Tag Archives: living abroad

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…


Handily Divine

As the shinkansen flashes by on the parallel bridge, a bullet blur humming and thumping like a taiko drum as it bursts forth from the tunnel I take a deep breath and smile, soak it all in. A clear night’s sky, a cool breeze whipping over the bridge and across the rice paddies below, drifting presumably upwards and towards the heaven like burst of light on the hillside that is otherwise known as the Gorilla Golf Centre. That bright beacon of Japanese culture nestled in small valleys and hillsides around Japan. A porch light to a nation of golfing moths.

After the first experience I had with it, I never expected that so shortly after I’d find myself feeling thankful towards it, even impressed by its speed, efficiency and ability.

Oh Japanese health system, who knew you had it in you to be those things?

Thanks to you I get to enjoy a part of Japan that had eluded me before. The beauty of the countryside and the city as I jog, amble, stumble and sweat up and down hills, across bridges and beside rice fields. Occasionally scaring the bejesus out of poor folks as a sweaty foreigner rounds the corner at the exact same instant. Getting them a second time by declaring my surprise in Japanese.

In stark contrast to my first experience of medical treatment going to get my knee fixed couldn’t have been simpler. After a few weeks where my lifelong dodgy knee, a family trait, had begun to play up far more than usual, (walking and driving, two things that had never affected me before made my old man knee flare up all of a sudden) I decided it was about time I got it properly checked out, rather than accepting the family defect for what it was.

So after strolling into the appropriate local hospital (Japan’s smaller establishments are separated by discipline so to some extent you have to diagnose yourself) ostensibly just to make an appointment, I was passing and it’d be easier than doing it by phone with my middling Japanese, I soon found myself snuck into the one gap in the day’s appointment list.

An hour later I found myself in the first doctors office where he recommended an X-ray to check this troublesome knee as well my back. I sighed. This story occured during my last job, one where free time was at a premium. Getting to this local hospital was a logistical nightmare that minus a car involved an hour and a half hour of travel by train and foot. The thought of trekking back and forth for tests didn’t appeal.

The doctor looked puzzled.

“Nah, we’ll do it now. Down the hall on the left.”

Outside an accident and emergency room in the UK this almost never happens.

So… two scans later.

“Your knee is fine.”


“Your back however… this X-ray shows a normal spine, this is yours. It’s very straight and tight. It’s the source of your pain.”

Two minutes of massage later and my pain magically disappeared.

I asked, “What’s magic in Japanese?”

“Noooo.” He replied, “God hands!”

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.