Monthly Archives: September 2011

Worse than a Clown: How to Metamorphose like Marcel Marceau

If you’re brave enough, or perhaps foolish enough, you might one day venture across the seas to a faraway land with little grasp of the native language and attempt to teach them your own peculiarly nuanced interpretation of your own native tongue.

Your first task, learning to simplify your natural language, to slow it down, to enunciate and avoid slang at all costs is something you expect to do. Thinking about how to describe things in the simplest terms possible will come soon after.

These developments you might consider only natural. After all you’ve experienced someone doing this for you first hand, though you don’t remember it. We all do it for young children, we break down our speech into smaller and smaller fragments, reducing an idea to its core meaning, into a single phrase to make it that much simpler to grasp. It feels only natural to do it for the incredibly young; it feels rather patronizing (though often entirely necessary) to do so for adults.

So you get used to this process, over time you begin to get more skillful at distilling ideas, getting to the bare bones of it all. But there will come a point when you realise it’s gone too far. You’ve begun to warp out of shape.

Specifically into the shape of random adjectives, verbs and abstract concepts galore. You’ve boiled beauty and ugly down into silly faces and you’ve taken moral grey areas and difficult definitions and dragged them kicking and screaming into the black and white.

On a side note: thank you to Tiger Woods for providing the distinction between, ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment.’ Alas the Japanese only have one word for the two concepts, but you’ve cleared it right up for them. 

You kinda thought you’d turn into a clown working with kids, but this is worse. You see, most of the time you’re not even an actor. That sordid career choice you could live with. No, this horror is different; it has crept up on you and encased you in an invisible box that no one else can see or appreciate (well maybe the French). You’re pawing at the walls, a desperate look painted on your pale face as you scream the words in silence…


Izu with a hint of Jamaica: Craft Ale and Coffee on the Cape

Moving to the Izu Peninsula, within sight of Mt. Fuji, beautiful oceans and fresh fish galore it would be fair to say I had certain expectations. Undoubtedly Izu can fulfill many of these dreamy thoughts. There have been days when Fuji-san has dominated the horizon (the finest and nearest view is from the local supermarket car park, not as romantic as you’d hope aye), evenings when I’ve supped a pint while staring out across a harbour and days when I simply pine to own a car again if only for a weekend so that I could spend it cruising the outline of the cape.

Yet, while Izu can offer all this, many of us spend our days earning a crust further inland, away from the salty sea air and the delightfully clichéd sound of the ocean. Far from the ageing tourist hotspots like Atami, otherwise known as Blackpool-on-the-Pacific, small town Izu is pretty much the same as small-town elsewhere. An assortment of franchises and chains designed to choke the individuality out of the popular, high rent areas of town. A MaxValue, a Kimisawa Combo (McDonald’s inside), a KFC down the street and myriad high street brands Japan. I blogged about these places dominating the night’s sky in Nagano before I upped sticks from the cold to the swelteringly humid. Alas, the absence of planning permission, or seemingly any planning at all seems to have decimated a large part of what could be beautifully idyllic Japan. The contrast between bits of stunning nature, jutting up in the horizon against a backdrop of hastily constructed ephemera is all too painful at times.

Indeed, when I first found myself in my new town there was something of an initial, niggling worry. You see in my last town I’d been utterly spoiled. One of my former students and her husband run one of the nicest coffee shops you could ever hope to come across. A rich variety of blends from across the globe fill glass jars on shelf after shelf above the polished wooden counter, classical music plays in the background and whenever I visited, my two younger students, the children of said coffee shop owners would play a continual game of peek-a-boo with me from behind a door, bemused by the fact that their teacher existed outside of a classroom but too shy to come say hello.

However, when I walked around the place I now call home for the first time I was confronted by a raft of snack bars, pubs (the seedier Japanese variety, not the British version I know and love) and supermarkets. Few signs of originality or charm were visible. I even asked a passer by if there was a decent place I could get a cup of coffee while I sat and studied, preferably not at the Starbucks imitation snack bar. The response was a rather long, ‘ummmm, ahhh, sorry I haven’t a clue.’

But all was not lost, because I struck upon gold soon after. Specifically Jamaican, green, gold.

No, not marijuana…

Somehow, amidst the sea of convenience stores, supermarkets and national brands there is a Jamaican style kitchen here. Not exactly what you expect to find in small town Japan but a welcome addition nonetheless. Evidently there is a small but burgeoning community of late twenty-somethings in this area, united by a shared love of reggae. Thanks to their passion for all things Jamaica, I get to wash away the day’s worries with a bottle of Red Stripe beer and Marley in my ears. On top of that, you couldn’t hope to meet a friendlier bunch of people. In an otherwise non-descript, off the conveyor belt small town in Japan, places like this make all the difference. It’s no longer identikit; it’s individual.

And what’s more, they seem to have friends, because every time I find another one of these gems, these little oases in a desert of family restaurants, the owner goes ahead and recommends yet another one to me. A small bar in Shizuoka City led me to the home of Baird Beer in Numazu. My local Jamaican place led me to the local Irish pub where I get to sip pints and watch the footy at two in the morning. While my local coffee shop, a beautiful, eighty-year-old café sells a guidebook to every single one of the independent restaurants, coffee shops, cafes and bookshops scattered around Shizuoka Prefecture.

When I find the coffee shop, microbrewery and bookshop on the edge of the bay, I’ll be sure to let you all know. If only so you know, I won’t be back for a while yet.