Sunday, 25 September 2011

"Sometimes, I like my fun to be consensual"

I don’t know why I’ve put quotation marks there, since I’m quoting myself. As such, the intellectual property rights are mine and, though I’m sure those of you who read this are qualified to correct me, I doubt there are many legal systems in the world where I would have anything to gain from suing myself from not having properly cited my sources. Still, just as one of my contemporaries in Paris “proved” that the French invented the trust in 1804, so too, I imagine, some mechanism will exist.

But I digress, I digress, I digress.
Tonight the gang went to a party. It was organised by an extremely friendly and enthusiastic group of Japanese fifty or sixty somethings who have been friends with all of our predecessors, going back a decade. It was lovely, and I am extremely grateful for their hospitality, but the whole experience brought to the fore three aspects of Japanese behaviour that are starting to, well, make me have to bite my tongue a bit; and that’s not great ‘cause I get ulcers sometimes.

I – Spending a lot of time on things that don’t really require a lot of time
This party, though lovely, has been in the offing (can anyone find that on a map?) for weeks and weeks. Henry-san, who has been our representative in this regard, has been being badgered almost consciously about arrangements for it. There have been meetings. Plural.
To me, this stems from a larger Japanese thing of not being efficient with time. At a lot of my jobs, I spend hours on end waiting around for things to happen. Ina four hour block that I spend at Linden Hall, for example, little over one hour is spent with the kids we’re supposed to be teaching English.
As the sands of time do pass, and my grave slips ever closer, I become increasingly jealous of my time. Japan is not a good place for that. I get the feeling that certain bosses like to feel that they have you at their beck and call and if you’re doing nothing, more’s the better.
For example, at each of the jobs I do, I’m required to be there up to forty minutes before class starts. There is no need for it. Our boss at Linden Hall, every time we speak, tries to get us to agree to arrive earlier and earlier. For what purpose? Unknown.

II – Ultra-hyper-micro-management
For the last few weeks, the minutiae of this party have been known to all and repeated to all several times. Indeed, we were marched around a supermarket an hour before the party was due to start so that the organisers could supervise what it was that “we” were “bringing” to the party. Gone are the Paris days of rocking up to Carrefour on the way to the 11eme to find some cheap plonk and scraping off the price tag as the métro crosses the canal at Jaurès.
Japanese bosses (and when I say bosses, I mean the people who are organising our teaching schedules &c.) don’t seem to just let you get on with things. In some circumstances this is welcome, or at least from my point of view it is. One of the women I teach for has this down to planning my lessons and then just doing the lessons, in questionable English, with me to the side for pronunciation. What the students get out of this I don’t know. What I get out of it lives in a bank account.
Another of my teachers repeats ad nauseam her proclamations as to what I should be wearing for every lesson (“Ooooooh, maybe you forgot your tie?”. “No, like last time, it’s in my bag I just haven’t put it on yet because it’s very hot”. “Maybe you should wear a tie”. “Really?”). Often there’s a script too: when one of the students reads something in English, well or otherwise, I’m supposed to thank them explicitly. Right. Can I not just get on with it, because I’ve done it before, you know? No.

III – The sense of obligation
And this brings us back to the title. In the run-up to the party, we were never actually asked if we wanted to come. It was simply expected that we would because our predecessors had. We were told we had to be at a train station at a particular time, and received a classic Japanese remark when we got there: “Oh, I thought you had missed the train” (You are late and I can put this down to you being foreigners who couldn’t possibly understand how things work in this country). The hospitality we received was wonderful, and the ladies who had cooked everything were extremely warm, even if they could speak no English. The trouble was that, from other quarters, we received a lot of instructions as to how we should have fun. And we were told many times that we were having a good time. And it was positively insisted upon that we go back. Dates and times were set. “Remember, we are your Japanese family now!”.


Bite-sized Japanter - N°8

BSJ N° 8 – If you buy something frozen in AEON mall (a big chain of quite posh supermarkets) the lady on the check out gives you a coin. You take this coin to a machine you’ve seen every time you’ve been there before but never paid much attention to. You pull down a screen, attach the handles of your bag of frozen goodies to some handles. You close the screen, enter the coin and push a button. When you calm down from the excitement, you realise that the machine has filled your plastic bag with dry ice that will keep your peas, soy beans, spinach, water bottle (and Japanese homework, oops) cold all afternoon. 

Planes, trains and automo... no, just trains actually.

In Haruki Mirakami’s short story “Town of Cats” (it’s published in the NewYorker here:, the lead character speaks of getting a train to see his Dad. It’s an intricate, complicated, glorious system:
The trains of Japan are a wonderful brotherhood: the wee black ‘uns, chugging along from local to stop to local stop, often hanging around in stations to see their older brothers, the green “express” services and the red “limited express” services whizz past. These multi-coloured brothers all dream of the day when they grow up to be like their daddies and uncles: the Shinkansen, or bullet trains. I’ve not yet taken a Shinkansen: like the black and red and green kids, I’m still dreaming of the day. I’m under the impression they’re quite complicated, so there’ll be a post when, finally, I come of age and cross the Shinkanthreshold.

It’s the red and green and black babies that have filled so much of my time in Japan thus far. At first the system seems complex: you have a series of charts, colour-coordinated of course, that explain which trains stop at which stations (but be careful, they’re not always pertinent to the station you’re standing on). The red ‘uns rarely stop: just the big towns, like Futsukaichi and Fukuoka herself. The green ‘uns stop at quite a few of them, including our own: Asakuragaido. The black ones, bless ‘em, stop everywhere. They chug along for a few seconds, and then the chugging stops.
Being on a black local train is a big soul-crushing, if soul-crushingness can be put on a scale like that. Fortunately, you can catch one of the older brothers, red or green, and it’ll catch one of its black siblings further down the line for you. Indeed, these poor local trains, faithful younger bros, wait around for the reds or the greens so that you can just cross a platform and get on your merry way.

I’m starting to develop an affection for the Japanese railroad. 
First, it lends a very Asian feel to the anonymous towns of southern Fukuoka (SoFu, mayhaps?). I must spend half an hour each day standing at level crossings, with fifty tons of good honest metal rattling past a metre or two in front of my face. 
Second, they’re a big help in learning kanji, the Chinese characters that are critical to the Japanese writing system too. The kanji for Hakata, for instance (that’s the main station in Fukuoka) are 博多 which, if decomposed to their individual meanings, mean « Many Doctors ». Cool! Reminds me of my first year at Fitz. I should point out that to no Japanese person does Hakata mean “Many Doctors” and it’s very easy (and fun) to get caught in the decomposition trap. Still, it helps me to learn (more on that later). My favourite is our own station. The Asakura in Asakuragaido (朝倉) can mean « Morning Warehouse », but I prefer an alternative, if strained, reading that puts it as « Morning Spear », a problem I’ve been dealing with since I was thirteen. Apologies for the crudeness, heck my mother reads this.

So trains, trains, trains. They are a delight. Just as they were when I were a wee lad. Although, in Japan, I daresay, they’re very unlikely to have a fat controller. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Bite-sized Japanter - N°7

BSJ N°7 – What do the Japanese call someone who’s been married and divorced ? バツイチ. “Batsu ichi”. Literally: Strike One.  

Bite-sized Japanter - N°6

BSJ N°6 – a ヘルス (“herusu”) is, for all intents and purposes, a brothel. It’s supposedly a health spa. I hear they deliver. The most Japanterous element to this is the name the Japanese used to use for it: a トルコ, or a "turoko", a Turkish bath. The reason for the name change? The Turkish ambassador complained. And the Japanese politely changed the word their brothel patrons use for brothels. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Futsukayo and Futsukaichi

On Sunday night, because Monday was a national holiday, we went on a big night out. The staff of the Linden Hall junior high school, and some from the elementary, wanted to take us out, and so took us to “Bali Bali” in Futsukaichi (Which, I think, means “Tuesday (or Second Day) market”). It’s a strange, supposedly Southeast Asian themed restaurant on the top floor of some building. But, oh holy of holies, it’s nomihodai: all you can drink!
This all you can drink was 3 000 yen (or maybe 1 200, I'm being told. Look, I was truly very inebriated) for two hours, but they made the silly mistake of offering us a third hour for 500 yen more. We were, it is safe to say, hammered. This is partially due to our naïve affection for umeshu, the plum wine that has captured our hearts, our livers and our wallets. Unfortunately, we’ve been told that it’s extremely easy to make at home, and thus were a thousand ambitions drowned in alcohol.
I am convinced that we could make millions importing the stuff to the UK. It’d be the sort of stuff that women of all ages would adore, and men of all ages would secretly adore: prizes for the best advertising slogan suggestion in the comments!
There was also a strem of atsukan, the term for hot what-white-people-call-sake. Although it’s often served in those tall porcelain flasks, it seems that the/another traditional way of serving it is in a glass in a square wooden box. The box catches the spillages and then you drink the dregs. Mmmmmm! So drunk!

We got lots of gossip from the staff, lots more booze then went to karaoke. Fortunately I was too drunk to continue and staggered out into the sub-tropical rain, did not explain to the taxi driver where I lived, then stumbled home from Asakuragaido-station. D’oh!


When Japanese people have been asking me, “how do you like Japan so far?” or “what do you think of Japan?”, my reply has been “I’ve never been made to feel more welcome”. On Saturday night, 17th September, I was reminded of why that is.

I have signed up to teach legal English with a school specialising in that field, and am giving lessons in, inter alia, Fukuoka High Court. My boss has been going on and on about someone she calls “The Head Lawyer”, which sounds like a character from The Matrix, who really wants to meet me. Fine.

On Saturday, then, I was dispatched, neck be-tied, hair be-gelled and pits be-sweated, back to the Court for the monthly meeting where all of the heads of the eight Kyushu bar associations (d’où the expression “Head Lawyer”) come together and discuss the international aspects of their practice. I had been asked to give a speech about the Bar in England, which I did with relish, and it was a pleasure to see so much curiosity, and see the high regard in which the profession is held internationally.

Post-meeting, they invited me to dine at the office of the head of the Fukuoka-ken Bar association. The food was great: loads of good chicken (a rarity over here, I’d say) and loads of excellent sushi and sashimi (and I did not care in the slightest that I had had sushi for lunch too!)
More importantly the booze was good and plentiful. I had decent Japanese beer for the first time (it’s bloody expensive over here, despite the quantities people are rumoured to drink), but that was just for the old kampai. Because I mentioned that I had lived in Paris, the “Château Blanc” was soon cracked open, then some French red, then some Laurent Perrier, then some form of cognac. Then we got on to the “workers’ drink”, some vile but warming spirit from, yes you’ve guessed it, China. I remember the first time I went to mainland China being advised never to go near it, but what is advice for if not to be ignored?

But it wasn’t the drink that made the night so moving, it was the off-the-cuff, red-faced, heart-felt speeches that these proud men made in a language that is not their own, in honour of some gaijin they don’t know, and have no reason to know except to welcome him to their country. There were eight senior lawyers around the table, a stunningly gorgeous Korean girl who was Head Lawyer’s assistant, and a cool Filipino guy who spoke impeccable English and was himself an accomplished jurist. Each of them made a short speech welcoming me to Japan and insisting that I come and visit them in their respective prefectures. Their English was, they admit, poor, but they struggled on. For my benefit.
The affair was quite Japanese, in that they were quite drunk but there was still lots of bowing and ceremony and formality. But I got a sense that, though the rituals were adhered to, there was a consciousness of the ridiculousness of it all. They all insisted on refilling my glass all the time, and every time I accepted and held my glass with both hands, they would all shout “the Japanese way!” and have a good giggle. One of them had inexplicably learned the expression “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” and they all loved that. They gave me the Japanese equivalent: “Gou ni itte wa, gou ni shitagae (When in a town, obey!).

The Head Lawyer from Nagasaki was an extremely jovial man who had lived in New York, and had probably the best English at the table. His speech was perhaps the most moving: “Grahame, you have been invited by us all to stay with us in our homes and we sincerely hope that you will come. We’ve all promised you free food and drink all over Kyushu, and if these guys don’t live up to their end of the bargain, I’ll sue their asses”. Nice! “There’s a Buddhist idea that we call En. It means something like this: the world is a huge place, and there are billions of souls in it, but for some reason we have been brought together and so we owe it to the unlikeliness of that happening to start a relationship. Welcome to Japan”.

They gave me gifts (“The Japanese way!”) and sent me home drunk. 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Shinto Shrine Shenanigans

The other day, after another session of cuteness at Linden Hall, most of the gang went to a festival at the Hakozaki-gû Shinto shrine near Hakata, myself included.
The shrine venerates the kami (god) Hachiman whose spirit was somehow moved there from another shrine in 923AD. Also, the shrine stands for the memories of certain Emperors: Ôjin, Jingû and Tamayori-bime. Good guys I bet (actually, Jingû was a girl!).

Here is the shrine:

The festival reminded me of the Oktoberfest somewhat, beautiful surroundings, a hallowed history, loads of beer (though considerably cheaper and pissier this time around), food and fun. The Shrine itself was bedecked in ritual: various stands in the central courtyard had been opened up to show Japanese art and manufacturing, surrounding a main building under which rather Byzantine rituals were taking place. Berobèd monks, with big green hats, processed forwards and backwards, banging taikos, all the time avoiding the angularly raked white gravel that formed pools around the sanctum. A family was sat on seats in the middle of the ritual. Perhaps it was a blessing for them. All of Japan’s contradictions were evident right there: the family bowed their heads beneath a tall red Shinto portal, but in the mother’s hands were grasped two or three big flashing sticks such as one finds at a funfair, presumably to keep her son distracted through the solemnity of the ceremony.

Henry-san and I wandered round the grounds which went on for miles. Hundreds of stalls, attractions and beer tents formed a network of streets. Yakitori was popular, octopus balls, chilled pineapple slices, choco-bananas, beer, weird slush things, moshi (sweet little rice cakes), gyoza (pork and prawn dumplings too. Henry-san and I had cans of Asahi (500yen each!) and sat down in a tent to eat what seemed to be a fried salad, bound together by egg, barbecue sauce (which made Henry-san wretch) and hideously fishy dried tuna flakes.

A good night was had by all I dare say: Rory-san managed to win a little turtle in some sort of game, but was then convinced to hand it back when he realised that keeping a pet turtle was probably not going to be all that convenient.

The architecture of the shrine was glorious, but it was clear that despite Shinto and despite Buddhism, food is the religion of Japan. And all I can say is Alleluia! 

Bienvenue à l'Académie Nipponçaise

I have mentioned before the depth of my love for poor Japanese English, Engrish as it is popularly known, those wonderful sentences that, though often perfectly accurate when evaluated against the rules of the English language, make little sense and are often wildly inappropriate. An oft quoted favourite - on a drinks bottle - is “Please enjoy sweet taste without reservation”.
[NB – as soon as I get access to a scanner, I have a corker of a leaflet coming for you!]

But it’s not just Engrish. It’s also what I call “Nipponçais”: garbled attempts at the language of Molière to garner an attempt at some élégance. Sometimes it’s right, often it’s wrong, but it’s always Japanterous (Japantéreux, I suppose) and the best examples figure below:

Friday, 16 September 2011

Bite-sized Japanter N° 5

BSJ No° 5 - In Japanese, the border between blue and green is in a different place than in English. Thus, traffic lights in Japan are said to be Red, Amber and Blue even though it’s exactly the same colour.

Differences in the perceived world that manifest themselves in language are discussed in Guy Deutscher’s excellent excellent excellent book “Through the Language Glass” ( which I bought Stefan “Mr Stefan” Liberadzki for his birthday (though I read it before I gave it to him). 

Japanguage 2

Lesson 2

I – “Mo” means “more”
Whereas wa () is the particle that denotes the subject of the particle, to say “and this thing too”, you use mo () where you otherwise might have used the particle. Thus:
Danny B wa Dianny B mo mashifu banta desu.
Danny B and Dianny B are massive banter.

II – [Re]introducing yourself

Shitsurei desu ga, o-namae wa ?
Excuse me, what’s your name?
Here, the “o-is honorific and brings great honour upon either the interlocutor or the subject spoken about. For example, “o-chan” (), which means tea, always gets an o-, probably because tea is held in such high regard.

Raeedaru kara kimashita
I’m from Rydal.

Hajimemashite, Grahame desu. Igirisu kara kimashita, dozo yoroshiku.
How do you do, I’m Grahame. I come from England, nice to meet you.

Nan-sai desu ka ?

Harube-san gojugo sai desu.
Hervé-san is fifty-five.

o-tanjobi wa itsu desu ka
When’s your birthday?

Tanjobi wa roku-gatsu ju-kyu-nichi desu.
My birthday’s the 6th month, 19th day.

Seinengapi wa sen kyu-haku hachi-ju kyu desu
My date of birth is one-thousand-nine-hundred-and-eighty-nine, 6th month, 19th day.

And don’t you forget it !

The language of Shakespeare and everything but

A large part of my time in Japan – too great a part, I begin to fear – will be taken up by teaching English. It’s something I’ve done before, indeed a lot before, and has a tendency to be either wonderful or dreadful. When you have a student who is good, interesting and interested, it can be a highly rewarding experience (and the money is just a bonus, naturally!). When, however, you have a student who is cripplingly shy, refuses to speak, knows no English or won’t show what he or she does know, it is worse than pulling teeth and, though I’m not a dentist, feels like it takes just as long.

I have three (or four, or five, depending on the definition) jobs at the moment: (1) – I’m teaching for a group of concerned mothers who organise a little after-school school for their children at one of their homes; (2) – I’m teaching for two companies, run by spunky old ladies to the south of Chikushino; (3) – I’m teaching lawyers and judges legal English in Fukuoka High Court (and elsewhere I think). In addition to this, I have to teach, as a condition of the Tsusuki scholarship, three afternoons a week at Linden Hall, an elementary and junior high school owned by the same people as our university. This has cheesed us off somewhat (they don’t have cheese in Japan really, so tofu-ed us off?) because the guys in the year above us only had to do one afternoon. More to come thereupon.

Job (1) is extremely sweet. I get to cycle across paddy fields, in the shade of Homan-zan (Mt Homan) to my boss’s house. There, she feeds me (lots of tea, and unnameable foodstuffs) and leads my lessons. I teach children of ascending ages, up to two seventeen year old lads preparing for the University entrance tests.
These entrance tests are killer: I read the texts. Did I understand every word? Just about. Did I understand the texts? Not fully. Do I expect Japanese seventeen year olds to understand them? Absotively not. My work is cut out, but theirs has a positively razor edge.

Job (2) is pretty adorable too. For one half, I go to this strange blue bunker, with a Union Jack hanging from the entrance, where a lovely sixty-year old lady welcomes me coffee and conversation, some of which might even be described as Japanese.
My first student is a late-fifties, early-sixties lady who, though extremely nice, made a big show of being nervous. She kept talking about how nervous she was that I was a new teacher, hunching her shoulders and even trembling a little. She muttered “is difficult, is difficult” a hundred thousand times and, whenever I asked her a question, no matter how simple, her dramatic response was always “Oh dear God”. Still, things warmed up towards the end, and she gave me a lift to the Seven Eleven down the street to get some dinner (King prawns and vegetables with crispy noodles). Also, it turns out she baked me a cake, which I ate after dinner. It was called a Castillo, or something equally Iberian sounding, and is a speciality of Nagasaki.
My second class was a mixed bunch, a high school student, a university student, a housewife and an architect. Their levels were very good, and they were very enthusiastic. Before I knew it, I was back on the JR line to Tempaizan.

Job (3), though exciting, gets stranger and stranger. At first, I wished that I had found out about it earlier. It’s the most lucrative of the jobs I’m doing and, with regards to my future plans, is the most relevant. It’ll be pretty cool to get to know some Japanese lawyers. On the other hand, it’s difficult to fit it into my schedule (I’m doing 9-10 in the morning in Hakata, then racing back to Futsukaichi for lessons at 10:40. I’m also doing one evening a week straight after teaching the kids at Linden Hall). The lady organising it seems to think that my schedule is hers to do with as she pleases and keeps asking me to do times that I’ve already ruled out, and keeps wanting to ‘introduce me to’ (by which she means, teach) various people at awkward times. She also has a habit of obsessing somewhat about my appearance and doing the classic Japanese order-thinly-veiled-as-suggestion thing: “maybe you should wear this next time…” &c. Still, it’s not too bad, pays well and could be interesting.
I’ve done one lesson at the court which was alright, although the students (fearful of making mistakes, I think) rarely spoke. Do you understand? Nobody move! Yes? Nod very very slightly! Are you sure? Look at the table? Ok, Mr X, tell me about this. Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrmmmmmmmmmm….

The cutest part of the week is when I have to teach at Linden Hall, the primary school owned by the same organisation as our university.
The headmistress, who is very young to be a headmistress, is very nice indeed and very helpful and has offered to help us with our Japanese homework. She’s dedicated to her job, which makes a refreshing change I’d say. I was initially pained to learn that I’d be spending two afternoons a week in the elementary school and one in the junior high school, but, for the moment, it’s perfectly pleasant.
As with a lot of things in my Japan-life thus far, things seem to take much longer than they need to. For instance, although we spend upwards of three hours in the school, we’re only actually with the kids for around one hour. The rest of the time we kick back in the staff room, drink barley tea and practise for making the “right-it’s-time-for-English-club” announcement on the tannoy system.
The kids get a bit rowdy, but they’re mostly super cute. They remind me of little manga characters, big eyes, bouncing around, often pretending to be ninjas. Some of them are shy, and some rude though. One girl narrowed her eyes, turned round to me and whispered “I don’t like you”. Charming seven-year old. She then proceeded to flick me in the side of the head and stick her tongue out at me. This has taken me a while to get over.

Job (2) had a reprise tonight: I went to Shimoori school, owned by the other lovely lady. I taught two little boys for forty-five minutes, who were as cute and mischievous as nine-year old boys should be. Getting them to sit down was a challenge, but they were instantly mesmerised, shocked, awed, amazed and intrigued by the fact that I could double-joint my thumbs. This gave greater impetus to my command to say “ttttthhhhhhhhhhhuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmmmbbbbbbbbb”. They loved it, and are probably even now putting their thumbs in clamps and vices, trying to snap their thumbs into shape to show me next week. They also loved the word “button”: they think it sounds like “bottom”. I’ll admit to having a chuckle myself. The [immature] leading the [immature].
Next I taught three adults who, well, didn’t speak English. Not even a bit.

On the Shakespeare theme, Linden Hall does a production of the bard every year. Last year was Hamlet (I think). I remember Stefan “Mister Stefan” Liberadzki telling me the story of when he was teaching some Japanese students who put on a production of Macbeth. The punch-line was “Is this a digger I see before me?”.
I think we’ve settled on doing Julius Caesar or Much Ado About nothing. My preference is for the former: mini-Japanese kids in little togas, pretending to stab each other and trying to say “Et tu Brute?” What is not to love? I ask you. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Japanguage 1

One of my friends asked me, before I left, to relay the Japanese I would learn so that he could keep up. How realistic this is may be questionable, but it’s a good way a) for me to practise my skills and b) for you to get a glimpse under the remarkable skin of this country. So I shall endeavour, then, to give you a few Japanese lessons (though I wouldn’t dare pretend to lecture on Japanter itself).
We started our lessons this Monday with the lovely Ikehara-sensei. The plan is to get the kana down first (hiragana and katakana) before heading up to the deep end of the Japool: the kanji. I won’t bore by writing out the kana here. If you’re interested: and Look at, and memorise the tables! Being a massive swot, I learned these before I came. Of course, my pronunciation and recall are, well, wanting.

Lesson 1

I - Nothing in Japan is satisfying without ritual. So here’re our classroom rituals:
At the beginning of the lesson, when all are present:
All stand, bow, and say “ohayo gozaimasu (
おはよございまあす)”. Good morning!
At the end of the first period:
All stand, bow and say “arigato gozaimashita (
ありがとございました)”. Thanks for that!
At the beginning of the second lesson:
All stand, bow, and say onegai shimasu (
おねがいします)”. Please!
At the end of the second lesson:
All stand, bow and say “arigato gozaimashita (
ありがとございました)”. Thanks for that!

II – Some greeting phrases
Watashi wa Grahame desu わたしはグレイハムです) = I am Grahame.

Dôzo yoroshiku onegai shimasu (どぞよろしくおねがいします) = Pleased to meet you (lit. Please let’s take care of one another).

Watashi wa gakusei desu (わたしわ学生です) = I’m a student
Other things you might be:
Kaisha-in (
会社員) = Office worker
Isha / Sensei (
医者) = Doctor
Engeeneea (
エンギニア) = Engineer (good guess!)
Ginko-in (
) = Person what works in a Bank
Kyoshi / Sensei (
巨視) = Teacher
Kenkyusha (
研究者) = Researcher

Igirisu-jin desu / Igirisu-kara kimashita (イギリス人です/イギルスから着ました) = I’m English / I come from England
Other places you might be from:
ukusenburugu (ルクセンブルグ) = Luxembourg
Burajiru (
ブラジル) = Brazil
ebiria (セビリア) = Seville
Doitsu (
ドイツ) = Germany

III – Numbers
Ichi – Ni – San – Shi/yon – Go – Roku – Shichi/nana – Hachi – Kyu/ku – Ju
Ju-ichi – Ju-ni – Ju-san - &c.
Ni-ju-ichi – Ni-ju-ni - &c.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Bite-sized Japanter - N°4

BSJ N°4 – Japan, like the UK, has a wide variety of accents, though there is a standard Japanese based on the way the language is spoken in Tokyo. However, speaking colloquially is not very feminine, so women speak correctly. Men however, take great pride in mumbling, grunting, swearing and being incomprehensible.
As such, those of us who are learning Japanese from the start and who have half of our DNA contained in Y chromosomes have to suffer the constant humiliation of speaking like women with deep voices until finally we master the art of the grunt. Grrrrrr. 

« Is it my turn for skin? »

By way of welcome the university paid for us to have a slap-up dinner at a specialist tofu restaurant. Slap-up is much too vulgar and indelicate an expression to describe the experience, but it was delicious by every single account.

The restaurant was your classical, cinematographic, Japanese dining experience. Many of my friends are actors or are involved in theatre, and we once discussed how the law, the church, and the theatre were one and the same. Being a waiter in Japan has to be added to that list.

We headed – late – to Dazaifu, the ancient administrative centre of Kyushu. In the 7th century, when the Koreans were threatening to invade, Dazaifu became the forward command base for the defending Japanese. The place is full of gorgeous wooden buildings, most oriental, with swooping roofs and pedestrian streets, and Tori: red, Shinto arch-gates. We marched up a satisfyingly winding hill-road, negative ions in abundance, and came to a low, tiled wall. The place was not obviously restaurant-y; at the entrance shoes are removed and bows exchanged. I had a few seconds of confusion with the extremely smiley, extremely pretty, extremely bow-y waitress, asking where I might put my bag. She indicated that I should keep it, and so I placed it in the corner of the room (that’s right, a whole room to ourselves) we were in. Little did I know that ornate silk blankets had been prepared to keep our bags warm and comfortable throughout the duration of the meal. That, chers amis, is customer service. And bag service.

We “sat” at two “tables”. What I mean is, we kneeled (happily, Japanese gender politics being as it is, it’s acceptable for boys to sit cross-legged, phew!), at some extremely low tables. Much footsie was had by all, huzzah. I sat with Rory-san (Laurie), Dom and Matt along with Ikehara-sensei, a big-wig from the Uni, and Kim-sensei, cheeky Korean extraordinaire.

侘寂 (wabi-sabi) is the apogee of Japanese aesthetics. Wabi-sabi lauds simplicity, closeness to nature, economy, imperfection, asymmetry and delicacy. Wabi can be translated as isolation, or that feeling of smallness you get when you look up at the universe and sense your own insignificance. Sabi is slenderness, coldness or withering. 
The Japanese architect Tadao Ando put it thus:
It's simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.
Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It's a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It's a richly mellow beauty that's striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time-Katherine Hepburn versus Marilyn Monroe”.

Our dinner was wabi-sabi in surroundings, and in flavour. The walls were white, the doors paper. There were small windows at the bottom of the sliding doors that allowed kneeling waiters to peer in, but not passers-by to see. At the edge of the room, near where I sat, a strip of glass revealed a carefully raked garden, dimly lit, as if, and perhaps by the moon.

The portions were tiny but numerous. Red-snapper sashimi; a jelly made of tofu and fish, with richly flavoured mushrooms at the bottom; a clear soup; steamed abalone and lotus root; miso soup; pork dumpling with searing mustard arranged on its crown; a platter of different tofus, one crunchy, one wobbly, and one so thick and creamy as to almost be custard. 
Beyond the delicacy of these little courses, the food got more japanterous. Dom and Rory-san had ordered beef instead of Abalone, and so got little heating stones, with a paper shield to keep the spitting oil away, and two lumps of beef. They sat and orally orgasmed right in front of me: either they were teasing us, or, as they claimed, it was the best beef they’d ever tasted.
Also, throughout the meal, there was a huge vat of steaming soy milk in the middle of the table. As a skin formed, you took it in turns to extract the skin and get it into a cup (not the easiest thing to do with large cooking chopsticks, flasks of sake running with your blood, and steam scalding your hands). You could the add a special sauce and some lime zest.

Our tofu skinning skills diminished as the night progressed, and that was because, as in so many places in Japan, it was all you can drink. We kampai-ed with Kirin beer, but then moved swiftly on to more exciting beverages. The sake was just excellent. Though the Japanese word for hot is 暑 (atsui), there’s a special word when it comes to talking about sake being hot: 熱燗 (atsukan).
I should préciser, also, that sake is the general word for any alcoholic drink in Japan. A fine Bordeaux is sake, beer is sake, 99p Lambrini from the offie is sake. Japanese rice wine as we know it in the west is either Nihon-shu or o-sake.
The main revelation of the night, however, was something called (umeshu), made from stepping ume, a type of fruit, in alcohol. I think it’s plum wine. Whatever it is, it is gorgeous, delicious and whatever other adjective you care to use. So good.

Drunk, they chucked us out after a few hours, and we proceeded to a jazz bar which, mercifully, had no jazz music. I drank Glenmorangie and then Moscow Mule (cocktails are really popular here: you can get cans of 5% cocktails (Sex on the Beach, Screwdriver, Tom Collins) for around 75p in supermarkets).
It was a wondrous evening: lots of Japanter, excellent food, and a new experience with which to hollow out new caverns in the spongy stuff in my skull. 

Blondes have more fu[kuoka]

The first point to make is that it has been very very sunny indeed in Fukuoka over the last few days. When we first arrived, the tail end of the powerful Typhoon was still cutting through central Japan, and it was rainy and windy. Now that it’s gone, the sun shines and it’s extremely hot here. As such, my hair is now a pale blonde, a far cry from its usual ginger hue.

And lots of fun I did have. Seb took us on our walking/subway/elevator tour of the gleaming metropolis of Fukuoka.

I had arrived early at Asakuragaido because I needed to go to the post office to take some cash out. I got out ten thousand yen (一万円) from an extremely politeful (an increasingly popular word) cash machine, and met Seb in the station. Not before having wasted 300yen on the wrong ticket. Anyway, the uni paid.
We took the Nishitetsu line into Tenjin, a party area in the centre of Fukuoka. Nishitetsu is a private train operator that runs alongside the national rail service, JR. They also seem to run buses (more on that later).

Our first stop was the IMS building, which contains the gay-sounding “Rainbow plaza” on the top floor, a sort of meeting place / resource centre for the gaijin community in Fukuoka, paid for by the city’s government. We spent about ten seconds in there, before Seb made the mistake of promising us Mars bars in the basement, and we quickly sped off. He and Maddie went off to find a post office I believe, so we went down 11 floors to the Mars bar place which, in the end, did not have any of that chocolatey-caramely-nougaty nectar, and instead had bloody expensive Werther’s original. I bet Werther is sitting on a pile of money right now, giggling his overfed chops off, while that old man he forces to appear in his adverts struggles to escape from the cage Werther keeps him in. I bet.

Here's IMS:

I get increasingly impressed with the zaniness of the Engrish we’re seeing everywhere. How it’s possible that people believe their outlandish statements to be accurate English is beyond me. My favourite at the moment is the one that appears on some drink bottle: “Enjoy the sweet taste without reservation”. I love the implication that even the Japanese taste-bud needs permission to enjoy itself. 
I also love the Nipponçais: Japanese attempts at using French to make things look elegant. There’s a department store called “Comme ça”, which is pretty normal, and a loo roll called “Mon La Vie”, less so.

We walked thence to Canal City in Hakata, which is a ginormous shopping / entertainment centre with exciting architecture. If I manage to steal some images from someone else’s facebook, it’ll be pictured.

On the way we went through Nishtetsu, an island in the middle of the river. Once an extremely seedy area, it is now only a bit seedy with a few brothels ("Soap lands") (catering for all tastes I shouldn’t wonder), and lots of corporate entertainment.

Mercifully, next came lunch. Inspired by the heat, we opted for curry! It was oishii, of course, and the restaurant was owned by a very charming, very direct Indian man who delighted in telling us that we were going to “make him rich” because “Britishers love curry” and we’re here all year. What I liked most was that you got to specify on a scale of one to fifty how spicy you wanted your curry. I went for eleven, described as “super-hot”. Super-hot it was not, by a lot, so for the next pot, I want super-duper-hot.

Next stop, Ohori park. Ohori is a lovely little place to the west of Tenjin. It has a circular lake with a very thin strip of land cutting across its diameter, with those lovely little oriental bridges connecting up the bits. There’s a designated running track around the circumference too: Japan at its ordered best.

We saw the art gallery that’s in the park. To my surprise and delight, there were some huge names in there. Grand art, not so grand surroundings, but who’s looking? Dali, Mondrian, Lichtenstein…

We were force-marched thence to the beach. Seb has a vicious pace and in the glaring sun and gleaming sweat, it all got a bit taxing. We stopped off at a pharmacy to get some insect repellent (I have had the shit bitten out of me over the last week, or at least my legs have). The Japanese for insect is, or mushi, which, Ina informs me, is a naughty word in German. Tee hee.
That done, the university bought us drinks on the beach. My lust for coffee was satiated, while the rest of them began what would become a very drunken few hours.

Next on the itinerary was Fukuoka Tower. It’s a big tower, and I don’t feel I can add anything to the pictures:

Time was getting on by this point, and we had the welcome dinner to get back to in Dazaifu. Some of us got changed into more presentable guise in the toilets of the tower, and we got on the bus. Buses in Japan (Ba-su) are, like a lot of other things in Japan (I’m thinking toilets), much more technologically advanced than at home. Perhaps advanced is a bit too generous, but the Japanese but their technological know-how to good use. When it comes to buses, they excel: you get on at the middle of the bus and take a ticket. This has a number punched on it. At the front of the bus is a big electronic display showing your number (and everyone else’s) and your fare. When it’s time to get off, you simply look at the fare, whack it and the ticket in the counting machine at the front, bow to the driver of course, and get off. Simple, and fun!
Fukuoka is a cool city and I’m looking forward to getting to know it for myself. It has been rated, many times, as one of the world’s top most livable cities, along with the likes of Toronto and Stockholm.

Next time on “Japanter”: グラハイム-san has his first taste of fine Japanese dining. Will he be able to kneel for long enough ? Will he act shamefully and bring great dishonor upon his family? Find out next time…