Tag Archives: USA

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.

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Kyoto Kindness: William Faulkner, Soba and Magic Words

Despite essentially being a long-term tourist in Japan I hate feeling like one of the shutterbug crowd, endlessly holding up people on the pavement taking photos of anything vaguely unfamiliar, which in Japan could mean pretty much anything.

It’s this desire to feel less foreign in a country where I am quite patently so, that often leads me to look for the quieter and the more local in cities teeming with tourists. Despite my rather limited Japanese these smaller places with significantly less English are often all the more friendly than their tourist centric counterparts.

In Kyoto especially, a beautiful city but always bursting with tourists both domestic and foreign, I found joy in escaping the bustle in such places. Not far from Kyoto train station, an enormous and impressive piece of architecture that climbs fifteen stories high (the tenth story being a floor of Ramen restaurants) and as much of a sight to see as the rest of the city, I found refuge and dinner in a small family place. A real hole in the wall in a part of town more populated with Starbucks and McDonald’s than mom and pop places. Finding only one customer but an entire family of chefs inside I perched myself at the bar. My seat was essentially the viewing area of the kitchen. Having worked in a kitchen in my teens as a lowly pot washer, I know that any kitchen willing to be open to the customer’s scrutiny is infinitely more professional as the usual temper tantrums and wannabe rock star egos tend to be reined in. However, whether such a culinary temperament exists in Japan I could not say, I only know that they put many of my former colleagues to shame on every level.

I ordered a bowl of steaming hot soba (buckwheat noodles) and a plate of tempura (deep fried vegetables and sea food). However, I had not counted on the immense generosity of their portions and I soon found myself attempting to eat equal amounts of each so as not to display favouritism to the creation of either chef, who were eyeing my greedy effort from inside the kitchen.

The matriarch of this clan of chefs pottered over towards me almost immediately upon my arrival, intent on a little natter. The usual questions were asked and as usual I answered as best I could. When asked where my hometown is I gave them the name and then so that they were not completely baffled I explained that it was near Manchester. The fate of most northerners abroad is to be from a village or town called NearLeeds or NearManchester.

This leads inevitably towards the question of Soccer (a word that makes my heart break a little every time I hear it) and Manchester Utd. So I explain that Man Utd are in the Premier League., to which they give strong nods to display their appreciation and avid devotion to, ‘English Premier League’, a slightly confused look at mentions of the Championship, and then complete shock that the third tier that is League One even exists; worse still that my team should reside within it. All is redeemed though when I reveal that my team’s mascot is a Yorkshire Terrier. Cuteness and little dogs, this is firm, sure ground in Japanese conversation.

I once revealed that little fact to a class and elicited a sharp gasp of surprise and perhaps terror as one student looked at me and asked, ‘My dog is English?!’

So having dispensed with all the usual questions and complimented their cooking as often as possible I was beginning to run out of Japanese and asked the question I hate to have to ask, ‘do you understand a little English?’ I feel dirty when I ask it because it is essentially an admission that you must rely on their greater understanding of a foreign language, in their own country no less. It feels rude on every level to me, but alas after half an hour of small talk I’m pretty much stuffed and so if they want to ask anything beyond the simple and polite I must rely on their high school English along with my little ipod Japanese dictionary going back and forth each time one of us forgets or doesn’t know a word. So having asked the question but not expecting an affirmative answer I was surprised when she gestured towards her son, the chef who had prepared my delicious tempura. He walked over and in flawless English said, ‘I speak a little English as I used to study English and American Literature in America, I’m particularly fond of William Faulkner.’ At that point, had I not already finished my bowl of soba my jaw would have dropped straight into it.

As much as it surprised me at the time (not that he understood a lot of English, that is quite common) that he spoke with such incredible fluency I can understand why he kept it to himself. In Kyoto I rarely heard a foreign tourist make any attempt at using even a little Japanese, not even something from a phrase book at the very least. No Konnichiwa (hello), no arigatou(thanks), no onegaishimas or o kudasai (please/may I have). I even met a perfectly nice American man who was intent on moving to Japan permanently, who had resided in Kyoto for three months already and had not learned a single word of Japanese. So when a tourist makes even a small attempt to speak Japanese they’ll engage more, talk more and generally be even friendlier than they already are. Yet, should a Japanese person reveal immediately that they understand every tourist perfectly, well that’s just an invitation for tourists to be more demanding and lazy. Not something I’d be keen to encourage either.

Aside from the fact it is simple politeness to do so, there are of course major benefits to speaking at least a little bit of the language, even if you only visit for a little while. Perched at the end of the bar at my hostel in Kyoto I noticed two Australian guys frantically gesturing for ten minutes trying to get one of the bar staff to notice them so they could order a beer. I took my time to finish my beer and then shouted, ‘sumimasen’ the bartender over in a flash, my drink immediately replaced and two stunned Aussies left asking, ‘what was that magic word you used?’

‘Excuse me.’

Quality Rail Service? No Thank You, I’m English.

It’s too efficient. It’s too clean. It’s too stable, too fast, too damn everything. It’s just too bloody sanitized. Where’s the romance of it? The grit, the grime and the inevitable screw-ups. The human element if you will.

When you think of technology, aside from the inevitable coveting of a new Apple toy (the latest being the iDalek), you think quite classically about the whole thing. Computers, mobile phones, great, big, enormous televisions that replace the supporting wall in your house. But ask someone to think about technology in Japan and they think of, in all likelihood, one of two things. If like me, you’re just an oversized child, robots. However, if you’re an individual who has delusions of being a ‘grown up’ then the Shinkansen aka the Bullet Train, is probably what you’ll envisage. Gleaming white and gliding effortlessly into a station at the very second it was due to arrive and leaving mere moments later. Traversing incredible distances in a few hours. Passing through cities with enough stealth and speed to rival the pink panther on his most mischievous of days. Moving so fast as to inspire musicals on roller-skates. Yes I just referenced Starlight Express and yes I’m regretting it already.

Herein lies my problem with the Shinkansen. After that, ‘holy crap this thing is fast’ moment I kind of fall out of love with the thing. A lifetime of shoddy British rail travel and crumbling buses means that I expect a certain amount of wastefulness, cock-ups and poor planning as part of the reality of any journey. In fact if I can’t complain about a journey once it’s over I hardly feel like I’ve traveled at all.

Yet, British rail for all its faults can’t compare to the sheer madness of traveling the US by Amtrak. Which is probably why, two years after I crossed the US by train with a friend, I find myself still telling stories from the journey, mostly about Jeanette.

Now Jeanette was crazy. Caring, scarily devoted to her job, but most of all crazy. With a stereotype, pitch perfect southern drawl she announced her presence to the whole train over the tannoy, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car, I’m here to take care of y’all.’ The lounge car was where the poverty stricken of us gathered to buy microwave foods, sweets and beer to eat in our seats as we watched those with more money and sense making their way to the restaurant car. However, we hadn’t reckoned on Jeanette’s uncanny ability to swindle some real food from that very car to dispense to us poor, sugar high, vitamin deprived proles in the non-sleeper cars on this epic three day (note: it should have taken a little over two days but there were flood waters and break downs to contend with) cross country jaunt. She announced with cheery glee, ‘Good news y’all, I have managed to acquire four-tee-two chi-ken din-ners, that’s four-tee-two chi-ken din-ners. If you would like to reserve one of these chi-ken din-ners please come down to the lounge car to sign your name. My name is Jeanette, I’m down in the Lounge car, come on down, I will take care of you.’ What a delightful woman, if somewhat mad, we thought.

Then it happened, in some cruel twist those chicken dinners became a continual reminder of the hell of traveling by Amtrak, who it seems have a rather lax policy in regards to who gets access to the tannoy system. Twenty minutes after the initial announcement she returned to brighten our day, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car, I now have thir-tee-nine chi-ken din-ners, I repeat, thir-tee-nine chi-ken din-ners, my name is Jeanette, come on down to the lounge car to sign your name, this is Jeanette I will take care of you.’ It continued much the same for hours, as every twenty minutes or so elapsed Jeanette would return with her rolling commentary on the number of chicken dinners in her possession.

To our and clearly Jeanette’s horror the initial flurry of signatures would not last. The number had declined all the way down to fourteen but demand had ebbed away. We were nearly there, the home stretch in sight and the chicken blocking our path rapidly being placed in the soon to be eaten pile. While the fowl remaining were not disappearing as quickly as wished, we had hope and a determination to survive this variation on water torture. Evidently Jeanette was possessed of similar reserves.

After a brief stop at one of the many little stations we would pause at for smoking breaks and quick fix repairs to the crumbling engine she made another announcement, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car. Good News y’all, I have managed to acquire an extra four- teeeeeen chi-ken din-ners, I now have twen-tee-eight chi-ken din-ners. If you would like to reserve one of these chi-ken din-ners for this eve-nin, please come on down to the lounge car and sign your name. This is Jeanette in the lounge car, come on down, we will take care of you.’

Soon after, a young man by the name of Randy, who we had met earlier in our long journey, ambled over to where my friend and I sat and leaned over to whisper his question. His eyes suggested a sense of guilt, an understanding that what he was about to ask us was outside of what society deems acceptable, beyond the pale indeed. He looked at us and muttered his opening salvo, ‘I was just wondering, when was the last time you guys ate some real food?’ Looking at the net pouch on the back of the seats in front of us, at the remains of skittle wrappers and crisp packets, we were forced to admit that real food was perhaps a distant memory now. Leaning ever closer he asked us in the whispered tones of a man looking to get his fix, ‘I was thinking about maybe goin’ to get one of those chi-ken din-ners, you wanna get some too?’

Unfortunately, if such character exists on Japanese trains I’ve yet to experience it. Much of Japanese life may seem a little mad at times, but alas they retain their sanity while traveling. Well, so long as you ignore the old guy admiring the centerfold in his porno mag.