Category Archives: ESL

Slurpy Noodles and Hamburger Sushi

Food in Japan is a curious beast. It is at times a gloriously wonderful thing, beautifully, even artfully constructed from an array of ingredients while remaining remarkably simple. At other times it’s a cup noodle. But at least the Japanese have a clear idea of what Japanese cuisine is. From snack to fine dining there runs a thread that identifies the creation as Japanese through and through.

But that’s a lie, if I’m honest.  Generally it is far easier to identify something as being part of Japanese cuisine than to do the same with British food. It’s there in British food, I just think that it has become much more internationalized as immigration and empire has completely altered the make up of British cuisine. Japan, a considerably more homogenous nation than the UK perhaps has a more singular culinary identity, but it is by no means Japanese to the bone.

Japanese cuisine, like every other nation in the world is open to the effects of globalization. Their attempt at an Italian style pizza can be found in every supermarket and many restaurants. In most cases it doesn’t compare to the original, or in my mind the American variant but they love it nonetheless. I used to work in an Italian restaurant, scrubbing baked on lasagna off of pans, pizza dough from plastic trays and dodging flying frying pans flung haphazardly towards the sink with a trajectory that were I not quick on my feet would have taken them straight through the back of my head. Health and safety, which is to say, my health and safety were not always cared for, but one thing they made sure was right was the pizza oven; four hundred degrees plus, the required temperature for a true Italian pizza. Here in Japan, the oven sits at 220 degrees. It’s a somewhat soggier creation.

I recently discovered from an article by Paul Greenburg, that even tuna of all things is not in the least bit traditional fare in Japan. The fat tooth required to crave and devour such a fatty, muscular variety of fish flesh was acquired with the introduction of beef into the Japanese diet only some fifty or so years ago. So quickly have they cultivated this taste that the Bluefin Tuna is all but buggered, avoiding extinction wise. As such, even something as Japanese as sushi and sashimi is not spared from the whim and caprice of the global market place. Topping that rectangle of rice with a wedge of tuna flesh simply wouldn’t have occurred to the Japanese a hundred years ago, it would have been too heavy a dish. Now in Kappa Sushi they put a hamburger on top along with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise.

Then there is ramen. The slurpy noodle.  An incredibly popular dish in Japan that finds its origins in China. Ramen joints are a late night thing for me. Steaming bowls of noodles, meat, a few bits of veg and half an egg floating in a brothy mix while delicious at the right time (approximately just under one too many beers into a night out) hold slightly less appeal to me come the sober light of day. Though I’ll admit that this is in part a weather thing. In the stifling humidity of the Japanese summer a heavy dish like ramen doesn’t appeal all that much. But come winter, being huddled over the bowl will take on a whole new dimension of culinary pleasure. There is an additional benefit to this too. While at times I feel self conscious in Japan eating something as delicate as sushi while simultaneously trying to shove it in my mouth in one mouthful as the Japanese do, slurping noodles, face barely above the bowl while sat at a counter is about as relaxed and informal as Japan gets. It’s a welcome break.

I’ve had some weird and wonderful eating experiences in Japan. I’ve eaten intestines hot off the electrical griddle at a house warming party in Shizuoka city, Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki (see Hiroshima post for description of the wonderful dish) off of the teppan in a restaurant that was little more than an old ladies living room  and shabu shabu (cooking thinly sliced meat and vegetable in a boiling pan of water then dipping them in sauce) at a friend’s dining room table while sipping sake with her father.

One event that tends to come to mind though is the time I ate dinner at a small izakaya (bar/restaurant) in Shibuya, Tokyo. Having already eaten my friend and I tried to turn down the chef’s initial effort but to no avail. It was delicious, it was beautiful and beyond it being green and containing some tuna I couldn’t tell you what it was. I tried to tell the man I was full when the second dish arrived. I’m glad he didn’t believe me because it was tataki, slightly seared slices of tuna, and it is incredible. My mouth waters at the very thought of it. Finally he asked me whether I like tako (octopus). I nodded. This was a mistake. He reached into a blue plastic bag behind the counter and proceeded to pull out a live baby octopus that immediately wrapped its tentacles around his arm. Frantically I told him not to start cutting and blow torching the poor thing up in front of me. Not that I have a problem with eating meat in any way, I just don’t see why an animal should die when someone isn’t going to eat it. Fortunately, the chef put the poor little blighter back in his blue bag and bucket, slowly pulling the little suckers from his arm.

I had a slice of him later. Not bad. A little chewy if you must know.

Harry Potter and the Matsukawa Matsuri

Japan in the summer is hot, it’s humid and frankly downright unpleasant at times. In addition, we’re currently experiencing the last vestiges of the rainy season or ‘tsuyu’, which means that I am never without an umbrella.The Japanese summer does have however, one major redeeming feature. It’s festival time.

What does this mean? Well the usually quiet streets of every village or town will be full to the brim with people of all ages. Little kids clad in kimonos strike a traditional tone somewhat tempered by the Pikachu mask while grown men sway and bounce as they carry large wooden floats down the street powered only by sheer force of will and a plentiful supply of sake.

Then there’s the street food. The takoyaki (octopus dumplings), the yakisoba (fried soba), barbecued ika (squid), barbecued everything on a stick, and most necessary in such weather, all manner of kakigori (flavoured ice) to lessen the suffering of my scolded tongue; the takoyaki was particularly hot. My friend believes that the takoyaki is in fact super heated to drive sales of the kakigori and beer.

Considering how quiet these little Japanese towns can be it is absolutely wonderful to see them packed to the brim. Local dance groups perform for the crowd, hanabi (fireworks, though the literal translation is fire flower) burst in the clear night sky, shimmering against the black night. All the while the booze flows quite freely. In fact, if the guys carrying the floats down the street aren’t very hammered indeed, well you’re simply in the wrong kind of town because the festival season is the time of year when the otherwise polite and restrained Japanese let their hair down.

Towards the end of the festivities a friend of mine, another English teacher, bumped into a former student of his. Standing on the side of the road and being quite the talkative bunch, particularly after a few beers, we ended up talking not only to his former student but to many a passerby. In particular the five of us gaijin English teachers there that night, met a very nice Malaysian family. Having revealed our various nationalities (Serbian, American, Canadian and English) the parents began trying to remember what English person I could possibly remind them of. With floppy brown hair, dark brown eyes and a fairly quintessential English accent, I’m used to being compared to pretty much anyone out of a Richard Curtis movie. However, I’d made a fatal mistake. I was wearing my glasses. I give a warning now to any Englishmen of the bespectacled variety that ventures onto foreign shores, there is only one man, nay boy, you will be compared to should you meet anybody under thirty or with children. You may think the individual in question, who you have no doubt guessed the identity of by now (mostly by dint of the title) is a wonderful chap, and in real life he may perhaps be just that, but in literary form he is a multi-million pound boy wizard who has never captured my cynical imagination.

So having raised giggles from all around with my resemblance to Harry sodding Potter, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Then someone said, ‘cast a spell! You know, for the kids.’

Lets get something straight. This was in no way, for the kids, the kids were simply bemused by the random collection of foreigners. This, this was for the parents and my friends.

My cynicism however, only goes so far. Handed the inflatable toy sword of one of the kids I sheepishly proceeded to cast a spell above his head.

Ah well, if all I have to do to enjoy festival season in Japan is occasionally impersonate a fictional wizard I’ll do it.

I won’t be wearing my glasses to another festival mind you.

Mr. Monkey

To be truthful, kindergarten lessons or any lesson with anyone under fourteen years old can be quite a drain. Polite boredom from semi-comatose high school students isn’t so bad, they at least have the decency to make some vague attempt at looking interested, even as they offer muffled answers from behind the arm they’re attempting to convert into a pillow. In fairness though, this is quite a rarity as the high school kids I teach are a generally enthusiastic bunch once they settle in. But, really young kids, they are exhausting.

It’s these kids that demand to be entertained, to never be bored, to never sit still and to on occasion, use you as a portable climbing frame.

One six year old student of mine has a tendency, when my back is turned, to hop on the table and from there make a Tarzanesque leap onto my back while yelling in tribal fashion, “Monkey Desu/I’m a monkey!” Other times he simple latches onto one of my legs until I detach him along with the slippers I’m wearing, at which point he scurries under the table and the slippers fly out in my general direction. All the while giggling as if he were Gollum reunited with his precious.

Actually, that’s a pretty good way to characterize my kids in Japan, and most kids worldwide for that matter, as adorable little Gollums. Sweet one moment, angry and violent the next, all the while leaping and bounding around claiming anything not nailed down. Though that’s just the ones with an overabundance of energy. So nearly all of them.

Which would be fine, except it’s not always natural energy. A friend of mine, a fellow English teacher told me once how some of her elementary kids mentioned to her that they love coffee. As if they didn’t have enough energy to begin with. My god, I still remember the giddy demented joy of flat coke at junior school discos, the sugar rush and heady high followed by the inevitable sugar crash. I can’t imagine the chaos I may have caused had I discovered a love of coffee in my pre-teens. No climbing frame would have been safe, no garden fence left unscaled and no green house with windows left intact.

But while they may be exhausting, teaching kids is a real joy that I wouldn’t want to do without. The creativity and general madness they throw at every situation keeps me endlessly laughing. A few months ago I asked a student what animal he was drawing and he calmly declared, ‘dikangasaur.’ A dinosaur-kangaroo hybrid; the boy is clearly destined for greatness.

I remember when I first started teaching a class of eight year olds. The two girls in the class squealed at the sight of me and refused to sit within two seats of me. Two weeks later, my head bowed a little during a card game I caught one of them trying to steal a hair off the top of my head. A few weeks after, amazed by the hairiness of my forearms two of the kids simply started stroking those very arms while going, ‘ehhhhhhh!’ This week while playing a board game, one of them, with a puppet of a duck on one hand and a puppet lion on the other, decided that both creatures had a taste for human flesh and so attempted to devour my forearm when it wasn’t their turn to throw the dice.

Every now and then I teach a really big couple of kindergarten classes at a pre-school ten minutes away from my little classroom. Each time I do I feel like a Beatle, not Paul or John, but perhaps a Ringo, the kids do love Thomas the Tank Engine after all. I arrive at the school to tiny cries of, “Eigo no sensei/ English teacher!’ Then as I climb the stairs up to my first class I’m mobbed by tiny hands grabbing at my arms and legs looking for high fives or to steal a peek at today’s new flash cards. When we play hopscotch with the flash cards on the floor, each kid finishes their final leap with a double high five with me or with their kindergarten teacher. Initially this was one high five, then two, and now it seems to be as many as they feel they can get away with. Each kid frantically trying to get his or her fair share of high fives.

Occasionally there is a down side to this. Japanese kids are messy. I don’t mean dirty, food stained or whatever, that’s normal. They’re messy in the sense that it is seemingly rude to blow your nose in Japan. So inevitably there is always one child, with vacuum cleaner might, snorting some long dangling bit of snot back up their nose. Indeed so common is this in Japan that there is a single word to describe such children, ‘hanatarekozo’, translated as, ‘snot nosed kid.’ Which according to my dictionary is a word spelt with the Kanji (Chinese characters) for nasal discharge/tear, droop/suspend, little and Buddhist Priest/monk. It’s times like this where I understand the appeal of Kanji. This snotty issue wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for the school once asking me to shake hands in the western fashion with every child. Some offered the wrong hand, some didn’t offer a hand, and a couple gave an almighty sniffling snorting, whipped their hand under their nose and slapped it into mine with a big grin on their faces. Quite the greeting.

Now, sometimes what you teach these kids they have little interest in. The weather, clothes, numbers. They simply aren’t that excited by it beyond the giddiness of shouting out new English. But new animals, these they love, and if  you follow it with an impression, well then the lesson will be a breeze. Oddly enough, a class of five year olds making a real attempt to sound like a monkey, as opposed to just acting like one, is fantastically easy to control and keep amused.

Sometimes we play, ‘What’s the time Mr. Wolf?’ But with an ever changing roll of Mr. Animals. Now, knowing the intricacies of English grammar is all well and good, but trust me when I say the ability to impersonate a hungry child-eating Mr. Monkey is far more important.

Three White Russians, a Buddhist Priest and a Gaijin

Japan is as littered with peculiar contrasts as any country, but having modernized so quickly and completely, having lurched into modernity at such a pace while simultaneously remaining quite distinct from the outside world, it often finds these two faces cheek to cheek. The traditional kneeling next to the contemporary is like any distinction, sometimes held up with pride and oft times a source of friction. Like two tectonic plates colliding, new masses will be formed and shock waves will ripple and as always people will rebuild on what’s left.

The Japanese living in a land where the earthquake is no stranger to their lives, have designed buildings that bend and flex with the violent forces beneath their foundations. The people I would suggest are built much the same. Marrying elements of their own culture with surprising ease to a variety of other cultural influences until it is barely distinguishable from the native. Often the only reason my particularly young students know something isn’t Japanese in origin is that the word appears in katakana, the written form of Japanese for loan words. Otherwise it’s simply part of their world and they’re none the wiser.

However, despite the global invasion, and the seemingly universal love of a cheeseburger I’ve yet to see a kid out here devour anything quite as quickly, or quite as gleefully for that matter, as a bowl of rice. It’s like watching a vacuum cleaner attached to a set of chopsticks. Sometimes globalization simply doesn’t make a dent.

The time I experienced this mix of cultures most clearly was last New Year’s Eve.  Nagano was covered in snow. The mountains with their white capped peaks were stunning to behold, while out in the countryside the snow drifts, pristine and white under a clear night sky shimmered in the moonlight. No electric lamplight to dull the stars as I sat far out in the countryside in a beautiful Buddhist temple run by one of my students.

I’d been looking for a way to spend New Years and very kindly two of my older students invited me to spend New Year at their temple. What I hadn’t expected, and nor had they, was that my lift to their temple would drop me off a whole twelve hours early.

So there we sat dictionaries in hand, both beginners in each other’s languages, drinking green tea and trying to stay warm under the kotatsu (essentially a heated coffee table with a blanket/duvet wedged under the table top and covering your legs – it’s amazing). For a while he showed me how some simple kanji (the Chinese characters used by the Japanese for part of their writing system) had developed over time. Then how two wholly separate ideas could combine to create new meanings and how these would then be refined down to their bare bones to create the modern form of the word as the technique for writing it became the standard in much the same way as Johnson’s dictionary locked English spelling into place.

Before long the conversation has drifted towards what I’d done for a living before I’d become an English teacher. So I listed my litany of crimes, library worker, dish washer, petrol station worker and finally bartender. In England this receives a barely perceptible nod, as pretty much everyone seems to have pulled a pint at some point in his or her university life. But in Japan, and with an ageing couple, a young man who once shook a steel container filled with booze and ice is apparently quite exciting.  However, the conversation moved on and soon my student and I were on a New Year’s Eve errand, running gift boxes temple to temple with my erstwhile profession forgotten… or so I thought.

On the way back to his temple my student suddenly veered off into a Megaten, a large chain of off licenses here in Japan, and I was asked to pick up the ingredients to produce a cocktail. Aiming for simplicity and not to bankrupt him with the cost of liquer I quickly grabbed two smallish bottles and headed to the till where of course he wouldn’t let me pay.

Once back at the temple I was guided towards the kotatsu in the room adjacent to the kitchen where my students were preparing the New Year’s Eve feast. I offered to help as often as possible but eventually took the hint that my help would be more of a hindrance. So instead I ended up watching Casablanca with Japanese subtitles.

Before all the local people began to arrive we sat down for an early meal and I duly made some Black and White Russians. A traditional feast next to western cocktails, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting to say the least. Fortunately they thought the creations to be rather nice, but another consequence was on its way. Knowing the English, ‘do you like…?’ rather well, but being quite limited in other areas of communication they decided to make use of that phrase as often as possible with the addition of a different alcoholic beverage at the end each time. Sake, wine, gin, beer…

By the end of the evening I was outside by the fire in front of the temple, attempting to keep warm with the other visitors. There is a tradition in Buddhist temples at New Year that the bell should be rung precisely one hundred and eight times (representing the 108 sins as recognized in Buddhism) and so with my belly warmed by hot sake I rang the bell twice, the number of times I had been told was appropriate. Eventually as the night drew on and toes began to freeze someone gave me a nudge, ‘go ring the bell again would you, we’re getting cold.’

Tradition is pretty flexible it seems.

Brazen Oldies

I’m used to being stared at in Japan, but one hundred and fifteen senior citizens all staring at me at once is a new experience to be honest. That they were expecting a speech from me was all the stranger. Yet, there I was in front of a collection of silver haired, wrinkle faced, smiling and occasionally snoring faces about to have a one hour ramble on all things Japanese and British.

I should perhaps clarify before people begin to think I make a habit of strolling into old folks homes and regaling a room full of pensioners with tales from a long dead empire. I’d actually been hired to do this as part of the usual rent-a-gaijin service my employers run, ‘Need a pale faced young man from rainier shores to promote your local service? We have your gaijin.’ There’s no harm in it, usually they just want someone to write a few words in English on their service. I did just that for a local river rafting company; that I ended up wearing a traditional peasants hat and blue happi (essentially the top half of a heavy cotton kimono or yukata) and posing for a photo was sheer coincidence. This time however, I was stood at the front of a large meeting room on the third floor of the local government building and sharing my thoughts on weather, sport and food in Japan and Britain.

The way it worked was that I’d reel off a short sentence or two and then a very nice English chap who’s been out here for many a year would translate my peculiar ramblings into much clearer Japanese.

My nervousness in such events often translates in an infuriating way. I can speak perfectly clearly, but my hands will shake a fair bit. It’s certainly not as bad as it was when I was kid, a year or so of bartending and now teaching everyday means I’m pretty confident when it comes to holding the attention of a table full of people but it’d be fair to say that a hundred and fifteen people is outside my usual comfort zone.

I started to ease into it all pretty quickly, even managing to get a few laughs when I mentioned how I became a Hiroshima Carp fan because supporting a winning team just doesn’t feel like… well like supporting a team really. Supporting England and Huddersfield Town is hardly the quick path to glory after all.

Eventually we reached the question and answer portion of the event from which I hadn’t really expected too many surprises. This is after all a nation of infuriatingly polite people and as such not prone to asking difficult questions. Usually never straying beyond, ‘is this delicious?’ But I’d forgotten that I live in a country where the elderly rule and inappropriate questions come not from the mouths of cheeky teenagers but from brazen oldies.

Militarism. Check. Nuclear weapons. Check.

It’s quite fortunate that on these two topics I generally agree wholeheartedly with the Japanese otherwise I’d know what one hundred and fifteen disapproving old Japanese people sound like.

Disappointingly I was asked the difference between England and Britain, some Japanese being blissfully unaware of the existence of Scottish people beyond scotch and the Welsh beyond… well they don’t know Wales is there really.

Fortunately one man had some inkling of the construction of our Kingdom and asked me whether all the countries in the UK still hate each other. No of course not, I told him.  They all hate England.

Though when abroad, they just hate that no one seems to know that Scotland isn’t a prefecture of England.

Going Dutch in Japan: England v. USA

The ambassadors to the Court of St. James (Great Britain) and the United States of America had wagered a steak dinner on the outcome. The British had even made a vague and possibly ill-advised attempt at smack talk. Sledging, in the cricketing sense, we can do. American style smack talk, god no. It’s just not cricket.  My American friend and I aimed a little lower to be honest. The largest plate of fries available in the somewhat grotty late night bar that would be showing the game at three thirty a.m. Japan time was our bet.

Yet, thanks to Rob Green’s charitable howler in goal, we, much like the ambassadors, were forced to split the bill on our fries as they intend to do on their steak dinners. A goal keeping error forcing those of us who wagered on the result to go Dutch, when the Oranje had nothing to do with the game no less.

Starving, the wagered fries were bought before the game even began, in what turned out to be a stroke of luck, as they were finished long before Green could tarnish them.

By three a.m. the bar had pretty much emptied out. Only myself, my American friend and a long term British ex pat in Japan who happened to stroll in looking for a place to watch the game were in residence. A group of young Japanese men with annoyingly large hair were around for the first half, blocking sections of the screen with their tenderly coiffed locks. Yet again though, this was good fortune as this merely spared me from seeing Aaron Lennon’s excuse for a cross.

Soon after these guys left, the bar gained a few late night regulars, some of the hostesses from the local snack bars came for a drink and something to eat after their shift. Paying little attention to the football unless the lone yank or myself rose to our feet and then collapsed back down onto the sofa lamenting the poor efforts of our respective teams. Though this being Japan they did become markedly more interested when David Beckham made fleeting appearances on screen, decked out in Marks and Spencer’s grey, looking, ‘Kakouii desu ne!’ or, ‘Good looking isn’t he!’ Compared to what was on the pitch, I was forced to agree. Unless of course it was Rooney in all his potato headed glory.

All the while, one of the bartenders, clearly exhausted after a long shift, had curled up on the sofas like a cat next to the hostess girls. Sleeping quite soundly through the cacophony of English swearing and accusations of pre-marital birth aimed at Shaun Wright Phillips.

As the match finished and I walked outside to begin my wander home I was once again confronted with reality’s harsh light; it was morning and England still aren’t up to much.

At least the fries were good.