Tag Archives: Japan

Haneda Waiting

At this moment I’m at the airport.

Here since 10:00pm yesterday waiting for my 6:25am flight today. Experiencing first hand the joys of Haneda airport scheduling that doesn’t allow them to run international flights at the same time as Narita.

Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the 6am departure time, what I’m not so fond of is the fact that it necessitates the use of a hotel room nearby or in my cheapskate case, the use of a bench to park myself on as I vainly try to ward off sleep until I’ve boarded my plane in some foolish attempt at avoiding jet-lag.

At least there’s free wifi.

Sparkly trees in Haneda Airport

Because it’s an airport Christmas… they’re probably lit up all year round.

It’s about 1:00am now and I’ve set up shop on the 5th floor of the airport.

It’s quiet up here; the rows of people sleeping across three seat benches are sleeping surprisingly quietly or watching DVDs on their laptops. Mercifully no loud, guttural snoring echoing on polished floors.

I’m across the hall by the windows. Typing quietly, slowly. Not my usual mad scientist, jazz pianist approach to typing.

There is however one noise that pierces the air at every moment.

The escalator with a split personality.

The escalator with two voices.

The English voice is calm, American, authoritative but dulcet. At least to my western, currently sleep deprived/soon to be jetlagged, ears. I assume the voice, despite being computerized in some fashion, to have at some point belonged to a beautiful woman. It sounds like someone I’d listen to instinctively. It exudes a certain sense of control, it gently reminds you of the danger you know to be part and parcel of motorized steps.

The Japanese voice sounds younger but that doesn’t mean much. Most Japanese women are in possession of the ability to shoot up a couple octaves when on the phone or if they happen to work in the service industry. It doesn’t sound authoritative, it sounds worried, somewhat cloying. Like a child reminding you that you promised to take them to Disneyland this weekend.

I wonder whether Japanese hear the same thing as I do. I wonder if I’d even hear it were I in possession of more sleep or something stronger than a bottle of green tea.

Is the cure to cloying, coffee?

I think it might just be… if only because the café is about 50ft from the closest escalator.

Edo Restaurant in an Airport

Either an Edo era restaurant inside an airport… or the dojo from Street Fighter.

But this is always a risk you run in Japan. The technology talks, it beeps, it whirs and it chimes. It attempts to lull you into a true sense of security through a casual barrage of unadulterated, undiluted Disney voices (excusing Donald’s voice, presumably they use that in prison though for a sense of commanding cuteness).

I typed too soon.

The snoring has begun, the lights have been turned up to a daybreak kind of glare and music is beginning to chime louder across the whole place.

Time to escape for that coffee I think, before Donald’s voice comes across the tannoy to inform me that the check-in desk is now open.

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Fluently Worrying

In my daily life I think a lot about language. How to use the Japanese language correctly, my choice of vocabulary and grammar when addressing my students in English, my use of tone and expression, the physicality of my language, it all gets thrown together in a jumbled mess of simplified English and broken Japanese.

The thing is, this mess needs to convey an idea that doesn’t come naturally to most people and certainly not to Japanese teenagers.

The idea that in order to learn a language you have to not only be unafraid of making mistakes but care enough to want to fix those very same mistakes.

It’s a difficult balance.

One thing I don’t do is sugarcoat it. I don’t pretend that what they’re studying is easy, that it has a sense of logic that they ought to be able to grasp easily. Language doesn’t work like that and a language born of so many people and cultures as English is a hodgepodge.

More than that it’s a sadistic, cacophonous, beautiful, shambles of a language.

And I love it for it.

However, for teenagers this cluttered lingua franca is encountered in an environment where the wrong answer is to be feared because a wrong answer symbolizes more than, ‘I don’t know right now,’ it often feels like it means, like it displays to the entire room, ‘I will never know the right answer.’

I can remember that feeling well from High School French or Spanish classes where we were dragged through a textbook kicking and screaming, ticking boxes and attempting to build on linguistic steps when the foundations hadn’t fully dried yet.

If you take a quick ride on any train in Japan it would be abundantly clear that this kind of feeling continues to linger on long into adult life here. Dotted around every carriage are advertisements for an endless variety of English conversation schools promising to improve an obviously faltering and feeble grasp of the English language.

If I could change one thing about Japan it’d be these blasted adverts. I’d replace them with ones that say,

English is hard. It is not impossible. It takes at least three thousand hours of regular study for a native speaker of a non-European language to reach an advanced level. Please stop worrying and enjoy your day.

Better yet, what’s the Japanese for Keep Calm and Carry On?

Travel by Tweet: How to Throw Away Your Guidebook in Japan

I was in Shizuoka City looking to find a nice little bar I’d read about for a celebratory pint (I’d just got a new job), when once again I was reminded how little people know their own cities and towns.

Everyone I asked had little idea about where I was talking about. In fact, at one point I was stood almost beneath the sign of the bar in question, as usual unable to spot anything that isn’t directly under my nose.

Eventually I asked two gentlemen where I could find the bar; not a clue, never heard of it. We were ten feet away.

On my second lap around the block I did eventually spot it and rather embarrassedly walked up the stairs to find ‘Beer No Yokota.’ Fortunately it was more than worth getting a little lost for.

It’s understandable I suppose that people don’t always know their own towns so well. When it’s the place you call home it’s easy to get into a routine, to only dine and drink at the usual familiar places, to discover new places through the recommendations of friends, family and co-workers. In Japan, with the tendency for restaurants to be tucked away on the fourth floor of a non-descript tower block it’s easy to never know a place even exists.

Now this can be a problem for those of us who live in Japan and speak a little/a lot of Japanese. So how much more difficult must it be if you’re in Japan on holiday, what do you do if you’re trying to escape Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or any other tourist friendly location for a slice of real Japan?

Go with your guidebook?

Hardly.

With the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook devoting around one hundred pages each to the big three of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka it’s easy to understand why other areas get fewer pages assigned to them.

Even then it’s inevitable that otherwise great travel writers are going to miss some local gems when they haven’t got the time to search out every hidden corner of a town.

Indeed even if you’re local it can be pretty tough to get recommendations from Japanese people. Particularly if you’re a teacher out here, as many long-term foreign residents are, then your students will often be reticent to offer recommendations for fear that you won’t like the places they enjoy.

However, there’s another reason why it’s so hard to stray off the well-worn guidebook paths and in likelihood it’s the one you’re worrying about.

The language.

Leaving Tokyo and it’s English menus behind can be daunting for many travelers but even if you haven’t had time to master some few thousand Japanese kanji there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to enjoy a bit of real Japan. Armed with a couple simple phrases and a little local knowledge there’s no end of places to discover outside of the big three.

So how to go about finding them?

Go local. Get specific.

Not literally.

Digitally.

I discovered Beer no Yokota via the gastronomic musing of one Shizuoka Gourmet

If you’re a craft beer fan like me then you won’t go wrong with the Japan Beer Times a bilingual go-to-guide for all you Hop Heads out there.

Fancy catching some footy while you’re out here? Then take a look at the fan blogs for a quality English resource. My local team, Shimizu S-Pulse is followed by the UK Ultras who offer the complete lowdown on everything you need to know to get to the games and sing along with the fans.

For those of you who’d prefer to spend your holidays in a more healthy fashion taking in all Japan’s beautiful outdoors has to offer then head on to Outdoor Japan.

However, if you want to track down somewhere with a limited web presence, a pretty common thing in Japan, then look no further than Twitter. Once you’ve found one person or company who shares some of your interests then Twitter handily starts recommending more of them to you. On top of that it’s one of the few forms of publicly accessible social media that Japan has truly embraced.

It’s also an easy way to discover real life connections between places as most independent places know the other people running shops and restaurants in their town and follow them on Twitter.

So there it is. A little prep, a little wi-fi and possibly a lot of google translating later you can be sat in a little antique café, eating local ice-cream or supping the local brew.

And when you do, don’t forget to blog or tweet about it so the rest of us can enjoy it too.

 

 

Supermarket Pac-Man

She shot off like a flash, a whirring of stiffly lurching arms, frog marching, goose steppingly absurd helpfulness. A gust of misdirected efficiency whipping through the aisles of the store, drawn round bends by a microclimate of hurrying and scurrying staff members. Each one weaving around customers and obstacles alike at a pace that can best be described as akin to the one achieved when crossing the road as the green man begins to flash.

Welcome to the world of Japanese shopping. Not the crazy, department store sale shopping. I stay well clear of that. No this is the day to day garden variety where a simple request like, ‘Do you sell light bulbs?’ Can result in the transformation of an overly starched store clerk into a passable imitation of Road Runner. Off she shoots like a bolt of lightening, mostly because I’m never quite sure where they might strike.

There’s an element of Greek tragedy to it I suppose. If Zeus almighty, or in this case, a store manager, is directing said lightening bolt (or if they actually know where something is) then my misadventures as Wiley Coyote will draw to an all too early finish. But if not, then I enter the world of supermarket Pac-Man.

Well Pac-Man when he’s swallowed that pill thing and the whole screen starts to flash and the ghosts turn on the tail end of their sheets and scarper.

The magic pill in this case being, ‘I have a question.’

The first time I asked for help in a small town department store I was just looking for a light bulb. You see, upon entering my first apartment in Japan and flicking on the light switches two bulbs decided that the unexpected shock to their systems was clearly beyond the pale and subsequently blinked out of existence with a whimper. As signs go it perhaps didn’t auger too well for me.

Eventually after growing tired of living in the gloom, by which I mean my dimly lit apartment not England in general, I ventured out into a department store armed with a scrap of Japanese and attempted to track down a light bulb. Not finding it in plain sight I asked a store clerk where it was. A brief exchange of haphazard cross-cultural pointing and signing over and she was off, a blur into the distance.

It was at this point that I realized just how many things we never even consider in our day-to-day lives. For example, when the shop attendant helping you with your inquiry darts off like a greyhound in heat what exactly is the appropriate distance to maintain in your pursuit?

Are you supposed to jog along with her?

Is nonchalantly strolling behind going to result in you losing her?

Are you supposed to stay put until she eventual returns with the item you were after and drops it straight into your basket like a loyal labradoodle?

Will losing her result in this kind woman, in a fit of helpfully nervous panic, sending out an all channels bulletin across the store intercom imploring everyone in the store that if they see a lost and confused looking strange young foreign man to please escort him to the electrical appliances aisle?

It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Just like in Pac-Man when the magic, trippy pill thing wears off they inevitably track you down. Sometimes you win and they drop you exactly next to the item you need, other times you lose and they, ‘eto, ano…chotto’ (ahhh, ummm…well) and send you packing back to the Game Over screen.

One thing though; I’ve been here for over two years now. The mishaps, the confusion have all but disappeared so why has this image stuck with me?

Well, because… I can’t help but wonder… if I ask the store clerks one after another, asking the next just as the previous one zips off into the distance, could I complete the Supermarket-Deluxe-Department-Store-Challenge-JAPAN edition of Pac-Man? Or will I just crash the damn machine?

One day…

Eastern Dragons and Yorkshire Terriers

The number of Japanese students studying abroad has been in decline for many years now. I’m sure there are a variety of economic drivers at play here however, there is one thing in particular that I believe has had a significantly more profound effect on the desire of Japanese to leave the safety of home.

The Internet.

Japanese no longer need to leave the comforts of home in order to consume foreign culture. It’s already being packaged and sold to them at astonishing rate and now there’s the option of same-second delivery. Generally made via YouTube; a website my students on average believe to have existed for around fifteen to twenty years. And if not from there, well the rest of the social networking world is picking up the slack.

Twitter is booming, Facebook is gaining a foothold and Mixi has already been a firm part of the youth culture in Japan for sometime now having skillfully tapped into the long kept and stunningly well maintained school day’s, nostalgia coated friendships.

On top of this plethora of gateways to the wider world stands sport, particularly football and The Premier league.

It’s inescapable.

One boy in my class who has never been to England, as far as I know, idolizes Steven Gerrard and even portrayed him in our speaking project this term. Somehow, from thousands of miles away this fifteen-year-old boy has made a connection with this club, even slipping in, “You’ll never walk alone” into his project script.

There may have only been the one Steven Gerrard in my class but there were more than a few Atsuto Uchidas, Nagatomos and Shinji Kagawas. I also expect that cohort to include Ryo Miyaichi by the end of the year thus precipitating an unusual Man Utd/Arsenal rivalry to break out within the fans in my town, especially amongst the football fanatic kids in my classes.

This fascination is driven by a Japanese media that never hesitates to follow its sporting stars around the world. Shinji Kagawa alone had a dozen Japanese reporters at every Borussia Dortmund game to cover his every move. Now that he’s at Manchester Utd it’s fair to say that interest in his career is only going to multiply.

And if Ryo Miyaichi were to become a stand out player at Arsenal to boot, resulting in some real competition between the two giants of the nineties? I’d never escape their faces plastered across newspapers and TV screens. Endless inquiries from my students would make my ears bleed through sheer repetition and Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City would all be swiftly forgotten by this generation of teenage fans.

With this kind of devotion to fandom, especially in Japan, it is of course no surprise to see clubs outside of the top flight of English football trying to get a slice of the pie.

The most famous and dramatic example of this has to be Cardiff City and their now confirmed rebranding.

In exchange for a total investment of around one hundred million pounds, with money being detailed for use in expanding the only recently completed stadium, a new training ground as well as a substantial transfer kitty for the manager Cardiff City will now be playing in red and their club crest has been redesigned to feature the figure of the Welsh Dragon far more prominently, with a tiny bluebird below as a small touch to placate the fans.

However, with the reasoning behind fandom in Asia apparently quite firmly established; historical success, TV exposure, academy presence in the countries and of course the presence of a national icon at your club such as South Korean golden boy Park Ji-Sung and Japan’s young hopes Kagawa and Miyaichi at Utd and Arsenal respectively, I was left to wonder how effective Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan’s efforts would actually be in rebranding Cardiff City’s Bluebirds by donning them in lucky red and emphasizing the dragon.

Certainly the fans seemed to be pretty adamant about their feelings on the matter initially, though football being a money game seems to have swayed some opinions. This kind of thing after all, is simply a part of the modern game and when one man is willing to put a hundred million of his own cash up, then he can do what he likes by and large.

However, I couldn’t help feeling that my own team, Huddersfield Town, currently on the up thanks to our very own generous owner Dean Hoyle, might be missing a trick here.

Now I’m not for a second here suggesting that Town change anything at all. The trick being missed is that Huddersfield Town already connect to the Japanese market in an important way.

Sheer, unadulterated cuteness.

You see, the Japanese have for some reason in recent years, decided that they prefer to have pets rather than children. A tired economy, limited living space and a generation seemingly uninterested in sex has seen the number of pets overtake children. So while a young couple may not be able to afford kids and all the costs that go with it, a pampered poodle is well within their reach. (Evidently not quite so true…see below comments)

So will Huddersfield Town and Terry the Terrier one day tap into the Japanese market and begin to exploit the benefits of the Japanese adoration of all things kawaii (cute)?

It’d only take a single summer tour of a couple J-league teams and the gift of about half a million Terry the Terrier based omiyage (souvenirs) to sway this nation to the blue and white.

Maybe one day, when one of my students, stunned to discover that Yorkshire is a place and not just half the name of a fluffy ball of cuteness asks me once again,

“Is my dog English?”

I might be able to reply,

“More than that, he’s a Town fan.”

A Different Ball Game: Welcome to the J-league

There’s something not right about Japanese football fans. It’s like they haven’t got the memo. Don’t they know that football is supposed to be endured?

It’s an affliction, an addiction that blights the lives of supporters across the world.

I mean, teams are supposed to be owned by morally dubious Russian Oligarchs or Arab Sheiks, not by local companies, local government and certainly not the fans themselves.

It’s supposed to be the last bastion of masculinity, not a place where women, children and babies in tiny replica shirts venture or even god forbid participate as fans.

You’re supposed to randomly hurl abuse at the referee, a man or woman who has devoted countless hours to the game, who knows the rules inside out and yet still doesn’t know better than you. You are most certainly not to be respectful of them.

Then of course there are the songs and chants; these should at least be mildly offensive to the other team and its fans. However, if you can manage to incorporate, racism, sexism or homophobia into them, all the better.

They should not include dance routines.

But most of all and this really is quite important… you’re not supposed to enjoy the game!

Actually, on second thoughts, Japan might be onto something here…

Let’s face it, Japan has got fan culture down pat. They are Zen masters in the fanatic arts, fully in tune with Wa, their sense of a communal Japanese identity. Their football is still like all football worldwide, tribal at heart, but this tribe at least is open to most.

Even at my hometown club, Huddersfield Town AFC, a club voted Family Club of the year a number of times, I still wouldn’t want to take a young kid all the time. Exposing a kid to the kind of red faced, vein throbbing, eye popping anger and vile language that can come out of some supporters isn’t exactly high on my to do list. I may not blink when I see or hear it but I’ve seen little kids absolutely stunned by it. I can still remember the look on the face of a little four year old girl, just staring, mouth agape as a man nearby turned a bright shade of red as he hurled invective in the direction of the fella with the whistle.

My experience at an Shimizu S-Pulse game was somewhat different. The contrast was in fact pretty stark at times. The S-Pulse fans, all decked out in bright orange replica kits and homemade fan t-shirts, spent almost the whole ninety plus minutes singing their hearts out. Simply put, they were enjoying the sing-along and the football too much to be incensed to such a degree by one decision not going their way on the pitch. On top of that, the friendly, though no less passionate atmosphere was welcoming enough that a girl who couldn’t have been more than ten years old spent the entire match bouncing and cheering away, cajoling her rather less interested older sister to do the same. She must have picked up this habit at a young age, much like the one year old a few seats away who had already mastered the fist pump to, “ore!” Yes, “ore.” The Japanese ‘l’ isn’t ready for a full Spanish “ole!” quite yet.

So, what is it about Japanese football that makes it so different from that played on British, European and every other nation’s soil that includes kicking a ball as a national pastime?

First of all, age. The J-League has only been in existence since 1992/1993. The historic rivalry of clubs like Liverpool and Manchester Utd in England, Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, Inter and A.C. Milan in Italy and Rangers and Celtic in Scotland cannot possible have had time to emerge in such a way here in Japan. In addition, the political, historical and in the case of Rangers and Celtic, religious differences have no equivalents here in Japan. Also, by starting their existence within the last twenty years Japanese clubs benefit from a supporter environment that would not have held the inbuilt sexual and racial biases of those in countries that have played football far longer.

There is also the rather complicated fact of culture to contend with. If you ever wonder why Spain plays pretty football while the English hoof it and the Scottish cheer slide tackles like goals, think of the weather. Have you ever tried to play the beautiful game on a rain sodden pitch? Wind blowing too? Not so simple. Ever slide tackled on dry soil? Not so easy.

What about mentality?

What do fans traditionally value? The British; a player busting a gut, appearing all over the pitch, a one man whirlwind devoted to team play. Italy; catenaccio, otherwise known as the door bolt. The Japanese, a beautiful passing game, but one that rather lacks in a cutting edge as said cutting edge requires a degree of selfishness rather lacking from their sporting mindset.

Although perhaps the most telling difference comes with the alcohol. Japanese fans can bring their own. Three hours before kick-off even. In contrast it’s banned in Scottish football stadiums, though not in Rugby ones. The mentality is simply different.

But is it better? Well…

Frankly it’s a matter of taste. If you bleed, sweat and cry your team’s colours and so did your father before you and his before him, then it may not be your pint of bitter.

But for me? For the kids and families filling the stadium? Passing football, cheap beer, food aplenty, friendly fans and a victory dance called the Roko Roko (the loco loco, again struggling with the ‘l’)?

That’ll do us just fine. And with the Nadeshiko Japan (Japan’s women’s team) having brought home the world cup. You have to assume it’s only going to get bigger still.

Viva S-Pulse!

 

Ode to a Kotatsu: How to love the Japanese Winter

Nagano is cold in winter. Ok that’s not strictly true. Nagano is in fact, absolutely, bloody, freezing in winter, which perhaps explains the presence of a Winter Olympics here. It’s not Hokkaido but frankly it’s still pretty damn cold. Why is this an issue? Well, I live in Japan, possibly the only economically advanced nation in the world utterly bereft of insulation, double-glazing or central heating of any kind. So why do I not care about this? Because the Japanese have over the centuries come up with many interesting approaches to keeping warm on those crisp, cold winter nights.

The masterpiece of all this winter combating wonder is of course the kotatsu. In the grand scheme of Japanese heating gadgetry this is the last step. So I’ll come back to it in a moment.

First up, because the Japanese are usually very practical people indeed is warm clothes. Ok, I understand you were hoping for something more technologically advanced but as my erstwhile Swedish housemate once told me, he wasn’t a wuss for wearing thermal underwear during the British winter, rather he had a healthy respect for the cold. A respect, which we in England, he noted, lack to a quite insane degree. Any brief thought I may have had to defend my land was quickly dismissed by the unwelcome mental image of the average overweight Newcastle Utd fan on a Saturday afternoon in January; shirtless, rolls of fat cascading down over ageing denim and endless tattoos declaring an undying allegiance to the Geordie army whose main rival one might surmise to be the cold itself.

But back to Japan, with its citizens quite adamant about its clear and distinct four seasons (to the extent that my students always look rather smug when I explain the English seasons as one week spring, two weeks summer, a damp squib autumn and a never ending wet and windy winter), there is a quite dramatic shift in seasonal clothing as summer clothes get packed away and the autumn and winter wear is brought back from that nook in the bottom of the cupboard.

This dramatic a shift is to be expected really when all Japanese folk struggle with the fact that temperatures of twenty-two degrees and higher elicit a yelp of, “atsui/hot!” While twenty degrees and below elicits an immediate whimper from behind a scarf of, “samui/cold!” The magic temperature they all seek being a perfect twenty-one degrees, at which point they all get remarkably quiet, perhaps reveling in this moment of pure natural bliss while I interrupt their reverie by nervously muttering, “atatakai/warm? No…just me? OK… ”

Next comes all manner of electric blankets and under carpet/bed sheet heaters.  Each designed to keep you warm wherever you choose to plant yourself for the duration of the day because frankly, you’re not going anywhere. This is coupled with great big space heaters, occasionally with a hot plate on top for keeping a kettle full of water always ready for the gallons of green tea you are likely to consume in the course of trying to warm your poor frozen extremities.

But while all these things are necessary for one to get a cozy night’s sleep, or not to freeze your big toe off upon initial contact with the floor in the morning, they all pale in comparison to the mighty kotatsu.

The kotatsu is truly wonderful thing in my mind. The first thing I bought in Japan that turned my one room studio apartment, bereft of most furniture beyond the absolute bare necessities on my arrival, into something resembling a real home. Albeit, a perennially messy and cluttered one.

A kotatsu is essentially a blanket or duvet placed atop a low level table frame with the table top itself placed on top, thus sandwiching the blanket/duvet between the table frame and tabletop. In addition to this modern kotatsus have an electric heater installed on the underside of the table frame to heat the space under the table. To put it in a more western context, remember on cold winter mornings how you would clamber out of bed and drag the whole bed cover with you, wrapped around you and dragging behind as you went downstairs to watch Saturday morning kids television, before cable and satellite television killed off the children’s variety show that is. Now add a table so that you never, ever need move from your cosy spot in front of the TV, and that’s a kotatsu.

It’s also a way to be very lazy indeed. Without noticing your kettle will strangely migrate in the night to find a new home atop the kotatsu, soon your legs will rebel at the thought of ever leaving their cozy new home and bed will become a distant memory as you begin to nap beneath your new abode, content in the knowledge that when you awake the kettle is already in reach.

This winter is going to be very lazy indeed.