Monday, 29 March 2010

PostHeaderIcon Yokohama

 Yokohama:  Japan's international city... 

My internet connection at work has been down for an excruciating ten minutes.  Therefore, I thought I would write about my trip to Yokohama before it is lost in the archive of “never quite got around to writing about that when I still remembered it”.

Yokohama is actually the biggest city in Japan if you account for the number of residents.  The Tokyo area is massive but thousands commute to the actual city from Yokohama during the day.  Also, it is actually south of Tokyo.  I’ve lived here for two years and I was certain that you travelled north from Tokyo.  How embarrassing.  Yokohama was traditionally the biggest port in Japan and it was where Commodore Perry and his black ships forced Japan to open up to the world in 1854.  Therefore, it became the main Japanese hub for foreign trade.  It is said to still contain this international vibe but I personally couldn’t tell it apart from any other city.  It is famous for its Chinatown which has about 500 restaurants cramped into about two streets.  The World Cup final in 2002 was played here as well.  That’s about it for the brief history lesson.

 Here's some shark fin soup I never had.

I have been to Tokyo a fair number of times but never got around to going on the day trip to Yokohama.  It’s probably for the best that I didn’t because there isn’t actually that much to see and I would have been bored on a second visit.  The reason I went there last weekend was because my girlfriend’s dad comes from there and she has family that she hadn’t seen for about a decade.  So I tagged along in the hope that my presence would not scare or increase the awkwardness of the situation.  It did.  It wore off eventually but there were times where I stood out like a sore thumb whilst Naomi struggled to reconnect with her distant relatives.  I’m not the most awkward of people but I have a problem when a conversation turns silent and nobody is saying anything.  I can always feel a lull coming when a topic of conversation draws to an end.  I always reach for a drink to stall for some precious seconds but then it returns… and with each passing second there is a silent screaming in my brain that escalates uncontrollably.  It reminds me of that scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone is about to shoot the mob boss and police chief… the sound of the train grows louder and louder as the pressure inside his head increases before he jumps up and shoots them both in the head.  Although, in my case I’ll end up coming out with some ridiculous or mundane point in a desperate attempt to steer the table into a safe course of conversation.  Of course, I had to do this in Japanese this weekend when Naomi went to the toilet or something.  I only have a limited number of conversation starters so I found myself in the surreal situation of being alone with somewhat strangers… telling them in Japanese some very interesting facts about medieval history.  

 The Iwasaki family

I did have a very enjoyable weekend though.  We met her aunt, uncle and three cousins over a few days of sightseeing and meals.  It was very strange to be a witness to this unusual family reunion as the Japanese folk seemed a bit nervous.  That’s just the way most of them are though.  Her younger cousin was nice but very shy.  We bonded briefly over our hatred of tomatoes.  We passed her older cousin in the house entrance.  After a decade of not seeing Naomi they communicated for about twenty seconds.  The middle cousin was a cool guy about my age who fancied himself as an actor.  Her uncle was a very standard, middle-aged Japanese man who designed bridges for the city.  He was friendly enough and took us to a very nice restaurant in Chinatown.  It struck me that he felt an obligation to show Naomi and I around because of his brother rather than showing a genuine interest in his niece.  It was understandable though since he has hardly seen his brother in the last few decades.  He was pleasant enough but talked very fast about vague things.  Naomi’s aunt and only non-blood relative was the one who really showed us about.  She was nervous when we first met her but was an exceptionally friendly and cool woman.  On our last night, the three of us went to her local yakitori (chicken skewers) bar.  It was basically a really small bar in which everyone stood talking and watching television.  We ended up drinking about 5-6 beers and some sake.  In the end, there were about a dozen people in the place having great conversations about Japan, Kochi, Ireland and the like.  As usual, Naomi dominated the evening and we got polaroid pictures of us put above the bar.  On the way back to the hotel (we got a cheap price thanks to her father’s friend) we went to a bar and ate blowfish.  I knew it wouldn’t be the risky poisonous stuff but it was still fun regardless.  

 It's oishii fugu.  It's a strange feeling when you're wishing for posion to make it more interesting.

That was one of the best nights I’ve had in Japan in relation to socialising with Japanese people.   I don’t think I’ve ever spoken so much Japanese as I did this last weekend.  It took me a little bit of time to get into it but before I knew it I’d been in a pretty fluent conversation for a few hours.  It’s a shame that it is quite a rare thing to happen as I reckon I’d vastly improve and pick up some useful vocabulary.  Anyway, her family showed us around the Yokohama seafront on the Saturday.  Chinatown was interesting but it was also just two streets of Chinese restaurants.  We went up a tower, saw a famous ship or two, some famous ‘foreign’ red brick warehouses but the best attraction was easily the massive ferris wheel as seen in the Motorcycle Emptiness video by the Manics Street Preachers.

The rest of the trip revolved around going to western globalised chains such as Krispy Kreme and TGI Fridays and feasting on the delights of the civilised word that are not available in the dark despair of the countryside.  

 Naomi's very cool/intelligent aunt

Oh, one more thing.  Naomi’s aunt said I looked like Apollo.  You know… the Greek/Roman God.  I’m finally getting the recognition that my masculine figure deserves.
Wednesday, 24 March 2010

PostHeaderIcon My Japwegian mate

I started to write this entry a few months ago when my University friend visited me from Kyoto for less than a day.  It's interesting that I'm not exactly certain what his full name is as I've only seen his English name before and I think he shortens it.  Nevertheless... my friend Rio was probably the first Japanese person I ever met.  I'd seen numerous tourists and had small talk with one or two in lectures but Rio probably marks the start of my Japanese adventure.  I moved into a nice flat in my last year of University that was about two minutes from the library.  I quite liked moving in with strangers as all my groups of friends tended to argue and fall out when they lived together.  So I moved in with a medical student... a nice bloke who made his own beer.  I occasionally hung out with him and his posh rugby mates who didn't like me because I was rubbish at poker.  Rio moved in a week after me and I talked to him in normal English because I assumed all Japanese were fluent.  He only understood me because he'd been living in Britain for about five or six years.  

I never noticed at the time but he actually left Japan after he finished junior high school (about 15-16) and went to study English in York for the summer.  This is really unusual as the vast, vast majority of Japanese go on to some form of high school and possibly take part in an exchange program for a year at the most.  He mentioned recently that his English was really bad and he had agreed to stay in England without really knowing what was going on... something I can very much relate to now.  The day he arrived  at the airport  in Scotland he tried to phone a taxi to pick him up and experienced his first bout of Glaswegian English.  I think the woman shouted "Ah cannae understawn ye.  Where dae ye wantae go tae wee man?" and then hung up on him.  At least when Japanese people panic when I speak their language poorly they don't give up and run away.  

Anyway... so I shared a flat with Rio at University for a year.  I didn't really know much about Japan to be honest.  I probably knew the same as most people reading my blog know but I had absolutely no interest in manga, anime or anything like that.  My biggest encounter with Japanese culture at that point had been watching Battle Royale and Takeshi's Castle.  Actually, I showed him the latter being repeated on some cable channel and he couldn't believe that a twenty year old, poorly made program was so popular with young British people.  If you haven't watched it then it is various 80s looking Japanese people running through assault courses and getting hit in the face with plastic balls.  It's brilliant.  Also, I remember he once left a Japanese book on the kitchen table and I briefly flicked through it.  The language staring back at me was truly terrifying.

When I lived with him I thought he was a little bit different but I just put it down to him being Japanese.  I once told him about an incident involving our gay neighbours across the hall.  One of them had murdered the other in a jealous rage.  His responce was to ask me if I had seen his favourite spoon.  However, after living in Japan myself I think he is even more unusual.  The first Japanese person I met is also the most un-Japanese person I have ever met.  He still did Japanese things but he never really seemed to conform to the stupid ways I have encountered here.  I remember when I first told him I was going to go to Japan and he responded with "Why? It's crap."  I asked him why he came to Scotland and he replied with "I dunno.  It's crap as well."  If I asked the same questions to every other Japanese person I have met since then I would have been met with the standard answers of culture or experience.  We're like two soy beans in a pod of bitter cynicism.

Looking back on that year at University I regret not doing more to socialise with him.  I was too busy working and studying to do much in my last year so I didn't really care much.  I probably should have invited him to more parties or trips or did some Scottishy thing.  I said goodbye to him without much care that we'd ever meet again.  Yet... I got an email from him one day this February that proclaimed:
im going to crush into your place this week from kyoto, where i live.  next week im busy and then forever.  tell me where you live

It's one of my favourite emails ever.  True to his word... he crushed my place the next day.  He laughed at my beard for about five minutes and then I took him on a drive of some of Kochi's finest places.  I had a fantastic talk with him about Scotland and Japan.  He said he was struggling to come to terms with the fact someone he randomly encountered in Scotland had been living in rural Japan for years.  I guess it would be strange as I was telling him about Kochi and stuff like the various differences in Buddhist architecture in Japan, China and the rest of Asia.  He just laughed whenever I said something interesting.  I suppose if you compare this with the time he told me he was from Kyoto and I asked if that was the place with all the geisha and temples then it would seem different.  We had a good time comparing the ignorance of Japanese and Scottish people to our respective cultures.  A lot of people just called him Asian or Chinese or would start conversations with him about his favourite manga character.  Also, we mentioned the strange sensation of going back home and feeling like you had never left... the only difference being that everyone else had aged a few years.

His mum called him later on and he told her about all the foreigners going on about the famous sunset that happens in Kochi.  He told her that he had no idea what we were going on about and that the countryside must have infected our brains.  He left the next morning and I haven't heard from him since.  A true Japanese gentleman if ever there was one.
Wednesday, 17 March 2010

PostHeaderIcon Walk about town

I came back to the office today to find the elementary school principal sitting in my seat.  I avoided the impending awkwardness by turning around and going for a nice walk about Tano.  I used to cycle about town all the time but I haven't explored a new street in a bit.  I used the opportunity to take some pictures of  some boring things around where I live.  Also, I'll use this lazy update to introduce my new looking blog.  I added fancier stuff but I didn't like the look of it too much.  Furthermore... my blog got about 2000 hits last Wednesday.  My friend linked it on a popular Japanese video game site.  It made me nervous.

I really like this picture and I guess it needs some explaining.  Japanese people like to fill plastic bottles with water and leave them on the wall around their gardens.  I heard that it is an old wive's tale to scare away cats as they don't like the shimmering of the light.  I think that's the reason.  Another slightly related fact... Japanese people like to pour water on the concrete to cool down the streets in summer. They mostly do it in the cities.  I think they're nuts.

I usually walk on the small path to the left to get to the seafront.  I've never noticed that the building on the corner is actually a hairdresser.  The sign says パーム (paamu) which is the Japanese English for 'perm'.  Incidentally... it's all I ever here these days because I've not had a haircut for months and my gorgeous, manly curls have been set free.  Everyone thinks I got a perm.  Why?  I don't know.  The yakuza get perms here.  I think it's meant to be edgy and hardcore.  One last point... every small town in Japan has a ridicilous number of barbers and hairdressers.  None of them have seen a lick of paint since 1972.

This building looked a bit different so I checked what Honetsugi meant on my fancy new iPhone.  Apparently it translates as 'bonesetting'.  That took me by surprise to say the least.  I'm going to guess that it is similar to a chiropractor.  Here is one business in my rural town that must be doing well... what with the high population of crooked, old women.  I had just walked past this building when I heard the sounds of some domestic abuse.  It was quite peculiar to say the least.  I saw an old bloke walk into his house and as I passed I heard them shouting "WHAT? WHAT? IDIOT!" and then I heard an old women yell "That hurts".  It was sad.

It's quite common to see pilgrims walk past my town.  The island of Shikoku is famous for a pilgrimage of 88 temples.  My town is on the main (only) road and quite close to some of them.  I would never do it but it's quite impressive to see these old folk walk the entire journey.  Some of them get the bus, do a few at a time but others to the whole lot.  They wear a funny hat.

This building reminds me of that famous one in New York.  They're very similar as well.  The only difference being that this one is made out of sheet metal and would probably blow over in a strong wind.

The last time I posted pictures of Tano was about 2 years ago.  I passed a vending machine selling a mystery drink.  It happened again.  I can never resist when I see that red question mark.  I always hope it will be a secret, magic drink like Irn-Bru.

It never is.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

PostHeaderIcon Good Japan: Taiko

It's been awhile since I mentioned something I like about Japan because I only gain energy from things I dislike.  However, I thought I'd break the trend by talking about my new hobby.  Taiko (太鼓) translates as thick drum and the drum itself has been around for hundreds of years or so.  Although playing as a group only began in 1951 and is one of the many newly established "traditions" that bloomed in the miserable period after the war. I was sad to learn that it wasn't part of ancient culture since it has all the appearances of being so.  Still, taiko is great fun and it is now a main performance at festivals for any town worth its salt.  I don't actually know the names of the different kind of drums but they basically go from small to massive.  The main setup involves a few smaller, higher pitched drums that usually begin and keep the rhythm of the song.  At the front are the larger drums that play the main part of the song whilst at the back they are mounted and hit with larger sticks to add more of a bass... I guess.  I don't really know what I'm talking about.  Also, there is a massive drum sometimes used.  I think it's the biggest in the world.  The drums themselves are carved out from a single tree trunk that can be hundreds of years old.  Obviously, the drums are hit with various sized sticks called bashi.  I like to play the big drum at the front although it has recently been destroying everyone's hands and you need to bend your knees in a position that’s akin to permanently being about to lift something heavy.  When I play the small drum I feel like I'm a little drummer boy stuck in a Christmas song.  Whereas the big one reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom just before they throw the people into the flames.  Alright... so now you know what it is.

 This is the ending:  dadadada dadadadada clack clack da da da dada da YA

A few of my friends and I decided to join a group after we saw a performance at a JET conference at the start of the year.  My town has a group but they practice on the same evening as my English class and they're not as friendly or welcoming.  The people down in Muroto are really nice and have put up with about half a dozen foreigners invading their group and starting from scratch.  We've only been going to practice since the middle of January but we performed the two songs we learned last weekend at a shrine.  The two we learned are called 大地 and .  There is an element of debate between the gaijin as to what the songs are actually called or mean.  I'm pretty sure they are daichi which means 'earth/ground' and zoku which means 'tribe'.  When I first started going I missed a few practices because of work parties and the like.  This meant I was completely lost when we started playing the first song.  I remember thinking it was difficult and I was useless but now it's so easy I could play it with my eyes closed... which you kind of do anyway because you need to stare defiantly at the horizon when you play.  This results in me looking a bit lost, confused and sometimes cross-eyed.  Indeed, keeping rhythm and playing the song is only half of the performance.  Taiko is a very visual display and you need move about, shout and smash the drums with high, straight arms.  I'm not very good at doing this part either.  The second song is great because the main part starts with a massive smash of the drum and then you get to lift your right leg up and look like you know what you're doing.  In saying that... it is followed by an uncomfortable period of swinging your sticks about like you're meant to be the ocean.  It's very awkward for lanky, hairy white men.

 Muroto taiko:  Nice chaps

The festival itself was the ひな祭り (doll's festival) which is possibly the most boring excuse for a celebration in the world.  Basically, you have these cheap looking but ridiculously expensive dolls dressed up in traditional clothes and they are then displayed in people's homes.  So you walk about a street and glance in to see the same rubbish dolls over and over.  There's a little bit of negativity to balance the entry.  It was a shame that the weather was a bit rubbish on Sunday as we had to stand about all day in the pouring rain getting nervous.  The best thing about the performance was we actually got to perform on stage at an actual shrine.  Even better... it was a shrine to the God of War and hanging on the wall were pictures of fighter planes and the emperor.  I very much enjoyed that.  Also, we got to play in our bare feet and they gave us a proper outfit to wear.  There were four foreigners playing on Sunday (Naomi, myself, Ben and David as seen in the picture) and we played the last song in the four main positions at the front.  I found myself right at the centre which made me somewhat nervous but we actually nailed the song.  The first song was a bit of a nightmare for myself as some Japanese lad stole my drum so I had to start at a different section.  Also, there were no sticks at my drum when we were just about to begin.  I didn't make a total arse of it though and that's all that matters.  The biggest concern is always the fear of a stick flying out your hand and killing a 90 year old woman.  Well, that's all I can really say about taiko.  It feels really good to actually participate in something Japanesey.  It recently dawned on me that performing taiko at a shrine is up there with the most Japanese experience you can have.  It's like I'm actually doing what I'm meant to do here for once.  Hurrah.

Here is a longer and much more proficient performanc of zoku by the group who wrote it.  The main song starts about 2 minutes in. We don't have any of the lads at the back with the rolling pins.
 Secret text
Saturday, 6 March 2010

PostHeaderIcon Racist Chopsticks

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

PostHeaderIcon Different Japan: The Leader

I think the current Prime Minister of Japan looks like an onion. I laugh almost every time I see his wee head and startled eyes on television. To be honest... I struggle to remember his full name. His name is Hatoyama or if that is too difficult to remember then use dove mountain like myself. Although, I wouldn't bother if I were you because the Prime Minister of Japan changes about once a year. I have been in Japan since August 2007 (argh!) and in that time there have been four different leaders. The first one resigned a few weeks after I arrived. I remember him well because I had to research Japan a little bit for my JET interview that year. His name was Shinzo Abe and he resigned whilst I was sitting in my office.  I actually tried to communicate with my colleagues during that early honeymoon period and so I asked them if they had all heard the news. The majority ignored me and the rest just shrugged in the most apathetic manner I have ever witnessed. The guy sitting next to me told me that it happened all the time and  that most Japanese people paid no attention to the leader or government. At the time this took me by surprise and it felt very strange when I compared it to the Britain I had just left. Tony Blair had recently stepped down to be replaced by Gordon Brown. The British media had been barking on about such a "historic" moment for years.  In the end it was a rather dull affair and Gordon Brown has managed to remain in charge despite years of hate from the public and his own party. Still, if Gordon Brown was to suddenly resign tomorrow then the British press would just about pass out with excitement. Abe's resignation had the same impact as a news channel changing their weatherman.

Still, such a response came as a surprise to me because whilst Abe had only been in charge for a year, the previous Prime Minister was a popular bloke called Koizumi who managed to stay in office for over five years and who I actually remember without the aid of wikipedia. Incidentally, he was the first man to achieve such a feat since 1972. Indeed, in the last two decades or so there have been fourteen men who have been in charge of this mighty archipelago. It's quite staggering when you compare it to Britain who have had only four leaders since 1979 or America where they have at least four years to do something. There are weaker coalition governments in the West such as Italy that require a sleazy, corrupt millionaire to run them but the recent turnover of leaders in Japan still astounds me. Koizumi seemed to buck the trend in recent years and was popular at home and abroad. He managed to give a cheeky wave and get a free jaunt to Graceland when he visited America. Yet, he still pissed off China and Korea by visiting Japan's war shrine and he has never seen his third child because he was born after he'd divorced his wife. He actually had security guards send his son away when he tried to meet him at a party rally.

The Prime Minister of Japan

Indeed, it is quite unusual for a Japanese politician to shun their family as usually they are trying to line up a successor. I'll stop boring you with the details but the amount of family connections in the Japanese parliament is amazing. It's even worse than the political families of America because there are hundreds of them. Every time I read an article about an old Prime Minister I notice that his grandfather was Prime Minister fifty years ago. Or he inheritated his uncle's seat or he married the daughter of a previous leader or his brother in law is his closest ally. Basically, the Japanese political system is like a ski lift. A bunch of boring looking blokes in grey suits jumped on a chair and rode it to government summit. Whilst there, they messed about with some stuff, got some arranged wife up the duff and then sent the baby back down the hill only for it to mature and repeat the cycle. This has lead many to call Japan undemocratic and even a dictatorship. I don't necessarily agree with this though. I think it's more a case of complete apathy to politics in a kind of "the older men must know best" sort of way that has continued to exist for decades.

Still, it is quite shocking to see the actual results of this democracy. Since the end of the war, the Liberal Democratic Party has been in government for almost the entire time. There were a few months in 1993-1994 when a coalition government ousted them but it was not until last year that the onion man himself became Prime Minister with his Democratic Party of Japan. The names are very similar, it reminds me so much of that scene in The Life of Brian it hurts. Everyone was hoping he would be the Obama of Japan but he has failed to live up to whatever expectations Japanese people had. Indeed, let me take this moment to say that everyone in Japan loves Obama. They can't get enough of saying "Yes, we can" to me. I used it to teach students "Yes, I can.... " but they can't process the different between "we" and "I"... because they're idiots. Anyway... so the onion man is in charge of Japan and everyone hates him as they do with any politician. His wife was an actress back in the day and told reporters last year that she had talked to aliens and Tom Cruise on Venus. That's the Japanese First Lady.

Well, I'm boring myself now. That about sums up Japanese politics then. Nobody in Japan cares who is in charge. The same party were in power for about sixty years. All politicians in the country have family links and arranged marriages. The most popular Prime Minister in recent year prayed for war criminals and cut all connections with his third child. The current leader looks like a vegetable and his wife's brain appears to have become one as well. Also, I was surprised to find that the Japanese Communist Party received around 5 million votes or 7% in the last election. They actually got about 12% a decade ago.

I may have come across spiteful and condescending as usual but I would argue that the government of Japan has done an absolutely fantastic job in the past six decades. It makes me wonder why westerners like myself are determined to point out its flaws if it has been working beforehand. They took a broken shell of a country and turned it into the second largest economy in the world. Everything has kind of fallen apart recently though so... yeah... they're rubbish... I was right.

The last Prime Minister looked like a sad duck.

I'm going to photoshop a picture at the next G8 summit and make every leader a vegetable. So far I have Potato Brown and Pickle Merkel.
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About Me

I am a 24 year old Scotsman currently teaching English to Japanese schoolchildren. I live in a small town on the east coast of Kochi prefecture.