Here’s my speech, first in English, then in Japanese. An embarrassing but I think, necessary addition to the blog. Now only ten days left…
I went to the burger place today. The burger place that is 5 minutes ride from my house and directly opposite the 24 hour internet cafe I used a few times a week for the first month I was here. The burger place that my (and Ashley’s) students rave about constantly. The burger place that I didn’t even know existed until last week. For a while now I’ve considered my neighbourhood to be somewhat lacking in good food options. When I first got here it was far too hot to keep any of my clothes on, let alone cook, so I spent most of my time eating at establishments in the nearby vicinity. This more-or-less meant some ok ramen, some awful ramen or some sushi or deep-fried-you-name-it-because-I-don’t-know-what-it-is from the local supermarket. But then, I didn’t know about the burger place did I? Or the yakitori (meat kebabs, basically) place at the end of my road which is always full and apparently, rather amazing. Or indeed, the Korean-style grill house a couple of blocks over which I visited on Saturday night and ate my body weight in delicious marbled beef steak.
Now I could get annoyed about this. Why do I keep missing out on the things that are important to me, I could think to myself, and it would be true in my case; relationships torn apart, friendships put on hold, funerals, weddings and birthdays missed, finding burger and yakitori places too late. My own answer to this was just an argument to support the reason I’m out here – for a challenge – but a rather brilliant and inspiring article I read recently seemed to acknowledge the above question:
To reach your goals, you must move forward, which necessitates leaving some things behind. But the man who believes he can get whatever he desires without sacrifice tries to hold onto everything in an attempt to have it all. Instead of moving forward, he is stretched out horizontally and sitting on the fence.
You cannot do something huge or become great at something if you do not sacrifice something important to you in some other area of your life; in my case, time with my friends and family in the UK, a friend’s funeral, another friend’s wedding and a whole bunch of birthday celebrations. When I leave here, I do so because my life must continue to move forward rather than stagnate; this is the greater goal.
Anyway, believe it or not I didn’t come on here today to get all deep (how does it always happen?) but rather, to tell you a humorous little anecdote about what happened on the way back from the aforementioned burger place.
You know how sometimes your mind drifts to things that are funny, and you smile, or even burst out laughing to yourself like a crazy person? I think about funny things that have happened of course, but I often make up stuff that has never, and probably will never happen. Yes, life inside my head is a riot.
I was riding my granny bicycle back home and I began to remember when I was 14, and went on a trip to Germany with the church choir. The boys among us would walk around and talk very loudly in English, boasting about how we could say anything and no-one would no what the hell we were saying! Oh the freedom! The boyish mischief! Just think of all the bold and naughty things we could say! That was of course, until a German gentleman approached us with a grin and told us that actually, most of them understood at least 50% of what we were saying. Cue red cheeks and sheepish side-glances. I then started to imagine a situation where I was back in London and walking around the tourist areas stalking Japanese people and trying to hear what they were saying. I thought about how they probably do the same thing as we did when we were 14, and about how so few people speak Japanese in London so they could probably get away with much more. To cut a long story short I heard a bunch of girls taking the piss out of me and joined in (something that I like to do frequently to the kids in my school who think I can’t hear), at which point they all start going “HAZUKASHII!” which basically means “EMBARRASSING! WE’VE BEEN CAUGHT OUT!”
Back in real life, I found this hilarious. I started to grin like a mentalist, and then even had a little chuckle completely failing to realise that, at the same time, I was staring directly into the face of a 70 year old lady on a bike coming towards me from the other direction. Rather than pedal slightly faster and stare straight ahead like any sane person would do though, she creased up her entire face and shot me a grin twice as big, threw her head back and cackled joyously. Obviously, this only served to make me laugh even more, and the result was a picture; a young gaijin and an old lady bent over their granny bikes, riding past each other at a snail’s pace and pissing themselves laughing for no apparent reason whatsoever. Passers-by looked sincerely puzzled at this little display, some visibly quickening their step; doubtless wondering what was happening to their beloved neighbourhood.
As he struggled to think of the word ‘sky’ and then scribbled an incomprehensible version of said word on the board, the student next to him thrust up his hand, straining on his tiptoes as he proudly displayed the word ‘sea’, gaining the first point for the other team.
“No! Sea is green!” the first boy protested.
“Sometimes blue,” I replied, and at that he stalked off to his desk muttering the word “green” under his breath before staring at everything as if he wanted to murder it all with a blunt spoon.
Such is the emotion you can generate from a game of Scattegories apparently, where I summon a student from each of the 7 makeshift groups to the board, tell them a letter and a category, and have them write a word beginning with that letter and related to that category. Cue the noisiest lesson I have ever supervised. I’m actually amazed none of the other teachers came to protest.
There’s a reason for this madness of course; I am doing my last lesson with all my 1st years. This, as it turns out, is proving to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Usually, trying to get anything out of the students in two of my classes is like trying to draw blood from a particularly dead stone, yet both of them have woken up a bit in my last two lessons. People often say that you should have no favourites, but classes are so inconsistent anyway that it’s almost impossible for one to be on top the whole time, and others are always moving around the rankings. How well a class goes depends on so many factors, only a few of which you can control. You can only make your lessons so enjoyable (or try, anyway), but in the end you’re dealing with 42 independent personalities who might be tired, run-down, happy, genki, clinically depressed or a mixture of them all. One week you’ll have a lesson filled with joy, hard work, chatter and playful banter, and the next it’ll be like a tramp just climbed into the window, crapped on all their desks and told them to f**k off.
So the usually quiet classes have livened up. What else? Well the great classes have got better. And I mean “better” in the most self-indulgent of senses in that they were visibly and audibly upset when I said that this was my last lesson with them, oohed when I left them my email address, said “thank you Bobby!” in unison, and clapped before I left the classroom. My head swelled up so much I could barely fit through the door.
Outside of school things are moving very, very swiftly towards my departure. The plane ticket is (nearly) booked for the 1st of August, all the furniture in my house needs to be got rid of, I have to fill in a billion forms, send boxes back, practice a Japanese speech for next week, look for a new job, make sure I say goodbye to everyone, etc, etc. Fortunately I have received a replacement passport for the one I lost in January so I’ll at least be able to leave the country.
It’s the life outside work that I’ve enjoyed the most, and if I didn’t need to save money to set up back home I would certainly be staying until the end of August doing some travelling, sightseeing and “famous for” meal-eating. I didn’t get to see Osaka or Hiroshima, and I would have liked to go to Hokkaido again on account of how much I enjoyed it the first time around. One of my goals for the future is to take the train from London to Japan, and on that trip I’ll be sure to visit everywhere I meant to this time around. But that is a long way off. In the meantime I’ll keep as many connections with Japan open as possible. I have many friends here of course, and I’ll be sure to keep in touch with them, but I will have to make efforts while I’m in the UK too.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it will be like to surrounded by “foreigners” again. The Office for National Statistics estimated that in 2009 there were 34,000 Japanese people living in the UK, which is approximately 0.05% of the entire population. 0.05%! I knew it was going to be hard to stay in touch with the culture but seriously; needle in a haystack. I may have to rely on hanging around major tourist attractions accosting people who, because they are Japanese and hence some of the most efficient people on earth, don’t really need directions, but forcing them to listen to my migis and hidaris like an excitable geographer fresh out of a month of solitary confinement. There are meetup groups in London too, so I’ll try and get to a couple of those.
I really have no idea what to expect when I get home, but I’ll be sure to post my thoughts and ramblings here as and when they come to me.
As humans, we like to talk about ourselves a lot. It’s natural. To us, we are the most important people in our lives and everyone else’s interests are but a mere speck of insignificance compared to what we’re doing and how we look and what our plans are. Any time we’re not talking about ourselves we write about ourselves, either on Facebook or Twitter, or a completely separate website devoted entirely to themselves… Ahem. Yes I am, as you may have gathered, more guilty than others in this respect but I’ve had an strange realisation about this recently.
Learning Japanese has, as I have already explained, been an incredibly wonderful and rewarding experience. I’m at the point now where I can have a simple conversation without thinking too much (“simple” being the operative word here. Anything with more than 1 or 2 clauses and there’s some serious internal translation going on). One of the first things you learn about Japanese is that you can often omit a whole load of things from a sentence because much of it can be gleaned from context. If you want to ask you friend “Are you going to the pub?” for example, the full, polite version would be:
“Anata wa pabu ni ikimasu ka?” (“You, to pub, go?”)
…but you’re talking to your friend so you don’t need to be polite, and it’s obvious you’re not asking “am I going to the pub?” so you would probably just say:
“Pabu ni iku?” (“To pub, go?”), and if you say it quickly it just becomes “pabniiku.”
This saves a lot of time as I’m sure you can imagine, but you also become very used to omitting pronouns from all your sentences. This has had a really bizarre effect in that I have become acutely aware of how often people say “I” when talking in English. Suddenly the word “I” seems uncouth and unnecessary and the more people say it, the more self-obsessed they sound. If this is how I feel after 1 year of study, imagine how self-obsessed we must sound to the Japanese.
Just a thought.
I have 32 full days left in Japan. In this time I will have taught 11 days of lessons, gone to a birthday party, attended a sumo tournament, visited the school for the blind for the last time, partied on a rooftop terrace with all the other leavers, celebrated “Marine Day” and had my work leaving party. My Google Calendar for July is a blinding swathe of orange and blue; a boiling ocean of parties and lessons stocked with the finest fish and nuggets of deep fried mashed potatoes. I will ride the waves like a gymnast, skipping past the darkest goblins of death and leaping over waves that bite and thrash at my lowly canoe, threatening to scold and burn my very soul, and then…
August. A sea so blue and so still you cannot see where it meets the sky. The land ahead provides a glimpse of adventure yet to come, but is as tangible as adventure itself.
We recently received a letter from CLAIR (the organisation that runs the JET Programme) warning us of “Reverse Culture Shock.” I have already covered the culture shock I encountered when I got here (see Shiz Up My Uoka and Gravy Rage), but I’m finding it hard to believe that I will have similar problems when I get home. Nevertheless, they provide a number of suggestions which we can use to help us through this period of adjustment:
1) Things to do before leaving Japan
Make a list of the things that you like about Japan. This list may include aspects of Japanese culture, your job or lifestyle here, actual places or possessions, and a variety of other things. Look over this list and think about which things you can take home, which things you can try to recreate back home, and which things you must say goodbye to.
Honestly there are a lot of things that annoy me in this country, but the one thing that remains constant wherever you go is the sheer greatness of the people that live here. One thing I’m preparing myself for when I get back home is that people will probably seem incredibly rude, selfish and intimidating. Many of them won’t be of course, it’s just that if you were setting the bar for polite and friendly, you would most likely start with the Japanese and work your way down from there, and after a year I’ve gotten pretty used to seeing that bar way above my reach.
Living in Shizuoka City has been an interesting experience, but this is due only and entirely to the people I have met here. The city itself is just a concrete/prefab housing jungle where people live and work. It has a pretty small city centre and the rest is a sprawling mass of suburbs and roads. There are very few parks, all the rivers, beaches and open spaces are lined and paved with concrete, and rice fields are dotted in random patches throughout the city; it is a painful reminder of the importance of good urban planning. None of that matters of course, because the people who live in it are amazing. Ask someone a question and they will stop and help. If you don’t understand Japanese they will try desperately to remember the English they learnt at school and, if all else fails, engage you in a game of shirades. They will welcome you into every shop with a smile, give you the quickest, most efficient service you have ever had and then thank you a billion times on your way out. They invite you round to their houses for dinner, offer to help whenever you even mention you have difficulty with something and if you leave your hair scrunchy in a restaurant they will chase you half a mile down the road to give it back to you and man, if I’d lost that I don’t know what I’d do.
Make a list of the people you will miss most when you leave. Think of the most meaningful way to say goodbye to each person on that list. Ways to do this may include writing a letter, going to a favorite restaurant, spending a day together doing a shared hobby, or something else.
My Mum will tell you I hate cards. When you get them as a kid, unless there’s a tenner in it you really don’t appreciate that someone took the time to go down Clinton Cards, spent 5-10 minutes picking something up, paid £3 for it and then wrote a little message in it just because it’s your birthday and they remember every year but never get anything from you, you ungrateful sod. These days I appreciate the thought but I would much rather get a phone call, then you can spend your £3 on an interesting, hilarious conversation with me rather than walk down to that bloody card shop for the umpteenth time this year. Great ne?! And by the way, aren’t card shops just the most depressing places in the world? You walk in to be greeted by fluorescent lights, dirty beige stands, an oversubscribed collection of flower & teddy bear cards (vomit) and a bunch of grumpy customers who are all pissed off because they have to spend their lunch hour looking for a pointless card that they will spend all their lunch money on and won’t ever get a thank you for.
No, I won’t make a list, and I won’t be writing any letters or sending any cards. I will however, spend a day sharing a hobby with them all at once – eating, drinking, singing and dancing. Now there’s a familiar sequence of events.
2) Dealing with change
Over the last year or more, you have changed in many ways. List some of the values or behavior patterns that you have learned. Think about which of these things are positive and which you want to maintain. Think also about which parts of the ‘new you’ will not fit in with your home country culture, and how you will deal with this.
When I went travelling the first time around, I changed a hell of a lot. This time, not so much. I’m probably a lot more confident with public speaking and much more willing to make a fool of myself (though I’m not sure this was ever a problem to begin with). The most noticeable things I will take back are mannerisms and speech which I think may take me a little while to get rid of; saying sou des ka? instead of really?, un instead of yes and sou da ne instead of yeah, I know or innit for example. Not that I ever say innit but that’s probably a more direct translation. Showing surprise at some of the most unsurprising things is a very common Japanese trait which has also managed to seep into my bones, and I can’t help but think that people back home will assume I’m just taking the piss.
Understand that your family and friends may have changed while you have been in Japan. They will almost certainly not have spent the entire one to five years sitting around waiting for you to return.
Bollocks they haven’t. Unroll that carpet and get the fanfare playing when I walk off that Jumbo Jet, people; your lives are about to begin once more!
Just a short one today. I assigned one of my classes the task of writing about where they will be in 10 years time and had a couple of really stand-out replies that I wanted to share with you all…
I am 25 years old. Now, I work in moon because I want to see my girl. My girl had gone to space in 2012 for look up extraterrestrial life. I send some mail. She received, but day and day a mail send by her became slowly. She went to distant places and our hearts live but I didn’t give up on her. Then she battled extraterrestrial life. She shouted “I want to live! I want to see him again!” and she survived.
Tomorrow she will return. I’m waiting for her. She is 20 years old. I am desperately to catch up with her. We will start to work…
It doesn’t matter that this is only a few words; when you have to go over it in detail a couple of times to correct errors, you really do become absorbed enough to connect with this poor couple and their tale of unconditional love. It’s probably a shorter, more futuristic version of “Going The Distance.” It’s probably better too.
There’s the romance, now here’s the tragedy…
I think I will be in Shizuoka. I will be married. I will have children. I will be working for Nippon Ichi Software. I will speak English. I won’t be very very very famous. I will die in 2025. I will be killed by Ogasawara. He will use a katana.
I really love the short, sharp and to-the-point sentences in this one, but mainly, I love the complete lack of probability. He will die and he will use a katana. Alright? I’m not sure who Ogasawara is, mind. I googled it but it came up with a whole bunch of possibilities so I’ll have to ask my student and come back to you on that one.
Rainy season is rubbish. We’re only about a week in and I can already confirm it. Apparently this year it’s early so I’m hoping that means it’ll be over early too, at which point the rain will give way to bone-melting heat and so much humidity that your saturated body seeps along the cracks in the pavement every time you take a step like a malfunctioning T-1000 terminator.
The Japanese seem constantly surprised by the weather. In the UK we have reason to be surprised; right when the forecasters are predicting that we will have beautiful sunshine for a week we see about 2 seconds of it one day, and none the next. Forecasted snow rarely happens, sunshine comes more often that rain (contrary to what I just said), but many days you’ll take an umbrella to work “just in case.” We talk about the weather constantly. There are various schools of thought as to why we do this; Jeremy Paxman believes that we talk about it precisely because there’s so much of it. Kate Fox on the other hand, author of the rather brilliant “Watching The English: The Hidden Rules Of English Behaviour,” believes that we talk about it because we are so utterly rubbish at talking to strangers, and the weather provides a safe, forever-fluid (pun unintentional) topic with which to while away those awkward moments when you’re stuck in a lift with a complete stranger.
Shizuoka’s weather is divided into day-long timeslots. One day it rains the whole day, the next it’s sunny the whole day and the next, it’s overcast the whole day. Every day is a variation on this theme so it’s very difficult to maintain a conversation about it. You’d think that, under these conditions, the Japanese would substitute another topic as the go-to conversation of choice but no; they simply forgo a conversation altogether and stick to announcing simple facts instead:
“Ohayou gosaimasu.” (Good morning.)
“Ohayou gosaimasu.” (Good morning.)
“Atsui!” (It’s hot!)
“Sou da ne.” (Isn’t it.)
…and that’s about it. Luckily, Shizuoka doesn’t have many buildings that go above two or three floors so you’re pretty safe with that but I do wonder how the Tokyoites fare with their 30+ floor buildings because lifts are even more awkward when you start a conversation and it doesn’t last the length of the ride. It’s better not to say anything at all. When you first get in, while you’re dying in silence and waiting for the ding! to release you, they could be in a world of their own thoughts, oblivious to the fact that you’re even there; you can revel in that possibility. If however, you start a conversation with them and it ends abruptly then they’re definitely thinking about the same thing you are and the situation is infinitely worse. The silence is deafening. You think of something else to say but you know the gap between sentences was too long. If you say it now, it’s obvious you’re only doing so to avoid the silence. You keep your mouth shut instead. If they’re not going to make any bloody effort then you’re not either, especially after you made such an interesting observation on the proximity of the cumulonimbus cloud formations to the stratos ones. Screw them.
Apart from it being rainy season, the 1st of June also marked the 10th month I have been in Japan. There are many things going through my head at the moment but one thing that has just struck me as I write is that this is the first time since January that I have thought of it in terms of time done rather than time left. This could be because my brain is incapable of processing numbers greater than 6 but I think that, more significantly, it says that I made the right decision in deciding not to stay. Not that I needed confirmation of this, mind. I knew the day I handed in the form that I had made the right decision but it’s pretty obvious when you start counting down instead of up.
I spoke to my predecessor, Brian, on Google Talk in January, asking him if he had any regrets about not staying. The answer was an unequivocal “no.” He said that he had enjoyed his time here, but that it was never meant to be a long-term thing; that he had come for an experience rather than a new life-direction. I knew the moment he said it that I shared his views.
I’ve spoken to lots of ALTs about their decisions and most of the ones that are staying will tell you one of two things:
Some of those No. 2s don’t know what that is yet, but they know they’ve got to stay here until they do. Luckily for me, I knew exactly what I had wanted to get out of this experience because I wrote it down on this ‘ere blog; I simply had to go back and check…
…a desire for massive personal challenge and a desire to make a difference. If I can teach a Japanese boy/girl to speak a language that will empower him/her to travel and communicate through a vast array of other countries and cultures, then I’ve directly made a difference in someone else’s life rather than vicariously through resetting someone’s Windows password.
Well, it’s definitely been a massive personal challenge; new country, new job in a different career sector, new language, new culture, new friends. The only other thing I could’ve changed was my sex, and I’m not quite ready for a challenge on that scale yet. As for teaching a boy or a girl English, there are test scores to show that a few of the kids have learnt absolutely everything I ever taught them. It’s not really about test scores of course, but when you teach 12 different classes once a week, each with 40 students, it’s pretty difficult to get to know any of them beyond what percentage they got. I definitely could have made more effort in this area but I don’t really want to spend all my free time at work – there’s more to being out here than just the teaching.
The other, as it turns out, rather huge goal I set myself was to be fluent in Japanese by the time I left. I have certainly made steps but I’m nowhere near fluency; that would probably take another year. I can hold a conversation, albeit a horrendous mishmash of tenses and bizarre sentence constructions, and I can read simple sentences. I can usually understand the topic of conversation when people are talking but I rarely know what they’re actually saying. I’m frequently disappointed by this, but I have to keep reminding myself of what it was like when everything anybody ever said was just a string of hundreds of syllables and all I could say was arigato. I remember when attempting to say “nice to meet you” (douzo yoroshiku onegaishaimasu) was one of the most difficult things I’d ever had to do, but now it just rolls off the tongue without a second thought. Whether or not I’ll continue to study Japanese when I get back home, I don’t know, but I really, really want to learn other languages. It’d be nice to have Italian, Spanish, French and German under my belt to open up the world to me just that little bit more.
Anyway, I’ve done what I came here to do, and now it’s time to go back. I could’ve stayed a little longer, learnt a bit more Japanese, streamlined my teaching methods and syllabus and saved a bit more money, but to me that just spells “t-r-e-a-d-i-n-g w-a-t-e-r,” which is precisely what I came here to get away from in the first place. It’s been an incredible experience and I’ve loved every minute of it, but I’m ready to steam back into London and get a great job in the IT-industry once more. England is gently singing it’s siren song (“Vindalooooo, vindalooooo, vindaloo, vindaloo nah nah…”), and I am but a sailor to its charms.
…and I’m gagging for a Dominos pizza.
“Finally, a bloody blog,” I hear you say, as you peel your finger from the left mouse button and move the pointer away from the Refresh button for the first time since my last blog. Seriously, you’re putting my stats all out of proportion; there I was thinking I’d got 3 million hits this month and it was just you mercilessly clicking away with with that searing, intense desire to learn about me and Japan. I’m flattered, really I am, but stop it. Pick up that nearby wallpaper-scraper and use it to unstick your cheek from the desk then go outside. It’ll be good for you. Do it right after you’ve finished reading this.
Delusions of grandeur aside, I have been slacking in my duties somewhat. Apologies, but my life has been rather boring of late. I like to think that’s on account of me managing to break my hand 6 weeks ago in a freak cycling accident (involving me and a curb), but in reality having a cast on my right arm has done little to stop me from doing what I normally do. Apart from going to the gym that is. Yes, certain things are a chore; tucking in my shirt for instance, washing my left shoulder-blade, wiping away my tears while my left hand is immersed in the washing up bowl (joke). On the plus side, my left hand has become rather deft at many things; using chopsticks for instance; washing my hair; opening the fridge door; tossing the vegetables in my stir-fry… Anything else…? Nope, can’t think of anything else.
Work has been mental. I’m doing much, much more than I ever was in the first two terms, and that’s even with many of my lessons already created and ready to go. I’ve been asked a couple of times now to do one-offs on topics that I have found quite interesting and which would, under normal circumstances in the UK, promote thought and open discussion. The first, “How Social Media Has Changed the World,” focused on the emerging use of social media as a catalyst for the revolutions in the Middle East. Heavy, as Marty McFly would say, but these are 3rd year students who are blind to much of the world outside of Japan. As far as knowing about world events is concerned, being born Japanese is problematic; the media reports mostly on domestic events and frowns on investigative journalism because, if newspapers publish something that officials don’t like, they will no longer be invited to the official press meetings. Most papers are simply bulletin boards for companies and the Japanese government. This would normally be fine because people could turn to other outlets for their world news in English, but the number of Japanese people who can speak more than a few words of English (let alone read a newspaper) is infamously low.
Where can they get this information from then? Their friendly JET, that’s who. Whether they like it or not. In this case… Not. A classroom of 42 bored, tired students crammed into a tiny classroom in the 7th period of a baking hot Tuesday afternoon will rarely get inspired enough to listen to some bloke rambling on about Facebook and revolution in a language they only partly understand. To give them credit; some did, and when asked to write their thoughts on the benefits and problems associated with social media, they came up with some good points that I had not already mentioned. Most simply copied what the others had written on the board.
Next up is “Green Cars,” where they’ll be expected to draw their own opinions on the best fuel of the future. This time I will be sure to include some group work to try an develop some kind of atmosphere, but 3rd year students are notoriously bad at communicating, either to the teachers or each other. First years are wonderful but 3rd years… Forget it. I think they’ve just been battered so hard by exams, studying and school life that by the time they leave high-school they have to pick up all the pieces of their soul on the way out and glue it back together with the Pritt Stick they stole. I often consider how lucky I am to have grown up in the British school system (despite it having been equally awful), as all these kids ever seem to do is study. Every time you ask them what they did on their weekend they say “studied” or “slept” or “came to school.”
“What? On Sunday too?”
“Why did you come to school on Sunday?!”
…and there we have what would have been the bane of my life had I gone to school in Japan; compulsory clubs. Admittedly some of them (Tea Ceremony Club for example) only meet once every couple of weeks, but if you like baseball or badminton, volleyball or martial arts, or any number of other sports the school deems important then you can expect to be at said school from 6am-8pm every weekday and then 3-4 hours every weekend. Then you have to do your mountain of study on top, all while your ALT wanders in at 8:30am, leaves at 4:15pm and spends his weekends swannying around Shizuoka drinking beer and eating ramen. No wonder they’re burnt out by the 3rd year, poor things.
Saturday morning then and I wake up to the unmistakable sound of alley-cats endlessly howling at each other just outside my window. They never actually fight each other of course, they just scream at each other for hours as part of some primeval ritual that evolved, I suspect, for the sole purpose of pissing off humans, who predictably open the window and hiss at the offending animal using their best vampire imitation. When this doesn’t work (nearly always) they will pick up the nearest available stone/stick/bucket of ice water and throw it at the creature, gently so as not to hurt it, but hard enough that they know you are Lord of the Alley, and if they don’t shut up then you’ll go out there and hiss doubly loud. That will strike the fear of God into them.
Turns out I threw the stone just right and knocked him dead.
I’m joking of course… He was only unconscious. If I’d done it when he started to howl that would have made more sense from my point of view but since I was up anyway, I felt the creature should be punished for it’s insolence with a good stone-throw to the head.
Put the phone down I’m joking, I’m joking. The cat was fine, it ran off after my elite Dracula impression skillz. Who wouldn’t eh?
I had a little chat with Mal, another member of staff there, who informed me of a good cafe where I could pick up some breakfast and a coffee, and I used the time in there to have a good look over the guide book to see what I actually wanted to do. In the end I decided on Ueno because it contains a huge park, the Tokyo National Museum, a few shrines/temples and a couple more museums. Since August, apart from a couple of festivals I’ve been to, I’ve done very little in the way of cultural enlightenment and the guidebook said that the National Museum was nothing short of spectacular so I made it my first port of call.
I should probably mention now that museums and I don’t have a good track record. Most of my memories of them come from when I was a prepubescent boy who just wanted to go and climb trees and fire cap guns, but was instead forced to walk into an old, dark building and stare at incomprehensible clumps of old brown rust through a glass screen. This pain was usually intensified by the presence of a questionnaire that the school would make us fill in, probably to prove that we’d taken notice of the artefacts but which had precisely the opposite effect; we would be so busy trying to find the things with the answers to the questions that we never had time to look at/become inspired by the things that we might have actually found interesting. Namely swords, bombs, planes and medieval torture equipment.
The Tokyo National Museum and I got off on the right foot since they had plenty of swords, and not just boring old broadswords, but some very cool, very Japanesey curved ones. The blades themselves were fairly plain; some had the occasional kanji engraved on them but in general they were just very shiny, refined and sharp-looking objects of death. The hilts and scabbards however were very elaborate, and nearly all of them had a cherry blossom design of some sort engraved on them. I found it a little ironic that something often regarded as a great symbol for peace and tranquillity in Japan would be carefully and beautifully carved onto something designed purely for death and destruction. This theme continued onto the armour, which was incredibly impressive. Everyone has seen medieval European armour before – big, thick plates of metal often designed to stop all but the most deadly of blows. Functional, but not particularly pretty. Samurai armour is a work of art by comparison. Hundreds of separate pieces of leather and plate all sewn together with a flourish and embroidered with cherry blossoms. It reminds me of Major Jean Villeneuve in The Patriot when he announces that if he dies, he will die well-dressed. Priorities are important.
There were two more things I found particularly interesting. Firstly, since I began learning Japanese I considered the language to be pretty ugly to look at. The Roman alphabet generally makes for some nice looking words, whether in print or written by someone with a good knack for it. Japanese on the other hand makes use of Chinese characters and mixes them with two other alphabets; when you first see something written in Japanese it just looks like a jumble of pictures, but when you start to understand it and differentiate between all the characters it just looks a bit, well, messy. That is until you see an old manuscript sitting in the museum. Obviously the level of care and dexterity that went into writing it was beyond what anyone writing their shopping lists would be prepared to imitate, but it gave me a new level of appreciation for the language.
The other thing was that I was able to officially confirm to myself that I made the right decision in not becoming an archaeologist. Not that I ever really thought of it as an option, but if I ever wanted a career change I could be sure that it’s one area I don’t really need to look into. These people spend their lives in muddy pits, looking for things that look exactly like bits of mud but are in fact of apparent historical value. These things often turn out to be bits of pottery. Now don’t get me wrong; I would be suitably excited if someone gave me a Le Creuset casserole because I like cooking, and I’d be excited about all the amazing food I’d be able to make and eat with it. However I simply, no matter how hard I try, cannot get excited about old bits of broken pottery. I don’t care if it’s 2000 years old and if it tells you that people would boil their yams instead of pan-frying them. I don’t care if it has patterned swirls on it, or some of the first uses of dye in human history, or mother of pearl on the side; to me this just seems like a massive waste of time seeing as we all eventually evolved to desire plain white plates/bowls from Ikea anyway. The only time cooking is interesting is when you are doing it, watching someone with skill doing it, or eating whatever it produced. Looking at a bit of shaped clay through a piece of glass and imagining one of our ancestors in rags and stirring some boiled turnips over a log fire is far from my idea of a good time; I’m just not wired that way. Give me a good story about historical battles, treachery, myths and legends any time, but there’s a reason why you never read about someone boiling potatoes in a fantasy epic.
After the museum I’d decided that I’d already seen enough temples in Kyoto to last a lifetime, so I jumped back on the train to Shibuya to do a bit of clothes shopping and some people-watching in the Starbucks above the busiest road crossing in the world. I also spent a good amount of time in the nearby park doing some reading, and watching everyone frolic about in the sun just before dusk began to fall. There’s an extreme lack of parkland in Shizuoka so I instinctively found myself drawn to the nearest bit of greenery whenever there was some nearby.
After a couple of hours I decided to make my way back to the hostel for the takuyaki (octopus balls) party for more beer and chats and then, after a long sleep, made my way back to Shizuoka for a long week off work.
I woke up on Friday to another of Japan’s ubiquitous bank holidays, elated initially because I didn’t have to go to work, then simply annoyed because it was 7:30am and I was completely unable to get back to sleep. Gone are the days when, at university, I could quite happily sleep in until 1pm; now I’m woken up by screaming, either from an alarm clock placed strategically at the other side of the flat or from my own bladder performing its daily protest like a wisened Green Party supporter who took a bit too much LSD back in the day and gets a bit more militant with every inch of new beard growth. I saw the doctor about it once:
“Don’t drink anything after 6pm,” she said.
Oh thanks very much, doc. Sage advice there. I’ll just go half the bloody day with no fluids shall I? Just so I don’t have to get up early for a piss? Great idea. I almost wanted her to say I had diabetes just so I didn’t have to walk around with the knowledge that I’m a 27 year old bloke who can’t sleep in because his organs are already becoming decrepit. Almost.
Anyway, fortunately for you lot this blog isn’t all about the condition of my body’s various functions but rather, about Tokyo and my little trip there this weekend. I decided that same Friday that I should get off my arse and do something. Since most of my friends are off on their own little holidays in Okinawa, Bali, Osaka and the like, that meant going somewhere on my own; somewhere I was likely to meet other people to chat to and have a beer with, as well as doing a bit of sightseeing and some shopping. I hadn’t been to Tokyo since September so I simply thought why not and seized the opportunity, booking a bed at the Khaosan Kabuki hostel in Asakusa and jumping on the Shinkansen northwards.
Instantly noticeable upon arrival was the absence of large numbers of gaijin (foreigners) that were present the last time I was here. From Tokyo Central to Asakusa I must have seen only 3 or 4 at most, and when I arrived at the hostel itself I was told that I was the only guest in my dorm room. Sad in some ways, total RESULT in others! My own room with en-suite bathroom for 2500 yen? Why, I don’t mind if I do, thank you very much. The hostel is great. If you ever find yourself Tokyo-bound then, assuming you don’t want to be closer to the night-life in Shibuya et al., this place fits the deal nicely. It’s clean, it’s new, and it has comfy beds, wonderful staff, and a great location in a beautiful district.
It was about 7:30 by the time I got there and I decided to stay in the near vicinity for the evening with the intention of doing some serious pavement-pounding on Saturday. I asked one of the staff, Miwa, where I could get some ramen and a beer and she duly obliged, marking them out on a map and supplying me with a free sake voucher for the Khaosan bar across the river. Before I waltzed out the door we had a little chat about the tourist shortage. Some people might say it’s expected given the earthquake, aftershocks, tsunami and nuclear power plant dramas of the last two months. Expected perhaps, but necessary? I don’t think so; people need to get a grip. Do they not think that if Tokyo’s background/water radiation had reached dangerous levels then perhaps the millions of inhabitants that live there wouldn’t be subjecting themselves to it quite so willingly; that Japan could probably do with the money those tourists would normally be feeding into the economy after such an expensive disaster? If not the radiation, then what is causing people to cancel their reservations and stay at home? If they’re scared about earthquakes they have no more to worry about than they did before the big one; indeed, if we’re talking probabilities then you would have to be extraordinarily unlucky to come here and be killed as a direct result of an earthquake/tsunami a month after one has already killed 10,000 people. How often does that happen? Frankly you’re more likely to die falling out of bed in the morning.
Who can blame anyone for being scared after the media onslaught that followed in the weeks after the event though. Unfortunately, news corporations have a penchant for blowing things out of proportion and people, governments and businesses will almost always suffer as a result; that’s just the way it goes. I can tell you right now though that Tokyo is perfectly safe. If you’ve always wanted to go then there has never been a better time; flights are cheap, it’s far from overcrowded and the weather is beautiful. The extra arm I grew while I was there is proving to come in rather handy now too.
I went to get some ramen and then popped down to the bar for a beer where I met a whole bunch of lovely people, some travelling, some on a weekend break like me, and a couple of locals. Suddenly I wished I was travelling properly again, preferably for months at a time in multiple countries. There really isn’t anything quite like rocking up to a new city in a different culture, seeing all the sights and befriending a load of like-minded people over a drink or two. Not something I’d want to do forever, mind, but I do miss it. Eventually, after plenty of anecdotes and a couple of massive “samurai” beers I made my exit and walked back to the hostel to bed down for the night.