather round to laugh at me.
Yeah, um, those stories you heard about the Japanese all being polite and nice? Not so much if what you are is lost. I don’t know why this is; it seems to be some sort of blip on the politeness radar. It’s the only thing that I’ve been made fun of for – my host mother teases me mercilessly about it, and while the people I stop to ask for directions are perfectly nice about it if they don’t know the way either (unless you’re asking at a koban – I was lost in Ebisu this morning and the police officer kept on chuckling as he explained to me that he didn’t think the building I was looking for existed), anybody who actually does know gives me directions whilst sort of sniggering behind his or her hand. Yet I’ve checked with the handful of other gaijin I’ve encountered, and have been reassured that in the early days getting horrendously lost is to be expected – this town is horrendous to navigate. I don’t get it. I can say something offensive by mistake and get away with it, but being lost is cause for mockery?
I can laugh about it now. At the time, I was late and being laughed at by a little circle of security guards – I almost dissolved into tears. A man exiting the Embassy kindly escorted me to the the housing compound, and the Ju-jutsu instructor showed me the way back to the station afterwards. He also gave me a free magazine for foreigners in Tokyo, which was awesome, and promised to introduce me to his friend the Aikido instructor, which was also awesome – he’s a very nice man.
This entry is not going to be as detailed as I wished, because I’m exhausted; I’m not really sleeping properly. (I’m going to whine a little here about my getting-up time. I get up at seven thirty each morning. I’m not used to that anymore, but I nevertheless wouldn’t mind it if I could see the reasoning behind it – I can’t. Why should I get up at seven thirty? I don’t participate in the school run in any way, shape or form; I’ve not been asked to do any chores that early; the earliest I have left the house since I got here is half past nine. I’m not saying I should be allowed to sleep till midday, but…eight? Eight in the morning? Nice round number? No?) Suffice it to say that I was amazed that the USA thought it necessary to build themselves their own little village (the compound’s population is about 1600) in the middle of Tokyo for employees of their embassy. I wonder if there’s a British one…
More tomorrow, if I have time.
[A tatami room, lit by a single lamp on the table in the corner. Camera pans over the mess on, a little around and underneath this table. In the background, sound of a steady, insistent beeping.]
REI: (offscreen) Come on, man…I’m freezing…
[Camera focuses on REI, huddled on the futon spread out in the centre of the room. Two duvets are draped around her shoulders. The beeping comes from the remote control she is pointing at the air-conditioning unit on the wall above her; it goes on and off repeatedly as she hammers one button. Her breath steams in the air.]
REI: What did she say? Automatically set to this temperature…
[Punches the button again.]
REI: I need it higher than minus 28…
[Pause. Examines the other buttons on the remote; there are several. She presses them each in turn, with no result; finally reaches the final remaining button. It is oval-shaped and bright red; the kanji on the top is illegible, but somebody has drawn a little pair of horns on the top of it in biro, as well as a smiley face.]
[REI presses the button.
A swirling vortex opens up in the wall; a sudden harsh wind shakes the room, and the wailing of a thousand lost souls fills the air as a furry red arm reaches out of the vortex and grabs the air conditioning unit, wrenching it from the wall and carrying it to Hell.
A silence. Sparks crackle from the few remaining wires. REI’s breath steams in the cold air.]
REI: In retrospect, that was exactly the kind of temptation I should really just ignore.
This was not actually my first thought upon entering the country, but of all my initial impressions it’s the one I like best: wherever I go, I find nuns. I thought my weirdest case of Random Stumblings Across Clergy would always be when I saw a couple of nuns on a moped in Sicily, heading for the beach – but no. Not Japanese nuns, I’m afraid, but nevertheless, um, unexpected nuns.
Yeah. That was pretty bizarre. I mean, I don’t have anything against nuns, but they were the last thing was expecting to see coming out of the convenience store by Yutenji station. Is there a world nun organisation keeping tabs on me, do you think?
Other first impressions? I’m just back from Shibuya; I stopped for lunch in a greasy chopsticks place near Yutenji, and that’s the third time since my arrival that I’ve sat down and happily put away a meal, all the while absently wondering exactly what it was that I was eating. My read Japanese is not fantastic, and needs improving upon; I suspect (shock horror!) that reading manga might be a good way to do this. I flipped through a volume of Death Note in the bookstore this morning and all the kanji had furigana; that’d be a good start. Not, you know, that I’m suggesting manga would be helpful for my education or anything. Just, um, something to think about.
Anyway, as I was saying, my read Japanese is not fantastic. In addition to this, the fast food (ish) Japanese joints tend to work something like this: there’s a vending machine-type thing, and you pick your meal from it, pay, and are issued with a ticket to give to the waitress. Pros: quick, convenient, saves me trying to figure out exactly which verb forms I should be using to order (my spoken Japanese is also pretty shameful so far). Cons: the writing is all squished together and you can’t ponder your choice too long if there is a queue forming behind you. Results, therefore, in a lot of split second “um…that one!”-type ordering. I tend to end up picking the cheapest option. I had some kind of don for lunch today; it wasn’t bad, although I also seem to have a talent for unwittingly picking spicy meals. I may never know what kind of meat that was, though. If it was meat. Anyway, it only cost 430 yen, and that is about £3.50, which is good news for my wallet and also my sanity. So this luncheon tale has, on the whole, a happy ending.
In less happy news – why did nobody tell me before I left that my age was going to be a problem over here? I knew that the drinking age was higher than that in the UK, but Akemi told me that as long as I didn’t get drunk and start trashing things I’d probably be okay, and anyway it’s not as if I have anybody over here I’m particularly interested in drinking with. I was not expecting to have to adjust to being a minor all over again. I can’t open a bank account (endless grief there. Even Japanese branches of English or American banks won’t let me open an account with them); I’ve managed to book a trip to Hokkaido in February, but that was only by luck. If the travel agent hadn’t been the sort of travel agent that thinks that if somebody is an adult in their own country they should be able to take responsibility for themselves, I wouldn’t have been able to do that either. Similarly Softbank mobile, who were kind enough to let my host mother vouch for my reliability in being able to pay for my phone contract – not the norm. So that’s a bit of a downer. Still, at least there are those people, or I wouldn’t even have what I do.
Speaking of Softbank, actually – we went there yesterday to sort out my phone contract (phones in Japan – I had to interrupt this blog entry to reply to an MMS, which was an experience in itself and means my computer has had the chance to run down to half battery in the time I spent experiencing it) and the employee we spoke to realised only later that she needed my host mother’s countersign. The result? She came to the family home, with the forms, to fix it. Apparently if it had been a mistake on my part I would have had to go back, but as it wasn’t, she came to us. I thought that was pretty incredible. Also incredible is how cheap my phone contract is – I’m paying 1000yen a month (not even ten pounds) for a credit limit of about 150 MMS messages to foreign mobiles – calls and texts to other Softbank users are free. Misa-san and Hikaru-san are both with Softbank, and they’re the people I’ll most need to contact; luckily Julie-senpai is with Softbank as well, so I have someone vaguely my age to communicate with in this country. That’s good to know.
A photo-tour of the Nakasuji house will be forthcoming as soon as I have furnished myself with the necessaries of such a venture (i.e. a camera). My host family are wonderful people – they welcomed me with a sukiyaki party on Saturday night, during which I was introduced to Misa-san’s sister, Mami-san, and her husband, Ace-san. Ace is his nickname. I am not qualified to laugh at this, as he is officially the first Japanese person I’ve met to use my nickname without prompting. Seriously; I am not happy that a whole new world in which everyone calls me Jyuria is opening up. I demand respect for people’s nicknames.
I’ll end this entry here; I have lots more to write about, but I think I hear the pattering of tiny feet on the stairs, and that gives me half an hour to prepare the afternoon’s English lesson. A quick note on the name of this blog before I go – I realise that “Memoirs of a Gaijin” isn’t particularly original, but my darling father was supposed to help me with the name and he, well, hasn’t yet. So for now, this is what you get.