Category Archives: Travel

The Japanese and English Cuisine

All this nonsense talk of micro-aggressions and flyjins that hovers about the Internet is nothing but a shallow distraction, a bit of rubbish that shifts attention from the truly awful, the god honest hatred for one thing that runs through Japanese society.

I encounter the disdain, the condescending smile, the knowing looks and pitying glances often in my working life. The respect I’m usually afforded as a teacher despite my few years is replaced by a little chuckle and my immediate relegation from senior or equal figure to foolish foreigner, ignorant visitor to these lands.

I try to laugh it off. I dismiss it as ignorance and not to be taken seriously. In my line of work you really ought to believe that you can educate individuals away from such unworldly views.

Yet, it’s no use. This is a nation reared on a televisual journey through the hinterlands of travel and haute cuisine. Every evening, nay every moment of the day that the TV illuminates the corner of the apartment it acts like some neon kami (Japanese for god), a tiny bacchanalian Buddha and pretentious prophet all rolled into one as it dispenses its unquestionable wisdom to the masses.

And what does it teach this culinary cult, these devotees of sofa-based exploration?

That not only is Japan the home of the world’s greatest cuisine but that it finds its perfect antithesis in where I call home; England.

Perhaps the humble fish and chips, or fishuandochipusu as it’s known here, is an exception to this rule such is its place on so many bar menus but the rest of my home nations culinary output might as well be poured down the drain the moment we’ve finished over cooking it.

My tongue now having thoroughly bore its way through my cheek I really ought to discuss where this seemingly globally accepted view actually comes from.

While the TV may be the purveyor of the accepted wisdom, it undoubtedly is entrenched enough now that very little could change Japanese minds.  It’s out there, as true to the Japanese as the strike happy, surrender quickly nature of the French is to the English. We don’t always believe it is true, but we certainly enjoy acting like it is.

However, in my opinion, away from Japanese TV there is a simpler geographical reason for this perspective.

Train stations.

Train stations in Japan are the epicenter. They are at the heart of the city. Everything emanates from that point and the better a thing is, the more likely it is to be on the doorstep of the station.

In Kyoto station there is an entire floor devoted to the art of Ramen. Beneath almost every major city station in Japan there seems to be a food court. Walk out of any train station in Japan (except for seriously countryside places) and you will almost certainly discover a decent number of rather good restaurants right in front of you.

Compare that to the train station in London I used to live nearby, Paddington and the contrasts are pretty stark. Directly opposite the main entrance at the crossroads by the Hilton Hotel sits the following; a Burger King, a KFC, a McDonalds, a Garfunkel’s and an Aberdeen Steak House.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fast food, it does exactly what it says on the tin, if you can’t hold back from the desire to stuff your face with it well that’s your issue, but fine dining it is not. Two minutes past this cavalcade of calorific confidence men sit yet another crappy steak restaurant and two ‘traditional’ English pubs. These pubs however are no fair reflection of British or English cuisine anymore than Kappa Sushi ought to be considered Kaiseki Ryori in Japan (as goodandbadjapan recently noted on his blog – always a wonderful read).

Yet, if you venture a further two minutes down that very same street you’ll come across The Victoria Pub. It’s a beautiful place, has genuinely good food and an ambiance that Hub Pub’s across Tokyo would kill to replicate. Around the corner from that is the Mitre, yet another fine example of a good English Pub. That both happened to be my locals for a short time in my life is something I will always be grateful for.

In reality if anything in England might find its antithesis in Japan it certainly isn’t food, it’s urban planning.

Unfortunately the simple hint, walk five minutes more, isn’t in any guidobuku I’ve ever seen. However, I’ve been correcting this one globetrotting student at a time and bit by bit I think it’s starting to work.

All this is really just my way of saying, if you work in either of the lovely pubs I just mentioned and have been very politely, if quite forcefully cajoled into posing for photographs with some very nice Japanese ladies thoroughly enjoying their holidays, then thank you. You have by plate and by pint managed what I never could; you got them to disagree with the TV.

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When Aliens Try to Poke Aliens: How to survive a trip to the hospital in Japan

The face goes blank, the eyes widen and an arm stretches out, index finger leading as if to greet ET. He’s slipped into automated curiosity, an autopilot for exploring the world around him, activated by the presence of anything new or out of the ordinary. At five years old that’s pretty much everything he sees. Under normal circumstances it’s a good thing. A biological imperative to learn, develop and understand the world around him. Today, for me, that’s a problem. Today I have a fresh scar on my neck concealed beneath a large white bandage that might as well be a giant red button and he’s heading straight for it.

Perhaps I should explain how I got here. About a month before that kids finger began to make a beeline for some very tender and fresh scar tissue I was sitting in the Doctor’s office in a small clinic at the heart of the Izu Peninsula. What had brought me here was my third cold of the year. I teach at a day care centre, catching a cold every couple months is pretty much a quarterly contractual obligation, so usually nothing to write home about. Except in this case it had had something of a knock on effect. It had caused a small epidermal cyst in my neck to double in size and so I made my journey to the heart of Izu, to this tiny rather ramshackle clinic, to begin my guided tour through the Japanese health service.

Alongside me in that room, aside from myself, my friend and the doctor were a pharmacist, another patient behind a curtain and three nurses whose sole job appeared to be smiling at me with their heads at a jaunty yet unthreatening thirty-five degree angle. In smaller towns, where the tone of your skin is liable to make you something of a B-list celebrity, it’s perhaps better to forget all thoughts of privacy.

Well-worn cliché number one, Japanese people stare at foreigners, now attended to we move onto number two; the notoriously low English level of the Japanese. How low? Well, my first Doctor’s professional thoughts as to my treatment were that,

“Considering the language difficulty, I recommend you go home.”

Hardly what you want to hear when you’re speaking to a doctor. Especially so when a return trip home is liable to set you back a thousand pounds and result in the loss of your job by your absence. Particularly when you are legally obliged to pay into the very health system that has just decided to inform you, in Japanese, that even though you have barely uttered a word of English to the doctor, that despite turning up with a Japanese friend willing to translate for you, that the doctor’s phobia of the English language is so great you ought to consider repatriation.

Having ignored this advice and moved onto a larger hospital, with a letter of recommendation from the first Doc (she was freaked out by English, not unprofessional), I’ve since made it out of the Japanese health system alive and well. Aside from the suggestion of flying over two thousands back home for a minor medical ailment, I’ve had a positive if somewhat complicated experience. So here’s some advice for those who’ve yet to venture down the red tape, rabbit hole.

Work on your Kanji

Let’s face it, Kanji (Chinese characters) is hard. Not impossible, but reaching the level of competency required to understand medical Japanese is going to be pretty far in your future. So if you live outside of any major metropolitan area in Japan and your Japanese isn’t fully up to scratch you’re going need a native speaking friend or co-worker to help guide you through all this, because while foreigners in Japan are legally obliged to pay into the national health insurance scheme there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of English, Portuguese or Chinese language help. No one is looking for an on call translator, but the odd bit of multi-lingual paperwork would be helpful.

That Japan has only recently introduced full time translators to its major airports would suggest that help for those who haven’t mastered their Japanese quite yet might be some time coming. An ethnic Japanese population of around 98% might suggest it might not even arrive at all.

Generational Issues

The one thing I really wasn’t expecting, aside from the suggestion I get my minor ailment treated back in England to save on language difficulties, was how much my ability to understand my doctor’s Japanese would change from person to person.

My first Doctor, age fifty something, 70% understanding.

My second Doctor, age thirty something, 80% understanding.

My third Doctor, twenty something… 0%.

Take a moment to consider how you, your parents and your grandparents speak. Same language but great, impossibly deep chasms can separate the young from the old in terms of syntax and phrasing.

In this case my third Doctor sounded like she majored in cuteness at Hello Kitty University. Her conversation may have been peppered with the cute linguistic, idiosyncrasies of the young in a country obsessed by all things, ‘Kawaii’ (Japanese for cute), but there is something quite disturbing in having someone who could voice a Muppet inform you of the length of the scar you’re about to receive.

Even more staring than usual

Whatever your problem is, pray it isn’t sexual or highly visible. Particularly if like many English speaking foreigners working in Japan you’re a teacher. Because your students are going to ask what’s wrong, your colleagues will ask what’s wrong and then your boss will.

If it’s visible, as the bandage on my neck was, prepare to be stared at even more than usual.

This place is not designed for the likes of you

No not foreigners, though we certainly aren’t at the top of the list of people to consider. I mean anyone under sixty-five. When I arrived in the waiting room of a hospital early one morning, ticket stub in hand to wait for my turn with the doctor, I realized that at precisely eight in the morning I was the only person below retirement age in an utterly jam-packed waiting room.

There’s a fairly simple reason for this phenomenon in my inaka (countryside) hospital; you can’t make appointments or advanced reservations. It’s first come first served and the old folks are up and waiting outside that doctor’s door at six a.m. on the dot. All this despite the fact that that doctor’s door will not open until exactly eight a.m.

And finally, for those who teach… have cat like reflexes

I teach at a day care centre once a week. It has its up and downsides. Upside, enthusiastic, endlessly entertaining kids. Downside, they don’t know what personal space is. Nor are their social skills too refined by age five.

As such when entering a classroom I got a, “ Hello Masshu (my name once Japanafied) Sen…. ehhh.” That final ‘ehhh’ was delivered with a pretty impressive synchronized head tilt and thirty little faces that screamed, why the hell is there a bandage on your neck!

But this isn’t sympathy, it’s curiosity and while this kind of curiosity is unlikely to lead you to such a fate as enjoyed by overly inquisitive felines it is liable to attempt to jab you wherever it hurts.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing though, considering where they usually try to poke you.

Sentimental Sake:The Perils of a Late Night Beer Run

Every time I buy beer at precisely 9:55 in the evening I feel nostalgic, almost wistful. I begin to think about all the things I’ve done with my life, the myriad of things I’ve dreamt about that I haven’t even begun to get close to.

I start to plan and plot the months and years ahead. I make promises to myself. I challenge myself to do more with my time here in Japan, to take risks, travel and throw myself into the culture, to spend my money on something innately Japanese, to save more money for the day I eventually go back to England.

All these things pile up around my head as I make my way to the checkout, hand over my points card (it’s the second Japanese economy), exchange pleasantries with the staff who now know my face well enough to smile and bow from three tills away, hand over my cash, drop the six pack of Japanese lager into my reusable shopping bag and make my way to do the door wondering why all Japanese supermarkets have to play the tune of ‘Old Lang Syne’ at closing time.

Then I open my first can and forget every single resolution I just made in the ten minutes it took me to walk to the supermarket and back for a few beers after work.

Until the next time I’m greeted by an alcohol free fridge at least…

Gokiburi: On Madness and Mushi

If only my first sightings of the little buggers had been the last. But alas, the first sighting was to be a sign of things to come. Two of the little blighters in short order. One scurrying across the top of my sink, in broad daylight no less! No sooner do I open the cupboard under said sink that I spot his fifth cousin twice removed, next to the can of bug spray designed to kill him. Impudent little git. Yes, yes, your kind may be able to survive a nuclear apocalypse but to set up camp next to the one thing that can kill you, aside from the bottom of my shoe that is, screams of an audacity that must soon be corrected. You may not long lay in the cracks and corners of my home, amidst the damp and the dark, sipping Kirin and smoking Peace or Hope brand cigarettes like some long fermented salary man propping up the snack bar near my house (I bet you’re friends with the guy who sings Enka every Thursday!). No, this can mean only one thing… a trip to the supermarket… oh yes, the horror!

Indeed, they knew you were coming. With the thick, viscous humidity descending on the town as summer approached you knew your time was at hand and so did the lowly shelf stacker at my local supermarket. He had already brought forth the munitions, placed them in an aisle by the door, handily signposted it and offered weapons for all tastes. There’s the roach hotels for those with patience and those who underestimate your wit. There’s air fresheners designed to lure you to your death and those to repel you. It is possible I bought both. Then finally there is the giant, whopping can of bug spray with a nozzle of death just for you dear Gokiburi-san. For you are no western cockroach dear foe. No, you live freely in these lands. One can keep a clean kitchen (as hard as that is in the land of endless recycling) and still you will crawl through the gaps of my ageing a-pa-to (apartment)!

Then you struck again, a different variety somehow. Not the small and brown kind that exist in their multitudes in the Izu Peninsula’s hazy August but a big, black beast; a true adversary. Yet, you were lazy in your hiding place, concealed beneath the plastic picture rail in my living room. Perhaps you were mocking me, letting a single long leg dangle into sight while at first unawares I continued to talk on the phone. But see you I did and speechifying like a deceased crocodile hunter I soon was, my grammar and syntax slowly evolving into something more green and alien from a galaxy far, far away. Confusing it was. So I chased you with phone still at my ear, a listener to our duel believing me suddenly (perhaps not so suddenly) mad, while in my left hand I held the can of aerosolized death.  You scurried down my wall after the initial strike. I caught you in my sights as you dashed beneath my desk. For a brief moment I feared I had lost you but soon enough I had you cornered… in the corner. One blast of spray was not enough, still you limped on weighed down by your impending doom. A second blast of poison proved insufficient still but with the third and final impact you were done for.

Still it was not enough for me, remaining in the throes of the hunt but lacking the taxidermy skills to stuff and mount your head to my wall I settled for the modern equivalent. Instagram.

You were a worthy opponent so I shall afford you due respect, you were here first after all. Yet, I am American born and British raised and I shall bring to bear all my worst colonial instincts upon your kind.

You have been warned.

And no amount of nineteen-eighties propaganda movies shall quell my wrath!

The fine artwork towards the top of this post was created by Max Joseph, he blogs here and tweets here. Check him out!

Also, for those who are curious, ‘mushi’ is Japanese for insect.

The Iberian Inaka

I’m supposed to be living in a bubble. A wee little inaka (Japanese for ‘countryside’) bubble. And by and large it conforms to that stereotype. People sometimes stare, not in some malicious way just mild curiosity really. Old people from time to time will not sit next to me on the train, though this isn’t necessarily a phenomenon that occurs only in rural Japan. Or just in Japan for that matter… There’s an agricultural high school down the street and I walk past enough rice fields daily to never really forget where I am. It’s a beautiful place but there is something about the countryside that does on occasion drive me mad. It never seeks to engage in the outside world.

Or, at least I thought it didn’t. When I taught in Nagano-ken I used to take in these letters for my advanced students, particularly the high school kids. I’d had friends who’d lived in cities around the world write a page of clear but natural English about the places they lived. I wanted to show these young people that with a bit of courage there was a huge world to explore, that their options extended beyond their hometown and the 9 to 5 (more like 8 to 9) of working life in Tokyo.

They lapped it up. There was enough romance in the language, enough genuine feeling that these kids couldn’t help but want to see these places first hand. But for most teenagers thoughts of escaping their comfort zone don’t come easy. That desire is often tinged with a reticence, an understandable difficulty at the thought of leaving families and a tight knit community. In fairness if you’d have suggested to me as a teenager that I might one day live in Japan of all places I’d have laughed in your face; simply thinking it better to hide how terrifying a thought I actually would have found the notion.

But here I am and while I may find frustration with the older generations of Japan for only venturing beyond this isle on group holidays in a tiny Japanese bubble I’d be a fool to think it isn’t changing. Because while there are signs of Japan becoming far more insular, the case of a continuous decline in Japanese students choosing to study abroad being a worrying trend, some places are doing some wonderful stuff.

This morning I taught English at a nursery school. While much of what I teach may be in one ear and out the other in the long run at least the kids are getting exposed to English at an early age, in a way that doesn’t simply involve the drilling of endless grammar points. It’s all fun, games and storybooks. But that pales in comparison to what I saw as I was leaving today. The four and five years in the class I’d taught a mere forty-five minutes earlier were dancing. Flamenco.

Maybe one day some of these kids will venture abroad to an English speaking nation, but I’d put good money on a couple of the kids in that class having been successfully nabbed by Iberia before I can extol to them in their later years the joys of a wet and windy British Isles.

A dance around the maypole just doesn’t compete does it?

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.