Saturday, 24 December 2011

A night in Nagasaki

Last night, my friend Hiro (“Ta-chan”) and I had a little trip to Nagasaki. That is not a drug-related metaphor: we drove there. In a car. 

Of all cities in Japan, Nagasaki -- uncomfortably stuffed into the nest carved for her in the west Kyushu mountains--has had the most torturous relationship with the world. During Japan’s centuries long isolation she was the one place where foreign traders, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish mostly, could come and, on a neutral island called the ‘Dijima’, sell a few wares: arms for tea mostly.  From a privileged vantage over the city, the house built by Thomas Glover in the 19th century tells the story of the Scotsman who came to make his fortune in a newly open Japan and became the first famous long-term Gaijin here. He’s perhaps most famous for helping to found Kirin, the beer company. The city is also the setting of Puccini’s masterpiece “Madam Butterfly”. And, of course, in 1945 the American Air Force obliterated her.

Despite all of this, Nagasaki is a beautiful city. Hiro and I stayed near the port in a cheap but comfortable hotel with views over the bay. On the first evening we took the charming tram (and I could not, of course, help but be reminded of Hong Kong), which is old and loud, to Glover Garden to see the illuminations which went some way to warm the severe chill. Even in the dark, the gardens and buildings were glorious: the tranquility of the near-distance, with flowers and not-obscene piped-in opera, contrasts with the urban mess of the far-distance wherever the eye looks. In the gift shop I bought some ‘Olanda Saburu’, “Dutch” biscuits for the people who are going to be hosting me next week in Kyoto and Tokyo (more on that to come!”).

Ta-chan and I had a lovely greasy dinner in ‘Hakatsu’ a chain of restaurants in which, it turns out, Ta-chan’s grandmother owns some shares entitling her, and therefore us, to some bonanza free meal.
Tonkatsu, is deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet with a variety of sauces. In fact, they give you the components for the sauce so that you can make it yourself. One of the requisite processes is grinding the sesame seeds in a little pestle and mortar. Ta-chan tastefully explained to me that “grinding sesame” is a Japanese euphemism for “kissing arse”. Nice.
Successfully bloated, we had a quick coffee in Caffè Veloce, the cheapest café in Japan, and went to bed.

Exploring Nagasaki on a cold Christmas Eve (though no assurances as to Broadway’s disposition towards me were made) was a pleasure. It has a strangely European atmosphere which struck me as a cross between Manchester and Hong Kong if that’s possible: hilly and exotic, homely, lively and with pavements. We went to the old Chinatown which was smaller than you’d expect for the size and history of the city and, as is my wont, I gorged myself on free samples in the tourist gift shops.

Ta-chan and I were kindly treated to lunch by a lawyer friend of mine who took us to a Chinese place that served excellent ‘Champon’: Nagasaki’s take on crispy noodles. And so oishii!
Stuffed again, we wandered round the central arcade and came home.

I have been bewitched by Nagasaki and definitely have unfinished business there. I look forward to taking another, perhaps longer, trip with the rest of the chans.
Un bel di vedremo…

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Bite-sized Japanter - N°20

In class the other day, I asked Ikehara-sensei whether there was any snobbery surrounding the use of hiragana over kanji in writing. Do clever people use kanji, where the un-clever have to stick to hiragana? Although in some cases this might be true, where the kanji is obscure or something along those lines, her answer was interesting.
In poetry, for instance, some poets choose to write with a lot of hiragana because they are curvy and beautiful, while kanji, she said, are “you know, a little bit, gaaaaaaaaaa!”
Yes, sensei, I do. 

Fashion in Fukuoka

Ina-chan and myself have written a feature on fashion in Fukuoka which has been published on my dear friend Carla's phenomenally  successful blog "Messy Carla: a Fashion Blog in a Size 16". Do enjoy:


Yesterday a morning lesson in Tenjin turned into a lovely afternoon in Daimaru and Daimyo, turned into an evening of high-culture, turned into a cozy night in the pub.

My student Hiromi and I went to “Pronto”, a café chain in shintencho, a covered market area next to Tenjin station where she told me about her brother’s wedding in Kobe. She also saved me from the first of yesterday’s linguistic boob-ups. I wanted to order a “café latte” which should have been pronounced ‘ca-fé-ra-té’. Instead I said ‘co-hi-ra-te’: coffee latte. As such, the lady thought I wanted a coffee and a latte and probably that I was an utter tit when I started querying how one drink could cost 600 yen.

Lesson finished, Hiromi and I went to meet Henry-chan in “Aux bacchanales”, the French themed galley-style café in the middle of the well posh Daimaru department store.
The place is an utter gem and a masterclass in imitation: if it weren’t for the politeness of the waiters, you could well be back in Paris. I had an espresso and then a glass of warming calvados, ordered from a waiter who, for effect I’m sure, shouted across to the kitchen “deux cafés!” no matter what you ordered. They had French radio, French newspapers and posters from French movies.
Here came my second linguistic blunder: I asked for a "crème", thinking the waiter would know that I meant a café crème, but he heard "café calva" and thus thought that I wanted some calvados mixed with espresso. An intriguing idea no doubt.
I mused upon these linguistic blunders as an essential part of language learning: I remember in the early days in Paris, when my friend used to tease me because I would say "merci très bien" to waiters, convinced that it was an even more polite form of "merci bien". 

Hiromi and Henry sufficiently worse for wear after a few vins chauds, we shuffled over to meet Little James in the Apple Store, and then to Ina-chan’s favourite “Corduroy café”, before heading over to Ohori Park.

Ikehara-sensei had given us some fliers which got us in free for a shamisen concert. Here is the Wikipedia article on this traditional Japanese instrument: It was actually rather wonderful, for a number of reasons. By good fortune, we bumped into my French friend Vincent, with his pallet blue and grey, who is, it turns out, something of a shamisen enthusiast and a bit of a local celebrity among the shamisen set. We were warmly welcomed by a group of people from KBC, a Japanese TV company and shown to our seats by some guy who seemed to be quite important and who gave us all a business card.
Speaking to Vincent, confirmed something one of my pluri-lingual friends told me about while he was learning Portuguese  over the summer. If one part of your brain serves as the storage for your mother tongue, all foreign languages are served in a different part. That means that, as you learn a third language and the foreign language part of your brain is active, you get the two mixed up. As such, when I speak French now, Japanese words and expressions get thrown in as well. Bizarre, desu-pas?

Shamisen is an intriguing art form.
For someone like me, coming to it completely unspoiled by previous experience and unable to understand the programme or the compere, one has the impression that there is a lot more going on than meets the eyes or the ears.
The concert took place in the Noh theatre in Ohori park. Noh is an ultra-stylised traditional theatrical form in which the stage has a defined layout and emotion and action are conveyed in prescribed ways. Realism is by no means the goal but rather the suggestion of something deeper (is my impression). The place was beautiful, the stage temple-like, with beautiful paintings on the walls. Shamisen is an important accompaniment to this aesthetic.
A lot of women in the audience and the lady presenting (who is a famous TV presenter) were wearing beautiful kimonos and – my Japanese is now good enough to at least recognise this – all of the speeches were in the highest level of linguistic politeness, which can be very difficult even for natives. This gave the impression that we were in the presence of very high culture indeed.
The music was consuming – more so if you close your eyes (but don’t fall asleep like some of the chottorous chans I was with!). We enter here realms beyond the mastery of words: a pulsing and rhythmic yet liquid ooze of dissonant yet somehow complimentary sounds. You must listen: Unfortunately, this video and the others on youtube do not demonstrate the fullness of what we saw last night; perhaps they are sterilised for popular consumption. One of the most striking features, for instance, was the interplay between voice and shamisen. One or two male players sang waves of tuned speech: stylised wails dwelling on the vowel sounds.
Harmony as we understand it in western theory was not important nor indeed, I think, was precision in tuning. I had the impression that this group was among the best, and yet when they playing in unison there were mistuned and out of time notes and entries. I’ve played the violin since I was nine, but have no idea how some of the players could work out how and when to come in. No one was reading from any music. The atmosphere is the important thing, I think.
The structure was quite free: though there was repetition in the short term, devices did not seem to repeat throughout the uta or song. Changes in the music seemed to be signalled by a series of calls from the lead player, who was interviewed just before the interval.

From this nearly spiritual high culture came some of the wonderful Japanese bonkers-ness we’ve come to know and love.
The presenter lady interviewed the lead player and in her classic Japanese way punctuated it with a whole repertoire of more or less theatrical “soooooooooooooooooooou desu ka?”s and “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”s. For all that reservation is an important part of interaction in Japan, dramatic displays of emotion are common when speaking across honorific levels. I’ve seen this with one or two of my more formal employers when they speak to clients. In English it seems like a weird form of arse-kissing, but is part of the game here. When expressing surprise, one’s eyes must explode open and one must give a really deliberate “sou desu ka” and a rising “sugoooooooooooi”. When agreeing with your superior as he or she bitches about something, you must look like you’ve just learned that the end of the world is nigh and growl “dame desu yo, dame desu yo”. In this way, the theatricality of anime cartoons becomes understandable. And as an example, when Vincent told this lady that he had been learning the shamisen when he was in French, she literally jumped for joy and whooped.

It was all fascinating and gave a lot of food for thought. As such, we needed drink for non-thought, so went to Morris, the English style pub between Tenjin and Daimyo where I had some London Pride and, fully upright, thought of England.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The night I met the most beautiful girl in Japan

Last Wednesday, when preparing for a lesson at the school I teach at in Tosu, in Saga prefecture, my employer, Takiko burst into the room with a smile on her face. She had good news.
One of her ex-pupils has just been crowned Miss Japan, and will be representing Tosu, and Kyushu and the Land of the Rising Sun in next year’s Miss International competition. I met her when she paid her old stomping grouns a visit.
The people at the school are all very proud of her. It turns out, also, that some very famous baseball player also used to go to the school. Illustrious company.


On Sunday, one of my employers had a Christmas Party for all of her students.

The restaurant we went to is called Noël and is an all-year-round Christmas themed restaurant. It really can be Christmas every day.

I sat with the Mums while various chans (Sarah, Maddie, David and Mashu) sat with the kids. We had sundaes, played games and then, apparently – I don’t know: I happened to be out of the room – a certain Santa-san appeared to hand out gifts. Apparently he was wearing glasses and had a bit of a ginger beard, which is rather strange. Can’t believe I missed him!

As a thank you for helping with the party, our employer bought us dinner. The food was western style but, for the first time since we’ve been in Japan, it really was western style. I had a pizza which was absolutely divine and a pear tart that, as you see, was most definitely worth writing home about. There was a problem with one of the girls’ orders, so I’m happy to report that we got a free meal and a packet of biscuits each too. Oh holy night!
The chef is so good that he recently featured on Japanese TV. That said, I’ve only been here for three and a half months and I’ve already been on TV twice, so that might not be all that much of an achievement. 


Saturday was the annual Cambridge House 8th floor Christmas Party. It was a funny affair because we had a lot of money to spend on it (our substantial profits from the school festival, held in October or November) and yet were only allowed to invite a few people. The desk people downstairs do love giving directives, don’t they? The party had to end at 11 too.
Still, our two Japanese teachers came and lots of friends and students besides. There were many a steaky-kankoku-jin and even an Irishman.

My contribution to the preparations was to make a huge vat of mulled wine (god bless Kaldi coffee farm for its Star Anise and its ground cinnamon) which we kept warm on Little James’s nabe pot warm-keeping device.
Maddy-chan and Davido-san also (more blessings for Kaldi) managed to get some sweet mince and made mince pies. Now I’m not homesick at all!

They went down a treat, along with the wine, the shochu, the festive (red and green) onigiri, the umeshu, the calpishu and all of the other weird and wonderful things we put on offer. We danced, we drank and we merried, and not even the tannoy announcement (“Curisumasu paaateee blab la blab la blab la blab la blab la bla”) could dampen our spirits.


Two more bike stories

Alas, the bike shenanigans continue.
You’ve laughed, you’ve cried, you’ve moaned and you’ve guffawed at the grief being loaned a bike in Japan has caused. Happily for you, and infuriatingly for me, the bikanter continues. Two anecdotes present themselves this week:

On Thursday morning, on my way to Hakata for one of my weekly legal English lessons, I did what I always do and left my bike chained up on a ramp that slopes up to Tempaizan station. I do this at least three times a week and have done since September. The first time I had to leave my bike at the station, I did so by placing it in a corner completely out of the way and found, upon my return, that it had been moved into the public highway where I have thence left it.

That evening, classes done and having taught my private pupil in Tenjin and full of the joys of winter, I shuffled along from Asakuragaido-eki to Tempaizan to collect the old girl. She was not there. Keeping cool (it was bloody freezing actually) I scoured the area on the Cambridge House side of the train tracks. It was not to be found.
I should remind you, dear reader, that the powers-what-be in Cambridge House have unilaterally and without judicial oversight decided that the penalty for losing one’s bike is a 50 000 JPY (just shy of 500 GBP) fine and although there’s absolutely no chance of them prising that from me – cold, dead, hands or otherwise – I don’t feel inclined at this stage to get into another bike-related battle with the blokes in brown boiler-suits.

In my still broken Japanese, I asked the man in the ticket kiosk if he knew what had happened to my bike. He gave me a knowing look and said that I should go to the town hall. Such was my intention, though I was at that stage defeated by the homogeneity of Japanese urbanism and the fact that it was dark. I did, however, find myself in the police station.
Twelve or thirteen coppers were sat around doing, well, chuff-all in the police station reception. All stood up when I arrived, all made the same facial expressions when I tried to speak Japanese and all bowed in unison. After a few goes I arrived at the correct pronunciation of ‘town hall’ – shi-yak-sho – but was told that I’d have to wait till the morning. Bowing together, they bade me good night and I them.

Happily, the Cambridge House desk was being manned by a woman such that there were no suspicious questions and nothing but smiles and concern as to whether I had eaten. I had not, so I did.

The next day, I bunked off class and embarked on my crusade to get my bike back. It took me an hour, in changing weather, to find my way from the Futsukaichi JR station to Chikushino Town Hall which, I should say, I had been to twice already, once to register as an alien and once to declare the abductions I had supervised. Japan is very bureaucratic, especially for aliens.
I was directed, by an extremely polite lady to the ‘Department of Biking Affairs’ where, again, I found myself faced with twelve or thirteen employees, an open plan reception space and nothing going on. I provoked some excitement and was promptly shown a very neatly printed book with all of the previous night’s bike requisitioning clearly listed. My bike was picked up here, yes I know, and is being held at a lock up here, oh I see, right next to where I left it, isn’t that frustrating?
I was then shown a diagram of the local area on which a few streets and roads had been arbitrarily coloured-in in red. “Da-me desu” “Sou desu ka?”

That afternoon, Henry-san and I presented ourselves to the saddest bike lock-up in the world, under a motorway flyover where an elderly man, a fridge and a porta-cabin pined for the days of car-park attending or supermarket supervision. He was very polite, an amenable if lonely sould, and he smiled as he extracted a thousand yen from me.

Da-me desu.

Sarah-chan, she of Macclesfield fame, upon returning one Chikushino night to the Asakuragaido bike park, found that her bike had been locked to another person’s. She returned home, hoping that the next day the other bike owner would have realised his mistake and liberated her bike. That did not happen. She waited for over a week and still no one came and unlocked the bike.
Confusion was let loose at Cambridge House as different parts of the university’s bureaucracy gave contradictory commandments to each other as to what was to be done.

As is so often the case, it was left to Davido-san to go with Sarah-chan down to the bike place and simply but decidedly kick the shit out of the other bike until it was so broken as to allow for Sarah’s bike to be released. It’s free now, and the debris that’s still attached to it jingles when Sarah rides it.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


I have just sat down after setting the coffee pot to make my second gallon of coffee for the day. It is two o’clock here. I am a coffee nut (a bean, more aptly), I always have a flask full of the stuff to hand, I miss it when it’s not there and I have coffee-themed blogs in my internet browser’s favourites, just above the Economist’s linguistics blog, just below the Japan Rail timetable site.

Tea is more than just a drink in Japan; our library got a new batch of acquisitions yesterday and we went for a browse and found more than one several-thousand-page book on 茶道 (sadou), the tea ceremony or, literally, the way of tea. My knowledge of the art form is limited but it’s about so much more than tea and is an expression of the completeness of Japan’s cultural identity. I hope that, in the near future, I’ll be able to write more on it.

But coffee is not forgotten about.
I have been spoiled over the last two years of living in Paris where, as a student, one has many hours a day to kill, and espresso - fragrant, thick, luxuriant espresso – is the cheapest way to sentence them to death. Espresso became an obsession for me, perhaps not even stopping short of addiction. In my droit des sûretés exam, for example, I had an excruciating headache (the kind where the pain increases when you move your head around), was trembling and felt nauseous. Though I can’t say that my poor performance in that exam was entirely down to it, I felt infinitely better after I nipped out afterwards and shotted some of the black stuff.

Happily, before coming out East, I managed to wean myself off espresso. If I hadn’t I’d be dead, or selling my body for espresso money. The stuff, though reasonably easy to find, is very pricey. I remember being flabbergasted at once paying €2.60 for a petit noir on the place de Clichy. Here it’s at least a euro more.
But still the Japanese have the good grace to treat coffee as a luxury product: there are cafés everywhere and, though they usually only serve poor, greyish filter coffee at a mega-premium, the surroundings are pleasant and relaxing. Indeed, in the Japanese language, the word café has been metaphorically extended beyond its drink-related etymology, and can now simply refer to a cool place to be. Estate agents, in particular, like to deceive unsuspecting and thirsty gaijin with the promise of a “homes café” or something of the like. Read some Murakami, and they’re all drinking it too.

I miss my many coffee machines and I think they miss me too, gathering dust in my parents’ cupboards. But I shall keep the coffee cult alive, and when my pilgrimage is over, I’ll be more of a devotee than ever.  

Friday, 2 December 2011

Rules is rules is rules is rules is rules is rules, the sequel

The most depressing thing about living as a student in Japan is the semi-permanent surveillance you are subjected to and the arbitrariness of the rules. We had a little chat with Seb recently about the police in Japan and though his assessment of them was on the whole positive, I was struck by his warning “don’t try and use logic with them, or talk about ‘your rights’”.

Japan is a stratified and hierarchical place where you do as you are told because you are told and not because it’s a sensible thing to do. I have a new student who I teach once a week in Tenjin. She works for an import/export firm that does business in China. Her job is to inspect and modify contracts, except that she’s too good for the work she gets and often finishes very early and has nothing to do. She asked her boss if she could go home once she had finished all of the useful work she could do. She was categorically told that she could not. Why? Because I say so. Indeed, the Japanese are famous for working long hours. Unfortunately this does not mean working hard, whatever they might like to think (The Japanese are very comfortable making sweeping statements about themselves and I’ve heard, more than once, things like ‘the Japanese are industrious’ and ‘the Japanese are all very kind’). It is an too often unspoken truism that the Japanese sararyman’s day consists of ten hours of faffing, smoking, coffee-drinking and making sure those thumbs are nicely twiddled.

I have gotten myself into a number of low-heat conflicts in recent weeks, similar to my student. 
First, the bike saga continues: 
You might recall that, at first, the Cambridge House staff (rest assured that we’ve come up with nicknames for them that are too unpleasant to write here) were royally cheesed off when we started parking our bikes in the “incorrect” bike parks. Rather than park them round the back (which adds a good few minutes to one’s journey, especially when they lock the back doors) we thought we would put them in the infinitely more convenient bike parks at the front which are always empty. Oh no! No no no. They were then upset that we didn’t put them in order (my bike is no.4 for some reason, so I’m supposed to put it in bike park number 4); this despite the fact that there are only 9 bike parks and 10 bikes. I think we’ve gotten away with that one. The new and most vicious of the bike related conflicts relates to an entirely new rule they have created that we cannot leave our bikes elsewhere overnight. Of course they go and check. This, if we were to obey it, would cause great inconvenience and we have no plans to obey, especially because they’ve clearly done this to annoy us. So every time I go for my bike key I have a little note telling me off for a bike related offence. Fortunately, however, it’s usually one of the ladies on the desk who are a million times more sympathetic than the grumpy old men and who, I think, realise how ridiculous this all is.
I’ve also been in conflict with two of my employers who are never ever satisfied with the way I fill in the reports they insist I write after every lesson. I should preface this by saying that these reports are utter fantasy: I teach several children whose English is more or less non-existant, and yet they have pages and pages of reports detailing all of the complex grammar they “know” and have “reviewed”. Also, it’s not obvious to me what purpose these things serve. Anyway, I have been told off in recent weeks for my handwriting, even though I’m the only person who reads it, for writing in pencil (“What would you think if your employee wrote in pencil?” “Would it be legibile?” “Why does that matter? It’s pencil! You can’t write in pencil”), for writing in blue pen and for writing in red pen. Also, if I don’t write down a page from the useless textbook, I’ve done it wrong apparently. Watch this space.
The most annoying of the conflicts we’ve entered relates to the primary school we teach at. Every day four of us have to go there and be ignored by five or six children. We pointed out to the powers that be that, not only is this over-staffing a waste of our time, but it is counter-productive for the children who don’t really know who we are, are confused by us and our contradictory instructions. This, of course, fell on deaf ears.

Increasingly, I look forward to the day when a person in a pretend position of power tries to insist on my doing something so outrageous that these small, niggling conflicts become all out disputes. I doubt I’ll win of course, but I think I’ll have fun. 

Sunday, 27 November 2011


Yesterday was a national holiday, so David-san, Henry-chan, Mashu-chan, Sarah-chan and I headed to Hakata docks to see the Kyushu exhibition of the national sumo tour. Fat on fat on slap on slap; it was fun, it was fascinating and it was hilarious.

To get the tickets we had shuffled down to FamilyMart, disturbed the peace of the staff with the commotion of trying to ask for help and ended up with slightly more expensive tickets than we had hoped for: around £40.

On the day itself, which was a national holiday, we went for Hakata Ramen in Tenjin, in the shadow of the Nishitetsu Grand Hotel, then caught a bus to the docks. I love violent sports by the docks.

The entrance to the hall, which probably also hosted concerts and other sports, was busy and crammed with shops and souvenir stands. Notwithstanding, the arena itself was rather empty at around 2:00 when we arrived (note that the wrestling had started at around 9 or 10 in the morning). This is because there are several sumo leagues and they start with the lesser skilled wrestlers. The good stuff only starts around 2.
I had previously seen sumo on the telly and knew that there was a lot of waiting for things to happen. True as that was, in real life all of the ceremony, singing, chanting and salt-chucking was strangely mesmerising and, despite sitting still and being ill for four hours, I didn’t get bored once. We had seats quite high up, but with a direct view of the ring and all that lovely wobbly fat.

We saw the second division’s bouts and the premier division’s bouts. As with every other bloody thing in this country, hierarchy is very important in sumo, so there’s a strict pecking order for the bouts. Only some of them are allowed to wear special decorative aprons before the bouts, and they’re not all allowed to throw salt to purify the ring. Also, if I understand correctly, the colour of the nappies they wear is of significance though the details escape me.

It was also very interesting to see the number of gaijin wrestlers: white guys who've come to Japan and are giving the Japanese guys a run for their money. Still huge, these guys are clearly more muscular (and hairy!). The most famous of the gaijin wrestlers is a Latvian!

Tension built as the final bouts approached. Some of these guys are pretty famous and though the sport has been somewhat disgraced in recent years (match fixing, bullying &c.) the Japanese really did seem to love it, and we did too.

I dare say pictures will follow……………..

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Whisky: big in Japan

The other week I made the mistake of not convening a committee before taking purchase of one of life’s great pleasures: whisky.

I am a great whisky devotee: my Deutsch friend and I used to exchange books on, ideas about and sniffs of the liquid gold, and we even made a pretense to running a whisky society once. Though Japan is a proud member of the whisky producing community of nations (imagine that biannual conference), it makes a binary distinction between very good and very bad. I stumbled upon the latter, and I stumbled after the latter too.

This stuff was ‘Kirin’, a reputable brand established by a Scottish dude who came to Japan in the 19th century. There’s a park named after him in Nagasaki. They do beer too. If you get decent Kirin beer, it’s decent but if, and the same is true of whisky, you get their weird imitation stuff you wake up in the morning with a stonking headache and extremities that look like a map of the Glasgow subway system, so prominent, gorged and boozefilled are your veins and so confused are you as to what the hell is going on. I braved it to class and then had to come home because I felt, looked and stank like death.
I drank more than half a bottle on the same night I bought it from a 7/11 in Yakuin. I shared some of it with the other chans and some of our Steaky Kankoku-jins (sexy Koreans, in other words). The lesson here is to mix and to share more.

When I say never ever again, THIS TIME I mean it: poisoning oneself is to be done recreationally and on slow burn, not like this! 

Sunday, 13 November 2011

This is Japan I wanted to see

Autumn in Japan, 12th - 13th November 2011

 Autumn in Japan 

If Japan is the country of the rising sun, then it is also the country of the falling leaf. Autumn in Japan is spectacular, is beautiful and, like the cherry blossom caress that sweeps north in spring, is fleeting.
I have just returned from the most gorgeous trip into central Kyushu, to the area around Mt Aso, the world’s largest caldera basin where, though the mountain did not glow red and burn brightly, the leaves did.

The plan
This trip was organised by Eiko-san, one of the ladies I work for as an English teacher. Her English school is becoming more and more like a social club, and I’m sure that most of the students sign up for lessons just so they can be involved in the fun trips she organises.
For the last week Eiko has been going on about how nice and how cheap (“ne!”) the trip was going to be and she was completely correct.
The plan was to book and drive to a traditional Japanese Ryoukan, a rustic lodge with paper walls, coal fires, and dragon shaped fountains. More on that later.
Here are some photos from the start of the journey:

Are they chan enough? Mashu-chan and Henry-chan

The ever-radiant Eiko-san

Smackers pukkers up

The drive
Eiko and three of her students picked us up at 9:30 on Saturday morning. The ‘us’ I refer to was me, Henry-chan, Mashu-chan and Smackers (or Ina-chan, if you prefer): the founding chans. Excited, we jumped in and broke out the chocolate and sweeties.
Before long we were zipping through Japan’s ugly suburbia and then hit the countryside.
The first time I ever visited London I must have been 8 or 9. My parents and I took the Piccalilli line from Cockfosters and got off at Piccadilly Circus. Coming up those Metro-Cammell steps, I beheld the advertisements that illuminate Piccadilly and one is still engrained on my retina: L’oréal had an advert with the first woman I ever fell in love with: Virginie McNab, a model I’ve not seen or heard of since, but whose name I still remember and whose face I still see every time I think of London.
So too, then, the sight of red, patch-worked trees creeping up the sheer sides of Kyushu’s mountains, leaves falling into its rivers, will be the picture ever associated in this head with Kyushu. The scenery comes alive outside of the cities; the dirty streams become rivers, the distant mountains depixellate and the flatness of the island gives way to a playground of altitudes and living things that make you forgive the unattractiveness of the human habitations.
Here are some pictures from the drive:

Kumamo, the Kumamoto prefecture mascot!

Thomas the Tank Engine

Ice cream
“Famous ne”, “homemade ne” was how Eiko announced our ice-cream stop. Though I doubt the homemadeness of the stuff, it was certainly delicious and came in lots of flavourlicious flavours. I got sakura, or cherry:

Mmm, November ice-cream!

Black River Lanchi
We sat by a river to have a picnic lanchi that Eiko-san had prepared. Eiko reminds me of my dear friend Jackie in so far as she’s a gorgeous and intelligent woman who is a food obsessive and takes pleasure in feeding me up. I, of course, happily oblige in both cases. In Kurokawa (black river), we had pita bread that Eiko had made, with spicy mince and creamy bean curry. Mmmmmm.
Next, we wandered round the town: it was hugely quaint and the cuteness of rural Japan began to hit home:
Shashin o toremashita:

Smackers advertises for a dating agency

Riverside chans

Aso is the world’s largest caldera basin. From the top of one of the mountains that form its rim you get an impression of Kyushu’s weird geography: flat, then mountain, then flat. And the flat bits are squared with rice paddies.
Every time we go out with Eiko we see a group of paragliders and this time was no exception. Paragliding must be very popular here. On the blustering heights we beheld the distance, saw a lot of Harley Davidsons and looked forward to seeing more of this new, beautiful Japan.
Shashin o toremashita:

Onsen No°1
In the early evening we stopped at an onsen called, I think, ‘ushimaki’. It was a small place near a  pâtisserie full of wonderful Nipponçais that one of Eiko’s students used to work in. Roll cake in hand, we proceeded to the onsen.
For those who don’t know, the Japanese have an extremely civilised tradition that takes advantage of the abundant volcanic water on their archipelago of bathing and soaking in very hot, minerally, water. They have these baths all over Japan: even my dorm has one.
The boys’ onsen had three pools, two on the inside and one outside. The outside one was gorgeous, open to the sky and warm but not too hot. We soaked there for a while and spoke a mixture of Japanese and English though, I’m proud to say, mostly the former. Next, the big men among us went in the inferno of a super hot pool which we managed for a matter of minutes before getting out and nearly feinting. Had to be done though, and it felt great afterwards. Getting a bucket of cold water over the head helped too.

The place
We arrived at the Ryoukan after dark. Japan has pretty set gender roles and so while the women prepared the food, we went to hunt and gather (beer) from a convenience store.
The place itself was so quaint and what-you-would-imagine that I wouldn’t think it real if I hadn’t slept there. Paper walls everywhere, trickling water everywhere, coal smoke everywhere. Totally unlockable, but hell, who cares? : it’s Japan.
Shashin o toremashita:

Eiko brought tons and tons of MEAT to satiate our ravenous appetites which we cooked, along with some cabbage, sweet corn and onions, on an open flame. I stank of smoke afterwards, but my belly was not complaining.
Shashin o toremashita:

Smackers makes onigiri

The Evening
Under a kotatsu (a table fitted with blanket and heater) the night really began and there were times when I was overcome with the warmth and generosity of the Japanese people we had befriended. They can be frustrating (the day before, Eiko and I had almost had a falling out over the fact that I wrote in pencil in a report card I had to fill in for her school) but they know how to welcome, certainly they do.
We had bought some beer at the convenience store earlier in the evening: I bought a can of Yebitsu, which is an almost acceptable malt beer which I like mainly because it causes the archaic hiragana “ye” in its name! The stuff that can legally be called beer here is super expensive, so I only bought one can and opted for two cans of beer imitation stuff. I know. I know, I‘m sorry but I’m doing my best.
G-Dawg and Smackers

Eminently Drinkable Flavor Extravagance

Japanter and Chananter
The other chans bought some umeshu. It was, thus, appropriate that G-Dawg, our Korean friend who teaches Korean to Eiko, pointed out some aspects of our Japanese that made us seem a little girly: (i) the fact that we annunciate too much and say hai for yes, rather than just grunting; (ii) the fact that we say watashi for I/me instead of ‘boku’; (iii) that we say oishii for delicious rather than ‘umai’. There were some other words he taught us, but quickly retracted when the Japanese people told him they were too offensive!
We ate cake and coffee, sitting cross legged in the paper walled room, still enjoying the under-table warmth. Eiko suggested that we sing some English songs. This happens often in Japan and yet we never know any songs that all of us can sing. Out default is “Yellow Submarine” but we couldn’t even get that together. Then Eiko whacked out the hymn sheets and we got down to business: singing two Japanese songs she had prepared for us to learn. The first was the only Japanese single ever to be a hit abroad. It’s called 上を向いて歩こうor “ue o muite arukou”, though for the song’s US release, they changed it “Sukiyaki”. Here’s a link to it: I think it’s pretty, but that’s because I like slush. It’s a song that, in Japan, everyone knows the words to, no matter their age. I found the evening charming and slept happy and warm.

Aso no Asa
The next morning we went for a wee tour of Aso including a large temple. It is tradition in Japan that thanksgivings are made for a child’s 3rd birthday, so we went along to see lots of little ‘uns in kimonos looking cute but inconvenienced.
It was interesting to note that our Japanese companions found the whole site just as fascinating as us and were behaving in a more touristy manner than we were, having their photos with be-kimonoed staff. When we asked about the religious significance of various aspects of the place they had no idea!

Onsen No°2
We visited a waterfall and went “to see the leaves” and then hit another onsen. This place was entirely outdoor, snuggled onto a river bank. Sunday was colder than Saturday, so it was really rather magical to slip, bollock-naked, from cold where you could see your breath into water so hot it tingled. This onsen thing is so civilised. My guide book has pictures of red-faced monkeys enjoying a dip so I’m still holding out hope of seeing some soon. There were a couple of little boys in there behaving like monkeys though; very sweet to see three generations of a family relaxing together.
Due to the quite exposed nature of this onsen, Ina-chan reported that much excitement passed through our female contingent when it was reported that they could quite easily catch a glimpse into the male section, and G-Dawg had a little giggle when, naked as the day he was born, he realised that, if she looked the right way, aforementioned –chan could see him.

Udon and Ending
I napped at several points on the drive back north to Chikushino. After passing out favourite Engrish or the trip – a sign for “Lube Now” - we stopped for some noodles in hot soup, or ‘Udon’. Eiko geared us up with all of the correct vocabulary to thank her with when we parted which, an hour or so later, we duly and dutifully did.
It was a truly gorgeous weekend, sometimes really hot, sometimes really cold and always really jovial. I’m thrilled to realise that Japan is not the ugly wasteland its urban spaces threaten that it might be, and that you can have fun in nature and not break the buta-bank. 

Oysaumi Nasai!!